Theatre

Vintage character, modern drama

Great divides: A still from Chandala, an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet about the Indian caste system.

Great divides: A still from Chandala, an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet about the Indian caste system.   | Photo Credit: CHRISTOPHE-PEAN-PHOTOGRAPHIE

In recent plays that deal with love or aspiration across social divides, the humble Atlas-style bicycle has emerged as a great leveller. Apart from its ease of use as a stage prop whose mobility might not be significantly impaired by the confines of performance, the cycle is an inclusive, inexpensive and functional artefact that also possesses an innate vintage character (even if still widely used), lending itself to any period. Often, the familiar fault lines of class and caste might seem anachronistic to those with their blinkers on — but stories of oppression are as true of today as they might have been a century ago. And the two-wheeler on pedals remains a witness to all those times and locales, whether it be the politically charged 1950s milieu of Deepan Sivaraman’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam; the caste-addled ethos of Koumarane Valavane’s Chandala: Impure; or the Bangladeshi shanty town in Mahesh Ruprao Ghodeswar’s Hero Alom. These are vastly different works, but share cultural motifs and a professed predilection for the tropes of mainstream cinema, another great leveller. Despite it being a medium in which the subaltern is egregiously invisibilised, cinema transcends boundaries and its larger-than-life icons belong to everyone.

Romantic cadences

In Valavane’s Chandala: Impure, a young Dalit man, Jack (Vasanth Selvam), is in love with an upper-caste girl, Janani (Anjana Balaji), and serenades her on a cycle, which segues into a chariot-style rickshaw driven by Cupid himself in one lyrical sequence. This plays out against a Cinema Paradiso backdrop, unfolding in movie halls that offer both inspiration and anonymity. The play is dubbed as a homage to Tamil cinema. The ‘movies within the play’ are sleazy B-films, an ethos that is decidedly less puritanical and sanitised than its A-list counterpart, where transgressing lovers might find refuge.

Similarly, in Sivaraman’s contemporary classic, sometimes simply called Khasak, the wastrel Nizam Ali (Rajeevan Vellur) returns to the village of his former beloved, Maimuna, with his cycle blaring a film song — ‘Kayalarikathu Valayerinjappol’ — from Neelakuyil (1954), tempting her to take a ride. The Tamil film’s reformist plot was path-breaking — a Dalit girl’s illegitimate child is adopted by an upper-caste postman, before the real father, also higher caste, comes forward. These cadences add heft to the village romance in Khasak, before it moves on to the deeper concerns of the O V Vijayan novel on which it is based.

In Hero Alom, Ghodeswar’s object of interest is the eponymous YouTube celebrity, whose prodigious video output is a lurid facsimile of popular cinema, harnessing everything from Mithun Chakraborty’s disco mania to Shahrukh Khan’s overblown lover-boy persona. Once again, his vehicle of choice is the cycle with which he makes a daily reconnaissance of the open lavatory where his beloved, there for her morning’s business, might be apprehended. These plays embrace the squalor and the filth of their characters’ settings — in Chandala: Impure there is an extended sequence involving a character working in the sewers. Cinema glosses over these aspects.

Dreams and nightmares

It isn’t as if the cycle has been romanticised in real life. In Odisha’s Nanput, a Dalit girl was recently reprimanded for riding a cycle through an upper-caste hamlet. This kind of segregation is rife across the country, including in Tamil Nadu’s Perali, a village which has seen years of agitation against such discrimination, to no avail. But there is also the stuff dreams are made of. For instance, the love story of artist PK Mahanandia and Swede Charlotte Von Schedvin. A Dalit by birth, Mahanandia is famous for journeying by second-hand bicycle for 19 weeks from New Delhi to Gothenburg in 1977 to be with Schedvin, whom he had met in India in 1975. They have been married for 42 years now.

There are more sobering accounts though. A recent news report concerned Pradip Kalubhai Rathod, the young Dalit boy killed for owning and riding a horse in his village. Sharmistha Saha’s new play, Romeo Ravidas and Juliet Devi, which is still to be widely seen, takes off from this tale, and that of Shankar and Kausalya, an inter-caste couple from Tamil Nadu. Shankar, who was killed in what became a 'viral' honour killing, provided the reference for Selvam’s character in Valavane’s play. Saha’s play might have a title that signals yet another romance, but it is an excursion into the country’s heart of darkness, scratching a wound that refuses to heal.

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 9:51:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/vintage-character-modern-drama/article28102097.ece

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