Friday Review

A timeless political satire

Veteran The actor has become synonymous with the role of Mukhyamantri he has been playing  

Mukhyamantri, a play about a Machiavellian power-maneuver for the Chief Ministership of the fictitious Indian state of Udayanchal, is in its 35th year, and is gearing up for its 600th show this December. Its performance by Kalagangotri, the 45 year old troupe, at Ranga Shankara last Sunday, celebrated the celebrated the 64th birthday of senior artist Mukhymantri Chandru, the lead actor of the play and veteran of 500 odd films . It is through his role in this play that he has earned his moniker, ‘Mukhyamantri’.

Mukhymantri is the Kannada translation by T. S. Lohitashwa of the Hindi play by Ranjit Kapoor – which is based on a 1976 novel. It is directed by Dr. B.V Rajaram, who also plays the role of Dubey, the opponent of Chandru’s character, Kaushal.

After three and a half decades of successful runs, it is apparent that this cult classic’s strength lies in its ability to stay relevant. The theme of the play and its composition notwithstanding, it is undoubtedly the stellar acting – especially of its senior cast – that makes it an engrossing watch. Set in the first decade of independence, the play is centred on a politician, the Chief Minister of Udayanchal, manipulating his way into continuing his position in spite of descent and defection of the MLAs orchestrated by Dubey, his kingmaker in the past and president of the party. Kaushal is also the benevolent but patronizing patriarch of a household of five sons – one of whom is his ideological rival – and a wife who is unequivocal about her opposition to his political aspirations. The development of the plot involves a slow and smooth unfolding of this character as a doting but controlling father, a loving husband, an intelligent statesman, an elite bhadralok conservative, and a scheming politician of dubious scruples.

The play that’s already a winner for its intricate plot and its real drama, is also very educational in its depiction of a certain time in the political history of India in both, explicit and implicit ways. Dubey and Kaushal discuss how they turned from freedom fighters to self-interested politicians to run a country whose independence was premature, for instance; Kaushal dismisses the ability of a barely literate population consisting of peasants and labourers to decide what is good for them, thus claiming democracy to be inefficient in the country’s context. The more implicit pointers to the state of affairs are in the choice of names of the characters such as Desai, Deshpande, Tripathi, Kaushal, Dubey etc. – retained from the original Hindi – and the use of highly Sanskritised language, that are telling of the class of the people who inherited political power post independence. The debates and discussions between the characters highlight an early turn towards the disintegration of Nehruvian ideals – much before the country gave up any pretense at being a welfare state, in favour of market liberalization.

Mukhyamantri Chandru, who first played this role of an ageing politician as a 29 year old, has certainly ripened into it at 64 – perhaps reducing the need for make-up. Through years of honing – and sheer genius – he delivered the calm, composed, and darkly witty Kaushal with such seeming ease that it was hard to tell where Mukhyamantri ended and Chandru began. To this, the hot-headed and gullible Dubey, created with aplomb by Rajaram, formed a complementary contrast.

The play, which largely maintained its period aesthetic in its set and costumes – the gaddi and diwan as furniture, old rotary dial phones, coat and dhoti wearing babu culture etc. – displayed some anachronism in the depiction of the younger generation, however. Their costumes were contemporary and they addressed older people as ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ – a cultural meme that wouldn’t have been prevalent in the original setting. This was perhaps a later addition to the script to keep it relatable.

Also, while polity continues to remain ‘dirty’, the idea that political rivals can address each other with dignity and civility as shown in the play, is now but a long lost memory.

But relevance needn’t be a concern for Mukhyamantri, as it will not go out of fashion until the country’s governing system ceases to be Machiavellian – and one needn’t worry about that happening anytime soon.


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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 12:38:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/A-timeless-political-satire/article14617775.ece

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