Not your regular Bedtime Story

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Nautanki Theatre brings to life Kiran Nagarkar’s boycotted play and the hidden questions it contains

Once upon a time, in the Land of Bans, thinking was banned. Anyone who thought and asked questions was executed. A few seasons ago, the freedom of speech had been banned. And not long before that, meat, films and books, and authors and lesbians alike had been banned. Censorship was the law of this land. The custodians of the Land of Bans were big believers in God and they told the people of the land that through their bans, they served Him.
Then one unholy day, God decided to have some fun. He created a playwright to poke fun at Himself and to question the unquestionable authority of the holy epics from which the Land of Bans derived its morality…

Thinkers like Kiran Nagarkar must have been created by Him (perhaps after a night of drunken debauchery in the Heavens?) to add some real perspective (and the missing sense of humour!) to the lives of men. But that was not to be. Instead, Nagarkar’s “Bedtime Story” came back with 78 cuts in a 74-page play, “thereby leaving only the jacket covers”, from the custodians’ razor-sharp censorship in 1978. By a heavenly twist of fate, the book is now back in print and was recently staged by Nautanki Theatre at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta.

The performance started with breaking the “fourth wall” between them, the actors, and us, the audience, as the sutradhar or narrator (A.A. Larry) directly addresses us. Nagarkar’s writing is simple and sharp. His dialogues move swiftly and his thoughts cut deep. In the play, he attacks the revered Indian epic, the Mahabharata, for its gender and class biases and exposes us, we who are the passive witnesses to religious wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing and climate change. There is also a parallel contemporary story-line (where a wife wants to run her deceased husband’s family business and is mocked by her brothers-in-law) that reflects the same gender bias that has percolated through the epic. He tells us through the sutradhar how we will soon lose our tongues and our conscience (like we lost our vestigial tails) as these are slowly becoming redundant due to under-use. He jolts us and reminds us that “someone must pay the price” for all the wrongdoings.

The props and settings were kept basic and simple. A screen served as the backdrop and setting, providing flowcharts for those unfamiliar with the epics, which was essential. Wooden boxes and a mirror on wheels were the other props used. However, minimal props require powerful acting, a performance that is delivered not just through mouthed dialogues but through the body.
This expectation of mine was heightened when, to much elation, I found out that Joyraj Bhattacharjee was the director. Bhattacharjee, whose performances I have enjoyed in Tim Supple-directed Midsummer Night’s Dream and the acclaimed Bengali film Herbert, is a very physical actor. Nautanki Theatre had a strong cast and a few actors who owned the stage and outshined the others (such as Avantika Tomar’s Draupadi, Chira Fernando Jr’s Bheem, Dixit Thakar’s Duryodhan and an adorable Krishna played by Sadiq Rehmani) but they do not come together as a team. As individual actors, they arrest you, but as a team, their performance lacked gusto and involvement.

In a Nagarkar play, an actor already knows that s/he will have thought-provoking lines, witty and sharp banter (excellent for the momentum of a performance) and a contemporaneity which travels past boundaries of land and culture (for instance, in the game of dice played between Dharmaraja and Duryodhan, they bet on current issues like nuclear submarines, biological warfare, Mitsubishi and Microsoft, etc). And, the collaboration with Bhattacharjee and with his prowess in physical acting movement should have been a wholesome experience!

However, the only hint of physical acting, which lasted for over a minute and hence left a mark, was during a dialogue between Arjun (Neel Banerjee) and Krishna, where the latter sits atop (very wobbly) wooden boxes and Arjun climbs and crawls through them. The unsteady props did have me a bit worried there as Krishna sat on top holding on to dear life, but then again Krishna is a fallen god here, as depicted by Nagarkar – a “god who needs calling” as Draupadi mocks him after she is violated by the Kauravas while Krishna, in his defence, claims that he was waiting for her call.

The costumes were simple but appropriate. A cool Krishna, with a peace tee and earrings, and white trademark-Jitendra shoes, evoked cute smiles from the audience. Bollywood songs offered some more comic relief as did the scene where Krishna, as Arjun’s charioteer, drives him around the stage in a wheel barrow! However, the use of several accents, I am not sure, was necessary. It was not clear if the accents were the actors’ natural accents as they were quite inconsistent.

Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is perhaps the only play in which the climactic moment dictates the death of the audience, who are led to the gas chamber guilty of being passive witnesses to the crimes of mankind. “Someone has to pay the price” and here the “someone” is the passive audience. However, the building-up for this climax was not sufficient and the “fourth wall” therefore, was only half broken as the audience did not for once feel threatened.
That said, it is important for lovers of this art form that groups like Nautanki Theatre make such “boycotted” marvels accessible to a global audience and give playwrights like Nagarkar their due. But it will take a more powerful performance than this to shake our existing condition. After all, we enjoy our status quo too much, don’t we?

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