At his north Kolkata home, 86-year-old Badal Sircar leads a withdrawn life. The house has one other resident: a long-time attendant. Sircar’s time is spent over books, writing and combing through newspapers. He rarely gets a visitor and he visits rarely too.
Sircar was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) earlier this week, but Sudeb Sinha, director of a documentary film on the pioneering Indian theatre personality, says, “It is almost criminal the way Sircar has been ignored in Bengal.” The film is expected to be screened in June after the state assembly elections end and a new government is in place.
After A Face in the Procession was shot over two years, 60 hours of footage now lies stored in the editor’s computer. Each mouse click results in a phantasmagoric scroll of faces; people from the world of theatre, cinema, literature and academics—Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashe, Amol Palekar, Shreeram Lagoo, Sudhir Mishra, Naseeruddin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi, Paresh Rawal, Rohini Hattangadi, Susie Tharu, Amrish Puri, Satyadeb Dubey, Makrand Sathe, among others—articulating their debt to Sircar.
Stage: Badal Sircar at his north Kolkata home. Courtesy Sudeb Sinha/Drishya
While well-known Kannada director and playwright, Karnad states Sircar’s play Ebong Indrajit taught him fluidity between scenes, veteran theatre personality Dubey says, “In every play I’ve written and in every situation created, Indrajit dominates.”
Actor-director Palekar says, “Badalda opened up new ways of expression.” The film captures an ailing Puri, months before the actor’s death, on stage during 2004’s Palekar-organized festival of Sircar’s plays in Pune, performing in Ebong Indrajit. It was Puri’s last chance, recounts Sinha, to doff his hat to Sircar.
Yet in Bengal, says Sinha, such attestations are rare for the man who achieved critical and commercial success with proscenium productions and got the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Shri awards in 1968-69 before establishing Third Theatre. The latter pledged to take theatre to the masses, freeing it from the bondage of auditorium shows and commercial motives.
In Third Theatre, the emphasis was on content over form and exploration over experimentation. While setting up interviews with theatre personalities in Kolkata, Sinha recalls the resistance he encountered, barring people such as poet Joy Goswami, film-maker Aparna Sen and novelist Nabarun Bhattacharya. “Most big names in Bengali theatre shied away. It was as if Sircar’s entire work was being denied,” says Sinha. The thespian has rarely been invited to official functions or given any responsible position, he points out.
The film alludes to the basis of Sircar’s alienation. In a significant interview, Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, the Kolkata-based Left-leaning film scholar, talks about the days of Leftist “euphoria”—coinciding with Sircar writing Ebong Indrajit in 1963-65—“when we considered him a Rightist talking about existentialism.”
On his part, Sircar explains his “disenchantment” with Left politics, having witnessed the contradictions between party policies and ground realities. A member of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), Sircar was sidelined after he addressed a critical letter to party seniors. “Instead of a reply, I got suspended,” he mentions wryly. It was around the 1950s.
Reported to be equally disdainful of Bengal’s opposition politics, Sircar has since affiliated himself with no political party, relying instead on the constituency of ordinary people—his audience.
That as a playwright Sircar was determinedly moving towards core human issues is hinted at through the writer’s character in Ebong Indrajit: a playwright eager to acquaint himself with the “exploited masses, coal mine workers, the farmer and snake charmer”.
A narrative strain in the film focuses on a clutch of plays— beginning with Ebong Indrajit to Sara Rattir, Baki Itihas and Pagla Ghora—where Sircar critically probes society, the theatre community and the self. These plays, says Avik Bandyopadhyay, the award-winning Bengali poet and the film’s editor, are linked through a common theme of violence.
Yet another cluster of plays belongs to the time Sircar led his group Satabdi to the streets, factory gates, and remote villages. Plays such as Spartacus and Bhoma are politically edgy and connected by the theme of state-sponsored violence.
In some memorable footage, Sircar and Satabdi actors are seen performing Bhoma, clad in blue costumes. The costumes were tailored from stage wings used in the group’s last proscenium production after Sircar realized the imminent worthlessness of proscenium props.
Conventional proscenium theatre’s over-dependence on expensive paraphernalia was one of the reasons for Sircar’s disillusionment with the format. Bright lighting that blanks out audiences, raised stages, stage-facing sitting arranged according to ticket prices, and the lack of audience-actor interaction were other issues he had problems with.
Sircar’s solution to unshackling theatre from these was simple— inexpensive, portable and flexible became the three philosophical pillars of Third Theatre. It required no elevated stage, had the audience sitting in a circle, and human bodies were utilized to represent trees, bridges and stairs. Funds came from voluntary donations by the audience. Satabdi members would walk through villages performing socially relevant plays. These days, even as ill-health forces Sircar to stay back, Satabdi members perform every month at Kolkata’s Loreto (Sealdah) school and occasionally in villages.
Sircar mentions that Third Theatre was preceded by Agitprop Theatre in Russia, China and England. Marathi actor Atul Pethe voices his admiration in the film: “Taking theatre to the streets and villages wasn’t a fashion or merely an idea for Sircar. It’s a way of life; you can’t appoint actors for such committed theatre.”
Painstakingly researched, the making of A Face in the Procession closely followed Sircar’s do-it-yourself model—a sizeable portion of the funds were generated from 200-odd donations from well-wishers, beginning from Rs50.
People such as Mishra and Dubey have hosted the crew or paid for expenses. Mishra considers Sircar the last surviving dissenting voice from the defiant 1960s-70s. “He provokes and dismantles your beliefs. I’m unable to compromise because Badalbabu sits inside my head,” Mishra tells the camera. “Yet he is just a man; one who feels, is open-minded and always in search.”
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