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Home / Lounge / Features /  70 years of ‘1984’: Staging dystopia

Last year in January, the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi hosted a unique multilingual play titled Bundelkhand Ki Virgin Machhliyan, a love story set in a dystopian world, after its first run in Mumbai. The play, directed by Mumbai-based Sharmistha Saha, is based on the 1972 novel by Bengali writer Lokenath Bhattacharya, titled Babughater Kumari Maachh.

The narrative is based in a detention camp where the inmates are provided with every possible luxury but are stripped of the right to make choices—and that includes the choice of partner. They are paired with a new partner each day; the children born of such a union are raised by the authorities, and lack basic human qualities such as compassion and kindness. Performed in Bundeli, Hindi and Bengali, the play explores an allegorical world where all forms of diversity have been killed by those in power.

Though the original work drew references from a particularly volatile period in Bengal, in the wake of the Emergency and when the Naxal movement was at its peak, Saha has chosen to set her dystopian world in Bundelkhand, currently one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country, and one often struck by famine. “In the futuristic Bundelkhand shown in the play, the powers have managed to usher in development but in return inmates lose their ability to speak, create and remember. They are not allowed to have distinct identities. Women have been reduced to mere reproductive vessels and pleasure providers," says Saha.

The theme of dystopia has manifested itself over and over again in theatre—both in India and internationally—through the years, whether it is through adaptations of novels such as Babughater Kumari Maachh, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or through original works like Boiled Beans On Toast by the late playwright Girish Karnad. Today, one finds directors increasingly returning to such writings to highlight that the concepts which were considered futuristic earlier—24x7 surveillance, the use of drones, totalitarianism, urban dystopias—have now come to pass.

Girish Karnad’s ‘Boiled Beans On Toast’
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Girish Karnad’s ‘Boiled Beans On Toast’

“What was dystopian earlier is now being reflected in our actual existence. The realistic plays of today are way darker than any dystopia," says theatre director Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, who recently worked on a play titled A Peasant Of El Salvador, which focuses on the story of a hill farmer against the backdrop of civil unrest in El Salvador. The three narrators, however, take the viewer to a time and place that is far removed from the reality.

Theatre directors and playwrights have always used dystopian themes to create scathing commentaries about the sociopolitical issues of the time, whether they are related to identity, freedom of speech, notions of nationalism, moral policing or anything else. Thakore-Padamsee cites the example of Under The Chestnut Tree (2014), directed by Abhishek Saha, about an incredibly dystopian world where coloured paintings are not allowed.

One of the stark examples is Mahanirvan—a Marathi play considered a milestone in Indian theatre—which was revived recently by veteran playwright and director Satish Alekar after four decades. It focuses on a chawl-dweller who is adamant that his last rites should be performed in a traditional crematorium rather than the modern one. The black comedy was staged recently at the National School of Drama’s Theatre Olympics and then at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Presented in a lyrical form using Maharashtrian folk music such as gondhal and abhang, it’s a biting commentary on sociocultural systems. As theatre critic Gowri Ramnarayan wrote in The Hindu in March 2018, “If it was quirky then, it is disturbing now."

Pune-based playwright Ashutosh Potdar, who teaches drama and literary studies and whose one-act and full-length plays have been performed at Indian and international festivals, has explored the theme of dystopia in two works: Anandbhog Mall and F1/105. Th e former looks at a situation where the question of caste enters the personal lives of a couple in Maharashtra. “It was written in the year 2004 when members of the extremist Maratha organization Sambhaji Brigade ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune for helping an American author who had made some objectionable remarks about Chhatrapati Shivaji in his book. It was also a time when Mallika Sherawat’s film (Murder) had become very popular," says Potdar.

In the play, the couple is looking at such popular media and trying to explore their sexuality, but they can’t get the broader social and political issues out of the bedroom. At some point, they start blaming each other’s caste for personal issues and then escape to the mall. “At the mall they escape caste hierarchies but end up entering capitalist hierarchies," says Potdar.

The other play, F1/105, set in a cosmopolitan world, looks at the life of a couple who want to decorate the house in green, but are unable to do so because of the rules in their housing society. “Here, one explores the dynamics of colour politics and of the notion of sanskriti khatre mein hai (our culture is in danger). The society is this abstract notion but it ends up controlling the couple’s house," he says.

Themes of urban dystopia, in the context of divide and hate, have been portrayed by Abhilash Pillai as well in plays such as Blindside, based on Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s novel Cut. He also created a production based on Vijay Tendulkar’s Meeta Ki Kahani and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi. “One is based on a lesbian relationship in the 1960s, and the other draws on a gay relationship in the 1980s. I have combined the stories in my play, which spans a time period between 1970-2015, and you realize that the situation hasn’t changed. No matter how much human rights activists shout out loud, society is not accepting of homosexuality. Society is getting more divided in the name of caste, creed, sexuality and religion. Cities are moving towards the future but the mind and soul is regressing by 200 years," says Pillai.

Then there is Neel Sengupta, the Delhi-based director and founding member of the Capital’s group of theatre practitioners Third Space Collective, who recently did a production of The Djinns Of Eidgah, a critically acclaimed play written by Abhishek Majumdar about children who are victims of the conflict in Kashmir.

The story centres around Bilal, a young footballer, and his sister Ashrafi, who has created an imaginary world of gods and demons. “But we were stopped when we tried to stage it recently. People came to beat us up (at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur in February) and we had to leave the city. There is a lot of interest in works set in dystopian worlds, especially those by Girish Karnad, such as Boiled Beans On Toast and Rakta-Kalyan. But safety is a concern now for people who want to present this kind of work," says Sengupta.

It’s not just content but treatment that can add a dystopian touch to the work. Take Rehaan Engineer’s Far Away in 2016. Reviewing it, critic and writer Vikram Phukan wrote in The Hindu in October 2016: “The play’s scenes are performed across the length of the venue, with seating on both sides. The actors often have large distances between them, which foreground the metaphors of alienation inherent in the material. Another important element is the prescient soundscape by Naren Chandavarkar. With its discordant harmonics and forbidding accents, it is certainly of a piece with a dystopian narrative."

As he writes, at the heart of such plays is the idea that things that are far away are still uncomfortably near.

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