Baaghi Albele, a comedy directed by Atul Kumar, was the second play of this year’s AADYAM Theatre festival, an Aditya Birla Group initiative. Adapted from Nick Whitby’s play To Be Or Not To Be which was based on a 1942 film by the same name, that was set in Nazi times, Kumar’s play does not belong to a specific period.
Though on the face of it, it would seem like the play reflects today’s scenario, where artistes are under fire for criticising the ruling dispensation at the centre, the frequent reference to a ‘high command’ also reminds you of Congress governments who are obsequious to an omnipresent ‘high command’. The play could well be about British India too, with one of its characters, underground comrade Sukhbir Singh, plotting a rebellion from Rangoon. Basically, the play could belong to any era that sees the curbing of artistic freedom by authoritarian regimes.
While To Be Or Not To Be was set in Poland, the capers of Baaghi Albele take place in Ludhiana. Kumar’s play, in Hindi-Punjabi, is about how a theatre company re-surfaces after being shut down by gag orders of the government.
The rather mediocre group is in the throes of staging Kalakaron Da Kabrastana when they read in the newspapers of the government’s notice to stop all art activities within a week. Ignoring the report, the-over-the-top performers put up Hamlet next; thereby stirring up trouble with the authorities. What follows, thereafter, is a series of whacky episodes, hilarious mix-ups, disguises, illicit affairs et al. The entertainment quotient is high with ‘special effects’ of stagecraft, music, imaginative choreography, mock hamming and spoofing of briefcase-carrying bureaucrats who have a glad eye for starlets and a top-ranking cop who resembles a famous Director General of Police accused of sexual harassment.
Bringing newspaper headlines alive with comic and sometimes sombre effect, director Atul Kumar, multi-tasking as choreographer and movements-director, has his actors nimble-footing their roles with perfect timing, enhanced with very skilled lighting and sound, designed by Kumar together with Rahul Joglekar and Gunjan Shukla respectively. Even as the lead actress of this Ludhiana repertory, Minnie Makhija, provides much laughter brazenly carrying on an extra-marital affair right under her husband Johny Makhija’s nose, romancing under fluffy, white clouds with Sukhbir Singh, the sound of Nazi-style stomping of boots, ominous midnight knocks and the blowing up of the stage ring warning bells of dark days ahead.
At two hours plus, Baaghi Albele is lengthy, but there is never a dull moment. The naïve but innovative troupe plays cat-and mouse games with spies, cops and bureaucrats to finally fly off to ‘Somewhere in England’, where they have the gall to stage their pathetic show of Hamlet. The Brits, not as indulgent as the Ludhianavis, walk out, just as the lead actor Johny Makhija starts his melodramatic rendering of To be or not to be soliloquy.
A laugh riot all the way, the play raises some serious questions as well. Would such a bunch of hams have caused much damage to a government’s reputation, back home in India? Do those who censor theatre really plough through such third-rate plays? Or do they merely throw their weight around to fill up those briefcases they are synonymous with? More pertinently, is it good for those in power to cut themselves off from art? Art that mirrors reality? When the officious censor warns the director of Kalakaron Da Kabarastana, “Sach dikhana mana hai. Tum desh ke dushman ho”, the director retaliates with “Agar aina ko toda, toh sab kuchh barbaad ho jayega.” Needless to say, his words fall on deaf ears.
As the play progresses, even Johny Makhija’s hamming of Hamlet’s existential dilemma, To be or not to be, acquires deeper connotations. If something is rotten in Hamlet’s state of Denmark, it is so wherever truth is muzzled, in whichever period.
But finally, as the curtains come down, the joke is on those puffed up with their sense of power and invincibility, because the madcap actors who stage Kalakaron Da Kabrastana and Hamlet outwit them, using all the theatrical tropes at their disposal.
When: March 18 and 19
Where: Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, Mumbai
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