When we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area two and a half years ago, our aunt introduced us to Naatak, a local theater and indie cinema company with a reputation for interesting productions, well-executed scripts, and great performances. Naatak’s plays, enacted in Hindi (mostly), English (sometimes), and Tamil (infrequently), with supertitles, have used the scripts—both original and adapted— of stalwarts such as Bhisham Sahni, Satyajit Ray, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. The play in review, Vande Mataram, was written in 1997 by one of Naatak’s mainstays, Sujit Saraf. And if you’re wondering why I’m blathering on about the writing piece more than any other element, it is because this wonderful performance that we enjoyed this past weekend was the product of a strong, nuanced, beautifully written script that was satisfying and whetting in equal parts.
Vande Mataram opens the night before August 8, 1942. For those of you not familiar with the Indian freedom struggle, this date marks the launch of the Quit India movement. With Japan advancing rapidly and successfully through the countries east of India, and Britain’s increasing need for Indian military and resource support to fuel its WW II efforts, Indian leaders finally had a playing card and employed resistance and civil disobedience tactics to make the Empire take heed of their demands. It is here that the storyline departs from the black-and-white textbook version of history that would have us believe it was Gandhi vs. the British Raj, Independence vs. Colonialism, and Honor, Freedom and All Things Good vs. Exploitation, Repression and Popular Sub-continental Narratives.
[Photo credit: My resident photographer, the one and won
Interestingly, the production whose byline reads “A play about greed, gunpowder and Gandhism” manages to skillfully remove Gandhi from center stage and relegate him to the footnotes. Based on the Keezhariyur bomb case in Kerala (erstwhile Malabar), it introduces us to a cast of characters that plot to blow up a bridge in Patna along the same lines and draws us into a web of their motivations, personal histories and politicking. Six men, each playing his part superbly, embody a motley crew of a Colorado-trained professor, a local Congress committee head, two Marwari businessmen (and feuding brothers), a restaurant owner and a former soldier-turned-bank-guard with “a chudail who dances in his head”. Together, they debate, squabble, negotiate, reminisce, manipulate, plot, re-plot and maneuver the circumstances to their individual viewpoints and advantage, and through their synergy, we are rapidly transported from a macro picture to a microcosm of their personal greed, ambition, humor, and failings. We relate. We associate. We recognize. Sitting in a darkened theater on a sunny California afternoon 70 years later, the audience identifies the common human denominators that bind us all, and it is to the scriptwriter and actors’ credit that they make it so easy.
Then there is the plot. Moving at a fair pace, this dialogue-heavy play never feels a minute too long, and with a well-timed interval, leaves one waiting for the second half. Will the plot succeed? Will they be caught? Will a difference be made to the freedom movement? In spite of knowing how it turned out, and witnessing the imperfections of its characters, Vande Mataram is a play that makes you root for them, their well-being, desires, and safety.
The Sanskritized Hindi is true to its period, which has us modern mortals glad for those English supertitles. The costumes are authentic, and the set is simple and effective. Not intended to be a high-cost endeavor, Naatak’s production is nonetheless neat, efficient and a job well done. This genre of theater is what they do best and would do well to focus on in the future.
The play leaves you pondering about the multiple layers of sentiment, motivation and issues that form a complex but never tedious package, and it is to the team’s credit that they do not aim to dumb down any of it. For so many of us fed a simplistic version of one true representative of the people versus the British Crown, it is a gentle reality check about the multiple voices and opinion streams of the period. It invites the audience to take from it what they will, at a level and depth they are comfortable with. For me, an idea that has me toying around with it in my head nearly a week down the line and likely to continue, is a worthy one.
Not your typical treatment of nationalism, this. Which, incidentally, is what makes it a winner.
Go watch it if you live in the Bay Area. I just got even gladder that I do. 🙂