Play Review: Vande Mataram

19 Jun

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.

Naatak picture

[Photo credit: My resident photographer, the one and wonlyderful Boy.]

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. 🙂

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10 Responses to “Play Review: Vande Mataram”

  1. Meera June 20, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Do they perform outside of the Bay Area too, say Seattle or Portland? Would love to catch a performance. Unfortunately, it is not as easy to hope a plane to SJC as it is to drive down to SEA 😦

  2. Aban June 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    oooooooooooooooh I am so jealous! You get to do this “artsy” stuff up in the SJ area. But truly happy that at least my sweet OJ was able to see it, because through your eyes and words you have painted, as always, a vivid picture. Boy’s pic is of course beyond praise…a league of its own. Anyway, was this a published comment or just for us Jammie followers? It is deserving of publication. Sounds very interesting to me because I’m working currently on a Gandhi-related piece (shhh)….not featuring him but sort of “around him” . True, true they must have taken liberties with it but isn’t it wonderful that you were privy to witness this idea in action? Now that little bee of wondering and doubt will buzz in your head forever.
    Wondering like Meera….will it ever come to Los Angeles or “Little India” in Artesia? Would love to see it.

  3. soulsearchingdays June 20, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    Hi, I am so glad to have stumbled upon this treasure trove, I really do not know how I missed you though I have been around so long, ofcourse not so long as you. YOu have one more blogger who is gonna be your permanent fan…
    once more, glad to meet you

    take care

  4. Orange Jammies June 21, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Meera: I checked with them, and they said it hasn’t happened so far, but Naatak is happy to travel with their theater if someone in the host city is willing to organize things for them. So if you know any event management folks who would like to do some shows, let them know! By the way, isn’t Seattle *gorgeous*? 🙂

    Abanty: We are so glad for your loving presence in our life! I believe Naatak shared this review with its mailing audience. But you saw it here first. 😉 We need to talk soon. My current project is about the Mahatma too!

    soulsearchingdays: Hello! Welcome. 🙂 Thank you so much for your kind words. Come back to visit, okay?

  5. Aunty G June 22, 2013 at 2:55 am #

    Your review would’ve helped ’em by a mile
    ‘Tis worthy of any critique’s file
    But i spotted something
    Which to me did bring
    Your ‘Abanty’ — that’s what made me smile!

  6. dipali June 22, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    Sounds wonderful, OJ!!!

  7. Orange Jammies June 24, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    Aunty G: Smile away, it’s true,
    I got the idea from you,
    Tucked in mind-file
    Was your wordy style
    That I used as my cue!

    dipali: 🙂 Just the sheer variety of choices available in this part of the world is wonderful.

  8. Aunty G June 25, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    🙂 Thank you!

  9. Meera June 25, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Will ask the Hindi Sangam here to see if they can organize things!!! May need to hit you up for contact details etc. Seattle’s gorgeous, no doubt but we Portlanders take pride in our little piece of heaven, too. If you’re ever in our neck of the woods, ping me. Would love to show off our town. 🙂

  10. Orange Jammies June 26, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Aunty G: Thank *you*!

    Meera: Sure thing. And thank you for that offer, would love to visit Oregon someday. 🙂

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