Sunday, October 29, 2006

Self/Images: Girish Karnad’s Bikhre Bimb

I have to confess that the theatre does nothing for me. The last time a play sent a frisson of excitement down my spine was when I was in college and we read, assigned parts and rehearsed Hellman’s Children’s Hour overnight for some theatre festival at Stephens.

I fail to understand what theatre does today that cannot be done better and in a more sophisticated manner by cinema. Admittedly, I am biased; all the great innovations in art in the last century have come from cinema. In animation, montage, art direction, lensing, sound – cinema has done more to dramatise the human condition than theatre can ever hope to.

A dedicated theatre person cannot but respond to the challenges that technology-in-art presents. How would proscenium theatre respond? Not having attended a play in ages, I’m astonishingly ignorant, so I have no idea of the range of possible engagements that theatre may have made with technology. Which is why Girish Karnad’s new play, Bikhre Bimb, came as a pleasant surprise.

Set in a TV studio, where Manjula Nayak is presenting her very successful new novel in English, the play plunges into contentious waters, with the now-familiar debate between vernacular writing and Indian writing in English. Nayak is in the studio to rebut the Kannada intellectuals’ dismissal of her new novel as one written to pander to western tastes.

But this is a red herring, as we soon find out. The interview over, Nayak is about to leave the studio, when her own image from the screen stops her and begins a conversation with her. Getting over the shock of finding herself apparently as a separate entity on screen, Nayak soon enters into a conversation with her image, and many secrets spill out over the rest of the play.

It is an interesting device. Using a screen – the word itself being a loaded one – to separate one’s self and make it ‘other’ is a useful interpretation and one that is done with a certain a amount of self-consciousness in the play. In one entire conversation, Nayak stops talking in a fit of pique and her image speculates on the nature of this creature in (I use the word advisedly) the screen: am I like Narcissus, she asks in love with one's own reflection; or, like the Romantics imagined it, am I a doppelganger, a double; a Dorian Gray; or an ‘objective correlative’ for your anxieties; Lacan would have embraced me, she says; or, since this is about the global and native, I could be like the voice of conscience in Hindi cinema, exhorting you think about your poor father whose money he has kept aside for medicines, that you are about to steal.

This is done with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that does not detract from the very fundamental question it raises: the nature of the self, especially since it is raised by what would appear to be a figment of the imagination or a feverish hallucination. It is not Manjula's indentity the image is questioning, though that unasked question hovers over the whole play, but her own: as a mere image, who is she?

Nayak breaks her silence, after all, and more secrets emerge, none of which are particularly startling or earth-shattering. The play ends in a rather disappointing manner, but I won’t reveal how, in the event that anyone actually watches the play and is likely to be impressed terribly by it.

The play was interesting to watch for several reasons: apart from the portion that I’ve described above, the most interesting use of or interaction with technology was a response that was very analogous to cinema: the play only has one actor, Arundhati Nag. She is both writer and image. This means that an hour long take of the image speaking was shot and projected on screen, and Nag as actor on stage responds to the image. This self speaking to self is done in much the way that one would shoot dialogue in cinema. One actor, off screen, speaks her lines and the actor on screen responds.

In other words, a good half of the play happened much earlier, while it was being filmed. Someone moved around and spoke lines, and Nag-as-image responded, looked in different directions as the other character moved about and spoke. On stage, this process was reversed; Nag-as-writer spoke and moved about to be in the places where the image would be looking, to maintain the illusion that this was a ‘real’ conversation between self and image.

The other most interesting thing that happened during this particular performance was multiple technical failures. For the actor and the crew this must have been distressing; for me, in the audience, the process of resuming the performance from the point at which it had been interrupted by technical failure, was very, very informative. For a start, this had never happened in any other performance. Those performances must have been an exercise in a perfectly-created illusion, a state of experience analogous to the watching of cinema. Here, the performance being disrupted, it reminded me of nothing so much as a film shoot, where many things can go wrong in the coordination of several technical aspects, and where performances are repeated and meaning accrues to a performance only incrementally. For me, these technical hitches, instead of taking away from the performance, added an unexpected element to it.

I suppose what I am saying is that this play was interesting to watch because it intersected with cinema in many ways. I'm not sure how I'd have responded had it been otherwise.

Bikhre Bimb has been performed over 50 times in the last few months. I’m not sure where the next performance is, but do watch it if you can. I can’t say it’s a great play, but it is certainly an interesting one and worth watching.


swar said...

"I fail to understand what theatre does today that cannot be done better and in a more sophisticated manner by cinema. Admittedly, I am biased; all the great innovations in art in the last century have come from cinema. In animation, montage, art direction, lensing, sound – cinema has done more to dramatise the human condition than theatre can ever hope to."

I am assuming you are talking of contemporary indian theatre which is in a sad state right now. i wouldn't say you are biased. i feel that its rather naivety. when you travel to many cities abroad or to a few places within india where theatre exists in its full power, then maybe you might like to rephrase "I fail to understand what theatre does today that cannot be done better and in a more sophisticated manner by cinema" with something less superficial. i have been reading quite some intelligent indian bloggers who critique cinema wonderfully and find it rather unfortunate that their exposure to good theatre is limited or non-existent. whenever an intelligent/genuine cinema lover rubbishes theatre, i always feel that its like a novice watcher exclaiming at an adapted film,"areh, i don't think the book could have captured life like this film really did."

Space Bar said...

Swar: Thanks for dropping by. I hope this mean you'll post on your blog soon.

Yes, I am talking about contemporary theatre, but that perhaps still does not excuse the flip nature of my remark. Comparisons are odious but i'm not sure how right you are in comparing an adaptation with two different arts. With an adaptation, a comparison is inevitable; with two different media, it is perhaps impossible. If that is what you wanted to point out, then you're right entirely.

Having said that, I still think that theatre has to do a lot more to engage the theatre-goer than it is doing at the present. Two days after I wrote this post, I watched The Company Theatre stage Ionesco's The Chairs. It was moving, exceptionally well-acted and shorn of all gimmickry.

But it's not often that one sees plays like that. Perhaps it has as much to do with the strengths of the play itself.

If theatre is going to be 'like' film, it has to put in a lot more thought than it is at present doing, into what it wants to achieve.

swar said...

Now that you have mentioned Ionesco, let me quote from him: "I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a son, a dragon, and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least." I got this from TCT's latest newsletter.

I forwarded your post to Chaitanya, the co-director of Bikhre Bimb and he told me how he was 'dizzy with anguish' when the tech errors started. For us theatre people, whenever we use technology, we fight every inch to thwart all possibleprobable errors because our moments would be lost and can never be recovered. thats why we always say death is no stranger to theatre. Yes, I definitely agree contemporary indian theatre has a long way to go. in small pockets, its happening. very slowly.

bergman's autumn sonata never fails to mesmerize me everytime i watch it because he has used theatre in cinema with such finesse...

Space Bar said...

Swar: yes, Bergman's mastery over both media is something I've admired ever since I read his Images.

Chaitanya was indeed very distressed that evening, and I hope the second performance -- which went off without a hitch -- eased his anguish somewhat.

For everything else you've said, I get the feeling that the persons most moved by theatre are the people particiapting in it -- whether as actors, writers, or as crew. Correct me if I'm wrong. The day the audience shares this agony and enthusiasm, I'm sure theatre will flourish.

Deepak Krishnan said...

nice that you were able to catch Bikhre Bimb. I had read the play; never watched it till now.

probably if you are interested in some of the dialogues in Kannada, do check them out here