09 Feb 2017: “Raatmohona” – An adaptation of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in Bengali

Saleem’s story begins in Kashmir, thirty-two years before his birth, in 1915. The story involved three generations, including Saleem’s grandfather, his mother, and himself. As Saleem grows up, he realizes that he has the power of telepathy and can enter anyone’s thoughts. The hero of the novel is doubly removed from his true patrimony. In addition, he is caught between the two great religions of India, Islam and Hinduism, neither of which he can claim as his own. Finally, he spends his life being shunted back and forth by circumstance between the Indian republic and its antithesis, Pakistan.  


Nirbak Abhinaya Academy of Calcutta came up with a crispy-new production on stage, Raatmohona (based on Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children), at Academy of Fine Arts on the 7th February, 2017. This theatre group, which has a diligent theatre-person like Anjan Deb at the helm of all its affairs, has just completed its 35-year-long journey through the theatrical arena. Initially, it concentrated upon directing and producing mimes. But, as the power of ‘word’ started ruling the roost on stage and ‘mime’ taking a backseat, Nirbak switched over to plays ‘voicing’ emotions, passions and reality of day-to-day life on the stage. There is a joy in trans-creating a new world, elevating it from ‘page’ to ‘stage,’ breathing life into it, bringing it alive, so to say.

Raatmohona is a daring production by this group, which I am sure, would not be a cakewalk for any other group. And, for that matter, it has not been so with Nirbak even. But, Nirbak has broken all barriers of impossibility to wed fantasy to reality, dream to vision, magic realism to stark realism, elevating despair to hope, negativity to positivism. The play opens with a scene set in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home, as Rushdie writes. The nurse, Maria, (Suranjana Dasgupta) is so meticulous in her duties that she sometimes forgets to put the tag on the new-borns, thus playing dangerously with their identities. And, in this play, as directed by Kathakali, and conceived by Sharmila Moitra, there is a strange hint to a dichotomy of the son of a well-to-do family, misplaced in a wrong family (Shiva in the novel, Rudra in the play) and the son of riffraff parents placed in Sinai family – Saleem,  by the sudden mistake of a wet-nurse , Maria. The onus of placement is borne throughout their lives, leaving their lives topsy-turvy. In the matrix of the play, the binary Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan, Partition- Undivided land—all come repeating. The oft-repeated lines, “Duto Hantu akta Naak/ Hindu-Muslim chiching phaank” (Two knees and one nose/ Divides Hindu-Muslim so close) has a strange connotation in the play, showing Pakistan and India changing places quite often: Saleem in Pakistan, Rudra in India. Dream allegory raises curtain on the world of magic realism , especially when the children born in the midnight of the fateful day, 15th August, 1947, were shown to have especial powers like making an empty basket being filled with delectable items, or, simple wish of seeing someone being translated into reality in a jiffy, and more such similar powers. When a parley among the new-borns of midnight on the day of Freedom was held, different issues right from imaginary powers to the controversial existence of equality of religions in two contending countries, India and Pakistan, surfaced. Political issues and patriotism have snatched much time in the novel as well as in the play. Bipolarisation of faith and boundaries has been emphasized continually. How would Rudra and Parvati’s child, Aadam, stay with Saleem and Parvati once they decide to marry one another? A story of three generations runs on stage, with perfect élan.

Use of background music, costumes, expressionistic histrionics symbolizing union of male and female, the umbrella of Kodak Baba (a man, protective of the rights of slum dwellers in Delhi) standing for eclectic identities of gregarious dwellers of the slum, the megalomaniac traits of Rudra (alias Shiva) as the true scion of a well-to-do family – all end up in a message of forgiveness and unity of the inhabitants of India as well as the neighbouring state, Pakistan.  “Oh Lord Jesus, forgive me, Saleem is innocent...let him not suffer for my fault,” the only prayer of the nurse to God remains a refrain from the beginning to the end of the play, leaving a ball of remorse at the base of the throat of all wrongdoers.  The snippet of the melodious number “O my Darling” deserves mention as it creates a romantic ambience on the stage.  The merger of expressionism with realism is an achievement on the part of the director. Kudos to Nirbak for such a courageous attempt to bring a great novel to life on a Calcutta stage in an evening, with a dash of chill in it.

It is really an uphill task to breathe life into the world of Abracadabra and Chutneyfication of Rushdie in a language which has a typical diction for the dilettante. And, it has been done successfully. Kudos to Nirbak Abhinaya Academy and especially to Anajn Deb and Suranjana Dasgupta.  

The Cast
Salim: Anirban Ghosh
Rudra: Nilava Chowdhury
Maria: Suranjana Dasgupta / Mouma Naskar
Nazia: Archita Ghosh
Dr. Azeez / Joe / Gunda 1:  Soumak Bhattacharya
Shikarawala / Kodak Singh:  Sharmila Maitra
Nayab Khan / Laal Jamil / Rashid / Dr. Bose: Keshob Bhattacharya
Fiza: Rimiki Basu
Neelam / Shahid:  Anindita Biswas
Hameed / Isa:  Bappa
Major Zulfi / Aquil / Children 1 / Dr. Narlikar:  Saheb Biswas
Bari Khan / Children 2:  Neha Roy
Envelope Das / Doctor / Abbu:  Anup Maity
Sadhubaba / Montu / Children 3:  Akhar Bandopadhyay
Gunda 2:  Ayan Chakraborty
Chameli:  Mouma Naskar
Parvati: Kathakali
Ghetto: Archita Ghosh, Mouma Naskar, Anindita Biswas, Rimiki Basu, Keshob Bhattacharya, Anup Maity, Soumak Bhattacharya, Sandip Mandol, Akhar Bandopadhyay, Bappa, Ayan Chakraborty, Saheb Biswas

The off-stage unit
Set & Costume: Suranjana Dasgupta
Choreography: Anjan Deb, Anirban Ghosh, Kathakali
Light: Koushik Kar
Music: Anirban Ghosh, Kathakali
Makeup: Aloke Debnath
Playwright:  Sharmila Maitra
Design & Direction: Kathakali

Report by: Dr Ketaki Datta, Associate Professor (English) at Bidhannagar Govt. College, Kolkata, ketaki.datta@gmail.com

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