TOPICAL COMEDY THAT WORKS
After snaring a couple of the best scripts at this year’s Writers’ Bloc festival, Rage Theatre appears to have another winner on their hands. The Bureaucrat is the zestful new play from director Rahul Da Cunha and writer Anuvab Pal, who had earlier collaborated on the somberly paced ‘delayed f**k’ romance, Chaos Theory. There is a lot to recommend about the play even if the politics seems a little pat. Under Mr Da Cunha’s direction, the satire doesn’t quite veer into broad farce, and the central performance, from Bugs Bhargava Krishna, is a veritable tour de force.
Aseem Hattangady (right) and Bugs Krishna in the play. PHOTOGRAPH COPYRIGHT KAUSHIK CHAKRAVORTY
Mr Pal’s Ivy League-inflected wordplay in Chaos Theory, gives way to a more democratic expression that accommodates the myriad tongues that are part of the contemporary Indian milieu, in which Mr Krishna’s Eliot-spouting bureaucrat, Raghuvir Gupta, finds himself to be quite an anachronism. Hinglish is thrown about with self-confident élan, although there is some condescension (in the usual vein of English theatre) where the play spoofs the spoken English of the cultural arriviste. Throw in some Tweet-speak, a trickle of jat lingo, and some cutesy rap, and you’re good to go. Officialese—the language of office circulars—is conspicuous with its absence in a tale where red-tape understandably cannot drive the on-stage action, even if the set design, by Dhanendra Kawade, scales up a standard-issue government file cover (with all its paper-shuffling connotations) into the walls of the Home Minister’s office in North Block.
We had caught a tantalizing glimpse of the world of indolent babudom in a short piece Mr Pal had written for the Rage miscellany, One On One, which featured Mr Krishna alongside Neil Bhoopalam and Anand Tiwari, all playing the same bureaucrat at different stages of his life. The device is used here as well with Aseem Hattangady standing in as the younger Gupta in rose-tinted flashbacks that take us back to the garden parties (in a nod to Václav Havel, perhaps) of the political bourgeoisie in earlier times. The detours to the past are flavorsome to an extent but the nostalgia doesn’t always work, and the action is most interesting in the clear and present, when Gupta, increasingly irrelevant, has been kicked downstairs and Mr Hattangady is now just his private voice of reason, keeping pace with his moods, quelling his remonstrations, and stepping in whenever he is dithering precariously at the edge of indecision.
The matter of contention is a nationwide ‘kapde utaro’ campaign called by an MTV jockey, youth icon DJ Dishoom (Mr Bhoopalam) who happens to be Gupta’s estranged son. Gupta must stop him at his tracks, and save the government from international embarrassment because the protest is timed with a state visit by the President of France. Caught up in a maelstrom not of his own making but somehow still complicit in its genesis, Gupta is the perfect counterpoint to the degeneracy around him, and strangely guileless, even while he’s still under the delusion of being a personage of some import. These inherent contradictions are brought across quite effectively (and delightfully) by Mr Krishna. There is something disarmingly endearing about the old bureaucrat, and you can feel the inside of his stomach churn, as he walks around disemboweled in so many ways. Despite his chinless vacillating, he still manages to hold on to a smidgeon of gravitas. This is all very well, because The Bureaucrat would have otherwise remained moorless with the rest of the action propped up by a parade of stock characters.
The Home Minister, at whose beck and call Gupta is disposed, is played by Jaswinder Singh, back to his scene-stealing ways after his well-received cameo in Jaal. He evokes Shivraj Patil in the very slightest with his sartorial choices but without that feyness and veneer of aristocracy that made Patil an object of lampoon. Mr Singh, talking like he has tobacco in his mouth, gives comic stature to a character that’s written in broad type. Mr Bhoopalam displays consummate panache as DJ Dishoom and enlivens the proceedings considerably with his light-and-sound show. The kapde utaro campaign is a weak sub-plot, but the actor treads water on stage and stays afloat even if the material at his disposal tries to keep him resolutely one-dimensional. Mr Da Cunha has a done a good job in bringing it all together. The comic timing he draws from his cast is accurate, the transitions are spiffy, the pace never flags and there is a whiplash quality to the wit.
Writer Anuvab Pal. PIC COURTESY RANDOM HOUSE INDIA
What The Bureaucrat sets up nicely is a view of Mr Pal’s politics. The theatre occurs within a definite perimeter of thought within which he can demonstrate his métier. He holds no prisoners when it comes to politics of a certain kind and it’s interesting to watch the unerring ebb and flow of sardonic triteness. There is a short-hand to his invective, which streams our way like a Twitter feed, without the empty headedness of the mob but feeding it nonetheless. It must be said he covers a lot of ground but there is still a finiteness to his politics, and he operates within a bubble that only occasionally allows a depth of political insight. Not that the play needs that kind of edge. That may just not be on the agenda. But political irreverence that seems a tad politically correct is a strange conundrum to be faced with.
Mr Pal is a very clever man, and a member of a ‘think tank at large’, by virtue of the body of work he has accomplished. Within the context of Indian politics, he finds the easy scapegoats and the most commonly accessible references. A government that is constantly struggling to overhaul its image through ill-conceived PR exercises is easy bait. It’s rather convenient to poke fun of a man who’s been caught with his pants down but it’s not incendiary enough to just add to the chorus. You can’t pat yourself on the back for that. The play doesn’t touch upon the unseemly ugliness of corruption at its very core.
The proscenium at the Sophia College is like a display window opened up to reveal a quaint world of bit players and other minutiae of little consequence. We can watch through the glass, like the age to which we belong. Thanks to the social networking that cannot be escaped from, we all have a ring-side view of things that leave us strangely unaffected except when the hype spills over into our living rooms (the Hazare ‘movement’, for instance). For satire to wield some power, there has to be an unmistakable undercurrent of loss, of pathos, of discomfort. Mr Krishna is at hand here, sitting in that claustrophobic basement, blinkered or blindfolded, and perhaps the walls will close in on him, or collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. For all his embitteredness the play stops right there. It is a protest without much umbrage. It doesn’t really matter because for all that, The Bureaucrat seems fated to be a surefire hit at the turnstiles, given that it’s topical and fresh, and several leagues above the kind of fare that we are usually accustomed to on the Mumbai stage.
Doesn't veer into broad farce. PHOTOGRAPH COPYRIGHT KAUSHIK CHAKRAVORTY
This review was originally published in the Mumbai Theatre Guide.