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|Volume 11 |Issue 17 | April 27, 2012 ||
More Comic, Less Moral, Most Popular
Kanjush, the most staged and arguably the most popular theatrical production in the country, has had its 600th show at the National Theatre to the delight of a jam-packed audience
Akram Hosen Mamun
In the early 1970s, when Ramendu Majumdar and a handful of actors and directors started theatre in the country, they thought staging a play 12 times was a remarkable feat. Staging a play 600 times over a course of 26 years was beyond their dreams. But theatre troupe Loko Natya Dal has done just that. The 600th staging of its production called Kanjush took place at the National Theatre on April 21. Ramendu Majumdar, now the president of International Theatre Institute (ITI) points out that the popularity of theatre has increased over the decades. "Our most important achievement in the last four decades is that we have been able to attract people to the theatres. Having a loyal audience is a remarkable success in its own right," he says.
Kanjush is an adaptation of French playwright Molière's The Miser. Noted actor-director Tarik Anam Khan adapted the play to amuse a Bangladeshi audience. However, Liaquat Ali Lucky made a lot of changes over the decades. The resulting productions that people see today are largely different from the one created by Anam.
A comedy of morals, the play narrates the story of an incorrigible miser, Haider Ali who trusts no one when it comes to money. Tarik Anam Khan has set the story in Old Dhaka, using the typical dialect of the residents of that area. The humorous exchange of dialogues that address hypocrisy, greed, domestic tyranny and opportunistic tendencies of the elite, do not only add new dimensions to the Molière classic but also creates a fascinating play in its own right.
When Tariq Anam Khan took the task of translating the play in the early 80s, he didn't have a job. As a result, he could devote all of his time to the play. He says that it was a learning experience for him. "I learned much about the situations of comedy by trying to translate this drama," he says. Since he only had a superficial grasp over the Old Dhaka dialect, he adds that what he was doing was something like "free adaptation". As a consequence, Lucky made major changes when he did the editing.
Translating and placing a literary piece in a particular region is a complex task. Using the slang of a particular dialect is arguably the most challenging part of translating. Lucky used to take note of all the slang words he came across in Old Dhaka and give them to Anam. After finishing the adaptation, Anam's troupe Natya Dal produced 10 shows of Kanjush in the early 80s. But most of the members of Anam's troupe soon became busy with their career and became professionals in other fields. Lucky observes that having a fulltime professional ensemble of theatre activists is still a dream in Bangladesh. In a similar vein, Anam says, “At present, what we need most are professional troupes and activists. Without full time actors and directors, it is impossible to reach perfection on stage.”
However, amidst all the stage-foolery and mock heroic dialogues, there is no doubt that much of the satire gets lost. Directors and playwrights face a dilemma of choosing between a critique of society and humour. In most cases, satire and humour happen simultaneously. But too much comic elements can drown the morale of a play. "It is hard to avoid the temptation of making the production funnier. At the ticket counters, people always ask if the play is funny enough," says Ramendu. Keeping a balance between satire and homour is one of the trickiest parts of staging a social satire.
However, Lucky took the script from Anam, and his troupe staged the first show of Kanjush in 1986. Gradually, the play became the most staged and arguably the most popular contemporary theatre production. "When we started working on the play, we didn't think that we'd be staging the drama for more than 25 years. We have come a long way. I know a man who was present in more than 300 shows of the drama."
Nevertheless, in Anam's opinion, people should focus more on ensuring the quality of the art rather than the number of times it has been staged. "On the surface, the play is comical but underneath the comic elements, it has a biting satire." The morale and satire often gets lost in many productions, he observes. The director Lucky is not happy with all the productions either. "In the last 26 years, I have watched many disappointing shows. The productions lacked originality and inventiveness and ended up being mere repetition of the same thing," he says.
However, theatre activists generally agree that comedies are popular with the audience. Ramendu says, "Kanjush can be a prime example of the popularity of comedy. People come and ask if there are comic elements in the play. Keeping that in mind, we do a lot of social satire with strong morale and humorous elements."
The recent productions of the play are funny in more ways than one. The dialogues are full of deliberate humorous anachronisms or chronological inconsistencies in events and customs. For instance, the costumes of actors and the use of popular old Hindi film songs suggest that the play is set in the mid 20th century. But in an argument with Haidar, the central character, his son mentions Facebook, internet and Bashundhara Shopping Complex. Some actors also suggestively use the phrase "Khudra Rin" [micro-credit]. In another scene, Haidar observes that the young lovers go too much to Ashulia, a place that has become a popular weekend getaway in recent years. Some dialogues and scenes resemble and mock popular Bangladeshi films to comic effects.
The plot focuses on the predicament of Haider Ali Khan, who is a miser and crook. His son and daughter Lailee Begum and Kazim Ali Khan are, on the other hand, romantics. Lailee is in love with Bodi Miah whom she met at the sea beach. To be near Lailee, Bodi hides his identity and takes up the job of a servant at the household of Haider Ali. Kazim, on the other hand, is in love with Marzina from a nearby neighbourhood. The plot thickens when Haidar Ali declares his decision to marry his son's beloved and employs Golapjan to negotiate the marriage.
Haidar also insists his son marry a widow, and to save the money that needs to be given as dowry to the groom, he arranges a marriage between Lailee and his 50 year-old friend Aslam Beg. The play reaches its climax when servant Lal Miah steals Tk five lakh from Haidar Ali and gives it to Kazim. Kala Miah, another servant accuses Bodi of stealing and Haider informs cops. At that point, Aslam Beg enters the scene. Finally, it is revealed that Lailee's lover Bodi and Kazim's beloved Marzina are actually Aslam Beg's children. Finally, it is known that Aslam and Haidar both wanted to marry their sons' lovers.
The recent productions can hardly be recognised as an adaptation of a French play. The large auditorium of National Theatre was almost jam-packed in the 600th show. Commenting on its popularity, Lucky says, "In many occasions, when we went through crises and needed to raise funds for medical treatment of one of our comrades, we staged Kanjush. We once sold tickets worth Tk. 75,000 in a show". In a society where theatre is a marginalised art form Konjush's success is an inspiration to upcoming theatre activists.
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