A theatre story

Print edition : August 25, 2006

The documentary points to the need for the theatre of the committed and the brave, and for the need to keep such theatre alive.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

A Janam performance in progress.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

ON the streets, in slums, at workers' unions, the show has gone on for more than three decades now, with a disparate bunch of committed individuals, collectively known as Janam, bringing the theatre of the people to the people. It was the spirit, ideals and hopes that drive the group that film-maker Lalit Vachani wanted to capture through his film Natak Jari Hai. That he has succeeded is a fact that the group itself readily testified to, during the first public screening of the documentary.

Jan Natya Manch, better known as Janam, was formed in 1973 when young activists, including Safdar Hashmi, broke away from the Indian Progressive Theatre Association (IPTA) and struck out on their own, determined to take forward the baton of progressive theatre, independent of political arm-twisting. In fact, Janam looks upon itself as the inheritor of the IPTA's legacy - a legacy of bringing secular, progressive, democratic theatre to the people. Over the decades, nearly 70 plays have been created and tens of thousands of performances held across the country. Popular plays such as Machine, Aurat and Halla Bol have been translated into several languages, or adapted effortlessly to suit workers' circumstances in any part of the world.

Natak Jari Hai is especially significant in this context. Janam's Sudhanva Deshpande said: "Documentation of theatre used to happen through published scripts mostly, which can capture only so much about theatre. Lots of people feel that that can be misleading. The same scripts can be done totally differently by different people, even with contradictory aims. Street theatre, in particular, is very hard to capture. With film, we have the technology to document that aspect as well."

That is precisely what Lalit Vachani set out to do through his film. The film is a clear-eyed, gently intimate look at the history of the group as also the diverse backgrounds and ideologies of the people that comprise it. It is partly this diversity that forms the soul of Janam.

While some of the senior members have adopted a clearly defined leftwing stance, others are struggling to find a niche in the political spectrum that they are most comfortable with. Moloyashree Hashmi and Sudhanva Deshpande have been associated with the group for several years and have no doubts about the need for people's theatre to be as politically active as it is socially aware. There is young Sarita, who joined Janam after attending a college workshop with Moloyashree and has made her peace with the group's ideology by focussing on the undeniable relevance of the issues raised through the plays rather than which political outfit it is affiliated to.

Safdar Hashmi in action.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Uttam, who wanted to join the ranks of famous Bollywood stars at the first given opportunity, admits that he first joined the group only because it was one of the few groups that welcomed him without asking for qualifications or prior experience. Over time, he has learnt to focus on the art of being an actor. Nevertheless, he must also fight his personal battles at home, in the face of religious identity or the denial of one.

However, individual differences seem to melt into an unwavering commitment when it comes to performing street plays. It would be difficult at any rate, to disagree with the stark strength of plays such as Machine and Aurat or to resist the light-hearted way in which anger moults into Ye Dil Maange More, Guruji.

Images of a train journey to Kolkata, posters of Che Guevara in a boy's bedroom, old black-and-white photographs up on walls, the last picture of Safdar Hashmi ever taken - all of these are woven into the film's narrative. Sudhanva Deshpande describes the film as a sort of group portrait of a bunch of political and cultural activists. "The best part is that these activists come across as real people, with real personalities. Also, he's captured Safdar's personality very well."

Safdar Hashmi, who was killed during a performance of Halla Bol in Sahibabad in 1989 is one of the pivots on which the film rests. Fittingly, his death is where the film takes off. Later into the film, the scene is revisited, and each tragic step recounted, taking one through Hashmi's courage and the brutality of the murder, in the most tender way possible.

Moloyshree Hashmi.-

The film-maker was convinced that Hashmi's story was integral to the film, as it was integral to Janam itself. Vachani said: "Natak Jari Hai was in fact the title of a play they did in 1991. Safdar's story is central to the story of Janam. With his death, they were thrust suddenly on the national stage, with the leader gone. People just had to learn things. Everyone had to take on different roles, but they had the will not to stop. To go on."

Vachani has captured not just the street performances but also the dramatic force of the script. Parts of Machine were filmed especially, in a radical departure from the visuals typically associated with street theatre. Characters emerged out of a sea of black; words emerged from a shell of silence, broken only by the mechanical sounds of the man-machine. Vachani said: "I was curious to see what happens when you take the aesthetics of agitprop and transfer it to the proscenium form. It was challenging because the conventions of street and proscenium are very different. But my only intervention was the blocking of stage space." As it turned out, the experiment was a successful one, for the impact of the play was just as strong, if not stronger, on camera.

Although Vachani had been involved with theatre activity in his college days, he had never witnessed street theatre at close quarters until recently. Attending one of Janam's rehearsals fascinated him so much that he decided to document it. It was tougher than he had anticipated. One of the problems was that the performance was shifting all the time.Crowd reactions to Janam's various performances proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of the film. While the audiences were both encouraging and receptive, their reactions varied from play to play. An election play, written especially to campaign for a candidate, tended to draw dismissive comments. This was an interesting insight into the kind of work the group does, since filming the play itself is not always the best way to judge how powerful its impact has been.

The significance of a group like Janam is evident. The film-maker, for instance, picked up on the fact that the first few people to show up for a performance were always children, a reflection on the lack of sources of engaging local entertainment, amongst the working classes in particular. Street theatre has the potential to fill that gap between people and mainstream entertainment, while building awareness of people's concerns simultaneously.

In documenting the journey of a theatre troupe like Janam, Natak Jari Hai also points to the need for the theatre of the committed and the brave, the need for people who keep such theatre alive.

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