Ludhiana. Somewhere towards the end of the 20th century. The government diktat is crystal clear: Eradicate all arts. Kill all artistes. Burn all books. Tear down libraries and bring down museums. But is it so easy to kill the art inside an artiste?
Atul Kumar’s latest play is a dystopian comedy set in Punjab. It is about a theatre company of very bad actors who do terrible plays but are nevertheless entertaining and hugely popular. So, when the government feels the arts are a waste of money, it comes down on them. ‘Baaghi Albele’ is the story of their survival.
The play is based on the 1942 World War II satire ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ set in Nazi-occupied Poland. An acting troupe becomes embroiled in a Polish soldier’s efforts to track down a German spy. Atul had seen the film about 20 years ago but forgotten about it. When Aadyam Theatre approached him to do a play, he knew this was the time to bring the film to stage.
‘Baaghi Albele’ follows actors Johny and Minnie Makhija. During a performance of ‘Hamlet’, a young and handsome soldier of an underground rebel organisation leaves just as Johny begins the soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’, leaving Johny in a rage and Minnie with a secret new admirer. A short time later, following the prohibitory orders of the government, all performances are stopped, theatres are closed and so begins the chaos that ensues with the artistes being forced to hide underground while also plotting a movement to bring back theatre and live performances.
“My last play, ‘Taking Sides’, was about Nazi Germany. It talked of something outside our country. It was in another language, set in another time, another place. This one is dystopian, but in a certain way, it isn’t,” says Atul, who has felt engulfed in both anger and fear at the way artistes have been treated. “Stand-up shows are being stopped midway, court cases slapped on artistes. In theatre, festivals and sponsors are moving away from artistes who are raising a voice against injustice, and journalists are being jailed and killed.”
Atul’s favourite tools — satire, farce, clowning, absurd theatre — are seemingly harmless, but the jokes are now hurting those who make them. He says that while a crackdown ought to qualify as inspiration, it makes him angry. “At the same time, I am afraid too. Yet, one must do what one does,” he says, somewhere outlining the role of a theatreperson in an increasingly intolerant world.
Once Atul decided to adapt ‘To Be Or Not To Be’, pairing comic absurdity with grim reality, Punjab was a natural muse. “The play is all about dissent and raising your voice against injustice and curbs on freedom. And Punjab has done this again and again. There’s a history of revolt and history of fighting for rights. Punjabis have always taken up arms against evil, and why just arms, they have fought through arts, poetry, ideas, literature.” As a people, Punjabis, he says, are vibrant and can find humour in the worst of times. “They can laugh amid the misery around, fight it and move on. We must not forget that the last revolt came from the farmers in Delhi.”
The language had to be Punjabi. Growing up in a business family in Delhi, Punjabi was the most-heard language. And that explains Atul’s confidence with a language he has never worked in — he has only dabbled in English and Hindi so far; gibberish, too, his fans will add!
While over-the-top performances are the hallmark of the play, the makers have not taken the language lightly. There is no attempt to caricature and stereotype. The language, Atul says, is simple but correct Punjabi. And he credits his cast and crew, most of whom are either from Punjab or trace their roots to the region. From Saurabh Nayyar, who adapted the play into Punjabi, to scriptwriter Gagan Dev Riar, both long-time associates, and actors such as Ujjwal Chopra, Bimal Oberoi, Gunit Caur and Taranjit Kaur. A few trial runs before a non-Punjabi audience allayed any fears of not being able to put the message across.
Atul took to theatre as a youngster to avoid joining the family business and has been running his own theatre group, The Company Theatre, for the last 30 years — his plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘The Blue Mug’ and ‘Piya Behrupiya’ tasting stupendous success. He says it has been tough but enjoyable. “I cannot thank the audience, our production people, the organisations that have sponsored us, the festivals that have invited us — everybody has come together to help us grow,” says Atul. In all these years, the audience perception has changed markedly, thanks to the changing star system in cinema and OTT. “Suddenly, a lot more people are getting into the field of acting. It is a very healthy culture.”
In Mumbai at present, Atul and his team is rehearsing in Aram Nagar. “There are about 15 theatre auditoriums around. And some 40-60 people sit in each one of them, and all these places are booked. Similar things are happening in other cities as well. There are a lot more theatre practitioners, a lot more theatre companies and a lot more theatre festivals.”
He was recently approached by someone to perform ‘Piya Behrupiya’ in Chandigarh. “I told them that I will bring them my Punjabi play. I would love to take ‘Baaghi Albele’ to Patiala, Ludhiana, Jalandhar. Just invite me,” he says.
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