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Film Impressions

Why FILM IMPRESSIONS? Because we believe film lovers deserve better. The quality of film criticism in India has been steadily deteriorating, losing its credibility and intellectual rigour. Instead of informed and unbiased opinion we have been subjected to publicity-driven writing, often manipulated by vested interests. We wish to offer well-argued criticism, insightful interviews, historical perspective... and celebrate cinema in all its glory

S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship about to hit the 50 mark

by Vikram Phukan

Given the climate of censorship that seems to exist in the country at this time, what with Kapil Sibal's foot-in-mouth pronouncements, and the recent hue and cry over AK Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas, we could do well to call attention to a play that takes many of the underlying issues head on. Sunil Shanbag's play is a very delectable — with its riotous musical interludes —juxtaposition of our contemporary concerns with a rather shameful chapter in Indian theatre history — the censorship of Vijay Tendulkar's seminal Sakharam Binder and the struggles that play had to undergo in order to be staged in Maharashtra in the '70s. It has since completed more than 500 performances in several languages across the globe.

It is not as if Mr Shanbag is a stranger to censorship himself. Several of his plays have run into resistance, including the critically acclaimed Cotton 56, Polyester 84 about disaffected mill-workers in Girangaon. In this play, he delves into own battles with censorship, with a nod to the growing number of attacks on artists by the state and by fascist elements in civil society.

The central role in Mr Shanbag's play is performed by one of the most accomplished contemporary actors, Nagesh Bhosle, as a narrator with a jovial, almost avuncular presence (much like his leading role in Cotton 56, Polyester 84) and then as Sakharam himself in the play within the play (much of S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship’s running time is an austerely pitched reproduction of the original Tendulkar play).

Mr Bhosle switches between his two roles, and each time the transformation is chilling. As Sakharam, the blue-collar man — who is disarmingly forthright but whose questionable treatment of his women proves to be his undoing — Mr Bhosle cuts an imposing figure. He garners the audience's backing with terse one-liners delivered a salvo at a time, and then stamps his authority on stage with his gooseflesh-inducing portrayal of Sakharam’s disquieting chauvinistic streak. The humor offsets the ugliness and it's all very well since there is a section of theatre-goers for whom levity is the only way, perhaps, to get a deeper point across.

Sakharam and Lakshmi, characters in the play. Image courtesy: Stage Impressions.

The women in Sakharam's life are the taciturn Lakshmi and the garrulous Champa. In many ways, he is a veritable 'A Streetcar Named Desire' without the glamour and the glitz and the affectedness, but exploring so many of the same themes rather more starkly.

Geetanjali Kulkarni delivers one of her best performances as the repressed but quietly scheming Lakshmi (and she won a META award for her work) who readily submits to brutal beatings but never quite emerges as a doormat. In an interview with Stage Impressions, she said, "(Sunil) made me look at Lakshmi not just as an unfortunate victim, but by trying to understand her sexuality, the fanaticism in her, and the transformation she brings about in Sakharam himself."

It is, however, the character of Champa that made the play such a flashpoint in the 1970s. A woman who drinks and fornicates (though not without compunction), and beats up her husband in a fit of feminine outrage. Rajashree Sawant Wad gives the role her all, right from the feminine swagger she takes on, to the manner in which she participates in her own sexual degradation with unconcealed disgust — her every utterance an indictment of the stifling patriarchy that persists to this day in sections of our society.

There is a telling scene in Mr Shanbag's play where the judge deliberating the censorship proceedings of Sakharam Binder requests to watch an unexpurgated performance of the play with the proposed censor cuts highlighted with a blue light. The constant neon flickering (there were 36 cuts in all, including cuss-words, whole paragraphs, complete scenes) proves to be an annoyance and he soon asks the highlighting to be stopped. Hilarity ensues within the contemporary audience at Prithvi for whom such a scenario seems understandably alien.

Things have changed. To book a show in Prithvi you do need a DRM number (from the Censor board), for which you have to submit two copies of your script at the Mumbai Secretariat, one of which will be returned, duly stamped with the censor certificate, after a month or so.

Theatre is a collaborative medium and several changes are made to an original script as different aspects of theatre-making converge to create the final product that is performed on stage (while still remaining for all purposes, a work in progress). Technically it is possible to overlay a censored (and initially palatable) script with more objectionable material afterwards since it is highly unlikely that a vigilante member of the censor board would be lurching at a staging waiting to pounce upon any breach from what had been priorly agreed upon on paper. The reality is that such subversion doesn't really take place, and much of urban theatre these days (despite all the chest-thumping and self-importance) is for the bourgeoisie and concerns itself with genteel matters, no doubt dictated by the demographic it caters to, for whom escapism is the only real entertainment.

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Mr Shanbag, though, doesn't quite pussy-foot around in his play. S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship has all the salaciousness of the original Tendulkar text, and it also seeks to illustrate how the sanitisation of entertainment has actually taken place, how the unregulated bawdiness and unbridled joy of vintage tamasha performances gave way to the more conformist (in the most cloying manner) lok natya.

It is easy to understand how Sakharam Binder raised hell and fire in the 70s, when the cultural pre-conditioning was at its peak. Context is everything and for the captive live audience at a Prithvi staging, the reality thrown to their faces by Sakharam, Champa and not least, Lakshmi, sometimes matters less than the steady stream of choice abuses, each of which has people rolling over in the aisles, as if a cue-card named 'Applause' has miraculously been held up.

Potentially incendiary material will continue to be made. An upcoming piece to be directed by Mr Shanbag recounts the story of a white American minstrel singer who performed blackface routines in India in the late 19th century. This is a potential minefield because minstrel performances are now considered an ignoble legacy of America's racism so indelibly linked to its history of slavery that it's impossible to even extricate the musical debt owed to minstrelsy by the contemporary music scene in America. Taking this man, who performed blackface with Indian characters for Indian audiences who were completely regaled by the man, always believing that the joke was only on the 'other', almost strips the minstrel act of its original baggage, but not quite. Blackface is always problematic, though maybe less so to an insular Indian audience.

Actor Ketki Thatte as a lavani dancer. Image courtesy: Stage Impressions

In the opening scene of the play, when Mr Bhosle takes the stage and make some topical noises in a warm-up routine he sneaks in a mention of Mr Sibal, everyone’s pet peeve of the day, given how the power of the hashtag is now upon us. In the over-expressive world of internet media, censorship is a much more immediate concern. Even our little theatre site came under the scanner when a Typepad ban, very discretely set in motion by the powers-that-be, meant that we were greeted, one fine morning, with the very politely worded message: "This site has been blocked as per request from Department of Telecom", another attempt to quell the blogosphere without even understanding the technology that makes the Internet the power it is.

The players during the Sakharam saga of the 70s are still around. Bal Thackarey, whose cohorts had roughed up actors then, still persists with his paternalistic doggedness to set up a culture police of sorts. The censor board for theatre languishes in the back-offices, but cinema is now easy fodder. In times when even leading production houses like Dharma Productions toe the line when it comes to keeping a Friday date at the turnstiles (as if creative integrity is not germane to standard issue romantic comedies), it is heartening that a play like S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship, which talks of the battle resolutely waged to get a provocative play performed, has now quietly completed 50 shows.

S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship completes 50 performances on 9 December at Prithvi Theatre. The next shows are scheduled for 5 and 6 January 2012.

The writer runs the theatre appreciation website Stage Impressions.