Self-confessedly inspired by the narrative format of Paris, je tai’me and heavily influenced by literary movements, writers Aritra Sengupta and Ayanti Ghosh have scripted a competent play in the form of With Love, Calcutta. I deliberately and consciously mention the two spearheading Bengalis as writers and not directors for here is a rare stage production whose sole strength lies in the lines- a fact foreshadowed by the pamphlet handed over at the entrance with the “Synopsis” and the “Director’s Note” unmistakably pronounced for every member of the audience. An intellectually stringed ensemble of short vignettes act as lyrical odes to the City of Joy tracing its journey from Calcutta to Kolkata, from the old to the changing, from the colonial to the communal. The personified voice of the city opened the play with a highly stylized poetic monologue and its rendition was further heightened with the symbolic play with light and darkness. The lantern with its constant light and its flickering shadows almost visually set the theme of the stage- the convergence of the good and the bad in this beleaguered city of joy. The too contrite quality of the words in this monologue, if it overwhelmed the audience and got lost on them; the effective employment of lights made up for setting the mood.
They usually say that film is the sixth art that encompasses all the other existing art forms in order to express and communicate. The multi-platform and multimedia approach adopted by the directors lifted the stage experience to that degree of the sixth art. The usage of real life footage mapping the historical and political changes of Calcutta served as an apt juxtaposition with the short fictional narratives and character snatches; the latter acting as the felt repercussions of the former. Yet another juxtaposition, albeit not an effective one, was that of seasoned and amateur actors. While the script remains strong throughout, the difference in the stage experience of the actors seeps through- not so much in the acting in as much as the nuances. The actor playing the role of the daughter in the mother-daughter narrative and the soliloquy delivered in the Durga Pooja segment is a point in case. The lines looked too rehearsed, the facial expressions repetitive and the replies in conversations to sharply demarcated to look natural. The lack of compliment here can be transferred in the form of credit to the make-up artists who constantly kept transforming young actors into older characters and the same actors into myriad characters. In sharp contrast to the amateurish bumps, the monologue delivered by the drunken, alcoholic beggar infused with sharp, caustic witticism and heightened with the dramatic interplay of lights succeeded in creating an impressive theatrical experience. The interjected direct address by the actor to the lights operator also ensured the powerful breaking of the fourth wall and gave vigor to the deliberate and self-conscious statement being made by the medium of the stage by the powerfully minded MOD group. The Existential angst being transposed through the unequivocal and representative voice of the old, debilitating character of the father was a masterstroke to say the least. The intellectual and material, the nostalgic and the futuristic, the sentimental and the pragmatic…this capsuled version of multiple clashes and frictions within the two generations of the contemporary Bengali society manifested the deep-rooted understanding of the city the MOD artistes possess. To have the last monologue and the most effective penultimate vignette in and through the character of a mentally imbalanced beggar served well to act as a metaphor for the madness and the deterioration that the city is experiencing. The antithetical and paradoxical epithets of the poem constructed by the documentary filmmakers seem to pale in comparison and leaves the audience wishing that this script had been packaged with one scene less.
For all the Mumbaikars who feel that only their city can impregnate artists with tales of the flesh and the mind, With Love Calcutta opened up the raw guts and sublime moments of an urban space much criticized, much colonized, much chastised.