A French opera Carmen that found its first audience in 19th century France metamorphosed itself into a Hinglish theatrical production that ran its pulse through the suburban Mumbai audience of 21st century India. Helmed by veteran director Sunil Shanbag, Club Desire made its first impression with the simultaneous existence of multiple stage spaces- the glamorous Club Desire, the lusciously rugged bedroom, the coarsely carpeted writing desk and the frugally furnished formal office space. The scenes played out in these spaces had their own distinct tempo and shade. Adding a contemporaneous hue to the stage set was the psychedelic projection screen that served several purposes- enhance the mood, build the tempo, aid the singing protagonist’s words and show the emotional distance between characters by acting as the sms screen. Befitting to the setting and milieu of the play- a night club- was the band of boys who were a welcome change to the stage of theatre parched of live music. The lights were used strategically to evoke the alluring sexiness of the club singer, the angst-filled rendition of Chaahat’s childhood, the raving spirit of inducing DJ mix and the uncomfortable sexual tension between the lead lovers. The costumes became an extension of the character’s identity- silk shirt and suspenders for the Sindhi club owner, earthy cotton trousers and kurta for the Hindi poet, brightly coloured jacket for the Gen Next DJ, pronounced kurta over jeans for the young, liberal Hindi novelist and body hugging treggings for the sultry club singer.
All technical elements laid bare, the theatrical rendition leans heavily on words and dialogues to express the suppressed and unearth the unspoken. The opening scene that foregrounded the Armadillo song “I wish I could sing” apparently seemed out of context but hold your patience and it cleverly establishes itself as a thematic element in the plot. The crafty nature of the script is revealed in retrospect when this short random piece of the opening scene established the protagonist Chahat and her journey of redemption from the “catastrophe” of her childhood. The Sindhi club owner’s casual dialogues and comic hysterics too are not left alone- they are soon catapulted to a complex debate about multiplicity of languages and the dilution of identity, the cost of authenticity at the advent of post-modern lingo and the power positions and social status language can affirm or deny. This symbol and intellect laden piece of dialogue prepares the audience for a script that uses characters and plot as mere aesthetic tools to build an intellectual and metaphysical rhetoric and introspection on the very nature of life itself. While this is a laudable task, this is also where the myriad self-contradictions in the play come erupting out, if you are careful enough to catch them. In a classic “art mirrors life” parallel, a young Hindi novelist’s debut narrative about a courtesan’s theatrical journey set against the backdrop of the Indian Independence movement proposes the idea of the death of the author. It is Aparna production’s equivalent of toying with the idea that fictional characters take their own lives and meaning. In the context of the play, from the point of view of Chahat and the youth of today is supposed to be liberating. Ironically, the script of Club Desire has its writers and their words written all across the scenes especially when they are constantly and sometimes unnaturally made to act as mouthpieces for the core debate between words and sound, the mind and the body, the conventional and the bohemian, the patriarchal and the feminine. The moments when Chahat bursts into songs in the middle of a conversation with Jayam is a point in case. For a play that aims at challenging patriarchy and breaking the traditional dualisms of society, Arundhati Subramaniam’s poetry that refuses to categorize a woman’s identity as “either/or” is befitting. However, it is ironic that in order to establish an independent female protagonist, she had to be carved as a sexy, glamorous singer in a socially tabooed place like a night club. A script that is aiming at breaking and questioning stereotypes (ref: when DJ Abeer accuses Jayam of operating out of prejudices and stereotypes) contradicts itself when all its characters are built on the infrastructure of the stereotypical- the wealth chasing Sindhi, the idealistic frustrated Hindi writer/translator, the sexually active club singer. While Chahat makes a case for Gulabo’s sense of fidelity and love that is not the same as the phallocentric conceptualization of the “male” love of territorial possession; her own hesitation to partake of sexual attention and pleasure from DJ Abeer in the absence of Jayam seemed to fall into the same conventional trap it seems to defy. Similarly, the extensive and incisive word versus spontaneity, structure versus fluidity disputes- that formed the truly provocative portions of this piecemeal- falls into shallow quarters when Chahat’s songs are decorated with extreme wordiness of words in Subramaniam’s poetry. The core nature of her poetry is dependent on words, the meaning of her verse revolves around the exploration of the quantum of the English language. The poem “the heart is a verb” is a fine example of the same where the simile itself is built around comparison with words and grammatical understanding. When a character who is canvasing for meaning in the absence of language resorts to words as her medium of expression, the message can get confusing. Having said that, one cannot help but appreciate the courage of a production house to foreground issues of language, identity, sexuality and patriarchy by revisiting the fundamental binaries we are brought up with.
The ensemble of actors was dominated by Palomi Ghosh who essayed the role of Chahat as fearlessly and fiercely as the contours of the stage could allow. Creating the stark contrast of character and ideology was Jaimini Pathak donning the hat of Jayam, the Hindi translator/poet. Small gestures and minute actions were well directed to hold the character’s essence even through non-verbal cues. However, once the characters are set rolling into their patterns, they became set and predictable. One could not differentiate the nuances between one song to another, one angst-wrenched Hindi soliloquy from another – and this due to no fault of the actors. This is where perhaps the directorial creativity could have had the power to change and innovate.
Ron, the club owner first switches the lights on the signage of Club Desire on stage and this sets the tone and theme of this opera inspired drama- exploration of the power politics and gender equations played on the nebulous yet all-pervasive and all-powerful entity called desire. With its myriad dramatic devices and acting prowess, the play provokes the conventional and comfortable. Only its scripted self-contradictions and directorial monotony draws the line of limitation in delivering the truly liberated to its logical end.