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June - July 2004


Dehaktay Angaray Based on "Look Back in Anger"

by Amin Mughal

Established in the 40s, the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) has contributed significantly to the cultural renaissance of South Asia. It has set trends and their pace in serious drama and nurtured several generations of committed artists, some of whom are now well-established names on the cultural scene. Rifat Shamim was inspired and trained by IPTA in the '60s in Mumbai, and has since then written, adapted and directed a number of plays for his Hindustani readers and audiences, first in India and now in Britain.

Adaptation of any play is a hazardous undertaking. It can easily become an exercise in literalism, imbibing much of its datedness without capturing its universality. Or it can become an effort in originality without retaining any of the significances of the original. The stakes in the case of Look Back in Anger would be forbidding. The play disturbed Osborne's contemporaries. It was squarely placed in post-war Britain, and much of its vitality derived from its contemporaneity and yet it was also disturbing in its existential relevance. Rifat, therefore, had an awesome job before him. On the whole, he has acquitted himself well, in his script as well as in his production. Equally, his cast have loyally carried out his remit..

Some of the translations were, however, easy enough. The bohemia of Birmingham becomes the Bohemia of south Asia (Bohemia in any case is a state of being, rather than a spatial-temporal context, and south Asia itself is a huge metaphor for Bohemia), and the characters are Indian (by extension, south Asian). But Rifat's achievement is two-fold. He has appropriated the core values of Osborne's themes and consciously and, by and large, successfully, remained focused on discovering new nuclei for them in the south Asian reality. In the process he has been able to find an appropriate medium for their communication. His idiom is authentic Hindustani, exploiting successfully the inherent, rich, resources of the language, in both Urdu and Hindi varieties - depending on the context, and unself-consciously flowing from one into the other. The forcefulness, freshness and vividness of Osborne's dialogue, particularly, Jimmy's, is matched by Ajay's. Thus anyone unacquainted with Osborne's play can enjoy Dehaktay Angaray as an original play.

Yet, a playwright who has set out to adapt a master also aspires to be judged against him. And anyone who has been privy to the insights of both cannot ignore the claims of either. Rifat's success in this regard has been impressive, yet one felt some more effort should have been put to address some of the disjunctions found between the original and the adapted version.

For Ajay, at times comes across as a ranter whose aggression is free-floating. Ajoy is undoubtedly a complex character, who even in Osborne appears at times to be an irrational and impulsive character, which he is not. In Riffat's play the impression of irrationality suppresses the intimations of a thought out set of compatible and inter-related ideas. The predominant impression one gets from the Indian play is that of a husband who feels that he has been humiliated by Savitri's family and the abject acquiescence in their snobbish behaviour towards him. The matter goes perhaps much deeper. Osborne has made explicit that Alison's family is middle class - her father is a colonel back from India and her brother is an aspiring MP. Osborne had the advantage that he wrote and got his play at a post-war time, when he could get his message across with the minimum of ideological cues for his audience. In Riffat, Savitri's brother's election meetings are shown to have been disrupted by and his friends, and the comment by Savitri on that projects Ajay's friends as simple thugs. In an Indian context, their behaviour would appear to be plain hooliganism.

It was not so in Osborne's play. There their counterparts are subversive of the ruling classes as Ajay inherently is. They are rebels to the existing order of things. In the Indian play they appear to be disruptive of democracy itself. It is unfortunate that the scene in Osborne in which the colonel appears was thought fit to be taken out in the Hindustani performance, perhaps because of the constraints of time.

In Osborne, the colonel's imperial moorings are underlined but he is shown to be a bewildered soul enveloped in post-colonial reality though, apart from Alison at the end, he is the only character who begins to show some understanding of Jimmy's mind . Osborne was reacting to the previous generation (Edwardian), which was an imperialist generation. If he was implacably opposed to Alison's family, he was showing his rejection of the Edwardian mores, which in turn originated from an imperial hangover, in turn a continuation of a thousands of years old male-dominated ethos.

He is not angry with Alison because he has any problem with their sexuality or her refusal to stand unequivocally with her against the high-handed behaviour of her family. Jimmy is angry because he feels that while by marrying him she has surrendered her place in the bourgeois set-up and is seeking her place along with a member of the working people, a bohemian, she is still captive to the norms of bourgeois politeness (hypocrisy, evasiveness, etc).

He seeks in her a new woman. He is disappointed. Helen, Nimmo's counterpart in Osborne, is not a feminist, whereas Nimmo is portrayed as a feminist. Helen's bondage to the church is unmistakable, and therefore her feminism is fake. Here the church (and its bells as a symbol) point to the seamless inter-relatedness of the Edwardian morality and the church. Unfortunately the relationship between the temple bells and the overall ideological existing sub-continental set-up has not been fully brought out in the Indian play. It is not the hypocrisy of the dominant ideology of the church that is the over-riding concern of Osborne. It is the crippling effect of the dominant ideology on a potentially radical in Savitri.

Osborne's greatness lies in digging deep into the drama of ordinary individuals and bring out the intricacies of social relationships that inform that drama. His anger is not directed against Alison (Savitri) or his family. They are merely symbolic of the order that Osborne, and like him millions of people in the post war generation in Britain, had perceived to be moribund but which continued to hold them in thrall. In the end, after the death of her child (symbolic of a fusion between the best of the Edwardian past and the promise of future), Alison (Savitri) crumbles to conquer.
Riffat's effort will be reckoned among some of the rare exercises in serious drama, an effort to explore large social themes in south Asia - something salutary in the context of much of the vulgar and commercial drama that goes around in Britain these days.

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