Akash Mohimen's MAHUA, directed by Rajit Kapur, opened the third edition of the Writers' Bloc festival. Writers' Bloc, an initiative by the Mumbai based theatre company Rage, is about original playwriting, but that which comes out distilled over a series of short residential workshops mentored by The Royal Court Theatre from the UK, and which is then readied for production. Such intervention though commendable and laudable for the platform it provides, usually to the new, young and original writers, can also have its own set of challenges.
MAHUA's landscape belongs to a tribal belt, presumably in Orissa, an area in which its inhabitants- the indigenous tribe of people, who have been staying there for generations, are facing a double threat of displacement and of danger to their lives. This is one of the countless, tragic and true stories of our country, where industry and globalisation have uprooted people and entire cultures in the process. The problem gets exacerbated when these people are sometimes left with no choice but to take up arms against the Indian State in anger and in frustration, and are then branded as Naxalites or Maoists. Mohimen's depiction of one such tribal family, against the background of the Mining industry that has claimed their land, is the crux of his play.
Birsa (Dhanendra Kawade), is the young protagonist here. His grandmother (Mona Ambagaonkar) while she was the Sarpanch of their village has to order her twenty year old grandson to get married to a woman who is twelve years his senior. The grandmother although not happy about doing so is left with no choice but to command her grandson who has played truant and has upset the girl's father. In order to broker peace between the two neighbouring villages, this appears to be the best solution.
The wife, Gilli (Sadiya Siddiqui) is a very angry woman- angry with life, angry with her circumstances, a woman who in another situation might have had a different and an empowered life, but has been resigned to her fate. Gilli is strong and responsible however, and writes poetry. She takes charge of the house and in time the couple's fights and taunts give way to love as Birsa grows to understand her. But the couple's moments of joy and togetherness are short lived. When the family is uprooted from its home, it finds itself enveloped in penury and close to an army testing camp, where bombs routinely explode.
Birsa, his family and his people are representative of a culture unto itself and although the production has been translated into Hindi (a good decision on the director's part) from the original English by Aman Uppal, the Hindi that is employed is jarring. It is not consistent throughout. The cuss words scattered through the script make it lively but even then the language is still wanting of getting deep into the various undertones and social codes that define a culture and its people. It's a challenge undoubtedly.
The play is further removed from its context and appears as a 'staged reality' with the actors unable to get into the skin of their characters. Only Dhanendra Kawade and Sadiya Siddiqui are able to bring varying degrees of semblance to the characters that they are playing. Dhanendra manages a more nuanced and convincing performance later into the play, particularly in the second half. Sadiya is the only one who stands out from her entry onwards- partly because of her ability to delve into her character and partly because she is the strongest of the five characters in the play. Two of the characters are Birsa's childhood friends (Pawan Uttam and Priyanshu Painyuli), and who later move away from Birsa as he will not co-opt with the powers to be, and neither will he rebel.
Mohimen's writing bears upon Birsa, his grandmother, his wife and his friends against the background of hopelessness and destruction. It is only in the second half that the play gains directorial strength as the malevolent atmosphere begins to impose itself more directly on the family. The metaphor of the Mahua becomes more acute and poignant towards the end, but it remains to be a native, alcoholic drink to find succour in. For Birsa first, then for his grandmother, and finally for his wife, it is the nectar that lets them slip away into an imagined better world.
But the Mahua is more than alcohol. It is an indistinguishable part of the lives of its people. It has medicinal properties, is used in other practical applications and is regarded as a holy tree. The over-emphasis on the liquor robs it of its larger potential in conveying a culture and its people. It also turns the metaphor into a bit of a cliche. A more trenchant line of questioning is lacking too vis-a-vis the implications of industry and the politics of it all, and that makes the play a tad simplistic. Characters while strong are not fully explored.
The production design by Shama Shah could have been earthy and more compelling, instead of the obviously familiar. A native, folk song of the tribe creates an emotional connect. Rajit Kapur's direction hovers between the real and the stagy. At times, the production befits the realistic genre of theatre; at other times, it appears designed and melodramatic, especially with Mona Ambagaonkar's declamatory style of acting. The sum result is that Mohimen's play in spite of a worthy and a crucial subject at its heart remains a personal tragedy in terribly unfortunate circumstances.