"They say they want to turn this city into Shangai. I don’t know what the word Shangai means, but it is an excuse to kick poor people in the stomach." These words as borrowed from an article written by Rama Lakshmi for 'The Washington Post' of May 8, 2005 are those of a mason worker- Mohammad Badruddin. While Badruddin toiled away in a high-rise, residential building, his tin-walled home was being grazed to the ground. Badruddin’s words represent that naked truth about Mumbai's changing socio-political and cultural landscape.
It is no wonder then that in such a scenario, Ramu Ramanathan’s new play COTTON 56, POLYESTER 84, well-translated into Hindi by Chetan Datar from its original English should speak to us in a tone that is more documentary-like than dramatic and more nostalgic than polemical. Indeed it wouldn’t be out of place to label this play as a docu-drama. And while this play’s protagonists Bhau and Kaka have a different story to narrate as against our Mohammed Badruddin, their situations and anxities are more or less the same.
Kaka and Bhau are no less real than Mohammed Badruddin. The beauty of Ramu's work can thus be said to lie in his zeal for research and in his dedication to do theatre that becomes an acute observer of our times. This quality of his is evident in all his plays, particularly in MADHEVBHAI (1892-1942), COLLABORATORS and 3, SAKINA MANZIL. However such conscientious research when translated to the theatre runs the risk of a long-winded narrative whose appropriate place sometimes seems to be on the page than on the stage.
Ramu Ramanathan is undoubtedly quite skilled in his playwright's craft and has been able to offer gripping dramatic frameworks for the research he undertakes for his plays. But he needs to tread more cautiously now since the line between documentation and drama seems to be amplified with each of his recent consecutive plays. If in MADHEVBHAI…the axis between research and drama could not have been more harmonized, in 3 SAKINA MANZIL for instance there are visible signs of an information overload. With COTTON 56...the accentuation on the narrative has become so strong that the characters come across as being merely incidental.
The play uses drama as a tool to bring to light the highly politicized problem of the teeming mill land area in Mumbai and its impact on the trajectory of the erstwhile mill workers of Mumbai city. The by-line for the play, ‘The city that was Mumbai’ hence could not have been more telling. The ethos of the play in fact is caught in a very effectively designed three-dimensional mural which forms the background of the play. The looming skyline as depicted in the mural dwarfs the spaces that were once the lifeline of the city. To a sensitive and an informed audience, this background is in essence the play. The foreground of the stage peopled with characters and events thus acts as a device to expatiate on this unsettling background.
Kumud Mishra’s Kaka and Nahesh Bhosle’s Bhau become the marginalized mill-workers as well as the commentators of this charged socio-political debate. It is actually quite difficult and perhaps unreasonable to discern between Kaka as a narrator and Kaka as Bhau’s closest friend and co-worker. Kaka leads us into Bhau’s and his story which is expectedly intertwined. At the onset, the two competent actors pose as storytellers in order to familiarize the audience with the dramatic narrative that they are about to witness. It is not long before the two actors slip effortlessly into their respective roles.
The stage is left bare except for a rusted street light and a circular seating space that marks the communal reading and meeting platform of the mill workers. The importance of a space such as it in the lives of the mill workers is made clear almost at the beginning of the play. It eventually becomes a metaphor for the varying voices of the proletariat; its presence a source of strength and support. This space is also purposefully exploited by the actors to stock their minimal property and most of the action in the play transpires around this space.
Director Sunil Shanbag’s forte lies in his ability to judiciously use the space at hand and to create a dramatic form that is complentary to the writer’s text. So is the case with this play too. Narrative, dialogue and live music are interspersed in a way that highlights the socio-cultural background of the characters in question. The two musicians who work on a percussion instrument called the dhol and on the harmonium along side Bhau’s songs and Kaka’s simple but altogether repetitive footwork, provide a valuable sub-text to the over-arching narrative.
The text can perhaps be aptly defined as a lesson in the history and politics of a people. Drawing his research from face to face interviews and meetings with the beleagured mill workers, from his attendance to their cultural programs, from live courtroom trials and from the well reviewed non-fictional book, ‘One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices’ by Neera Adarkar and Meera Menon, Ramu has tried to fit this vast material in a plot that is ironically reminiscient of a popular Hindi film.
Nevertheless there is no doubting the validity of all his characters which include Bhau’s wife, his son, his girl-friend and a sharp businessman who can be perceived as Bhau and Kaka’s nemesis. The mafia in the figure of the bhai is humanized in the best tradition of films like ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Sarkar’ and a chilling truth is exposed. The mafia, we are told gets double the money to maintain peace in the city as against when it has to stir violence.
Bhau’s diminishing economic status compels his only son to resort to the mafia in Mumbai. Pramod Pathak plays the protypical bhai with a commendable ease. He does not resort to unnecessary histrionics and there is a natural potency that he brings to his character. But as this superimposed plot moves forward, you can almost predict that Bhau’s son will meet a tragic end, even as he expectedly falls in love with the bhai’s neice.
The dramatic action thus begins to seem like an excuse for the playwright to put forth his concerns and he is also clearly overwhelmed by them. For instance there is no corresponding or counter critique to this problem. Controversial figures like Dr. Datta Samant who led the critical mill-worker’s strike which was their final undoing are almost nearly given a clean chit. Besides the problem is not examined in the larger scheme of things such as the economic reasons that brought about the closure of the mills in the first place. Post-liberalization, there have been different classes of workers in India that have been disadvantaged, including small-time traders and businessmen. Around the world, similar problems abound.
At the same time the play derives its strength from Ramu’s eye for observation and detail and of course from his inimitable, tongue-in-cheek humour. There are interesting bits in the play when for example Bhau talks of the kind of programmes that would be screened in his days if there would have been this twenty-four hour, satellite cable television that we have today. Bhau also talks to us about the towering shahir (people’s bard) Amar Sheikh whom the poet Pablo Neruda met. The famed Dalit poet and political actvist, Namdeo Dhasal whose collection of poems, ‘Golpitha’ is compared to the likes of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ is evoked with pride but once again there is no reference to his current political status which appears inconsistent given his fervent poetic voice and past career.
And then of course there is this satirical reference to the ‘Big Bazar’ mall in Mumbai which corresponds to the world being a big market. The critique against capitalism once against stands out clear and strong. The attempt to coalesce the welter of political and cultural information surrounding the characters is however genuine and further gives us an insight into the playwright’s style.
In spite of its frailities, this play like Ramu’s other plays cannot be underestimated or worse, ignored. His is a voice that our contemporary, modern theatre is in dire need of. Here is clearly a playwright with a good conscience that rightly speaks against the abuse of political power and the unabashed forces of capitalism. In times to come Ramu Ramanathan’s name will not be lost in the annals of Indian theatre history. He must be watched out for.