Direction : Neel Chaudhuri
Writer : Neel Chaudhuri
Cast : Oroon Das, Gandharv Dewan, Indranil Choudhury, Ashish Paliwal, Bikram Ghosh, Mohit Mukherjee, Shwetaabh Singh and Ved Prakash


Vikram Phukan


The bulk of the Writer's Bloc plays have featured talent from Mumbai, the self-styled theatre capital of the country. Even so, a group from Delhi, The Tadpole Repertory, has quietly mounted a production of rare beauty, STILL AND STILL MOVING-written and directed by Neel Chaudhuri. Two men, Adil and Partho, are at the heart of this stolid but still affecting love story, which is marked by sensitively drawn portraits and a giddy sense of the conjoined cities that the men inhabit (Delhi and Gurgaon), and on which turf they negotiate their relationship. There is the figurative (and literal) distance that Adil and Partho have to travel before they can be with each other (or not), and also a generational chasm to overcome-the two men are more than two decades apart in age. Their tale plays out like a paean to love and longing, and loneliness, perhaps, but never to that numbing sense of loss that may have pervaded gay lives even just half a generation ago.

Gandharv Dewan plays the restless younger man, Adil, who belongs to the generation that has caught a new wave in these post-377 times, and moved from the seclusion of the closet to the open boulevards where a more brazen kind of expression isn't completely out of line, even if, for Adil, that only involves taking part in a pride parade, or writing an open letter 'coming out' to his deceased father. Oroon Das is Partho, the more circumspect older man, who doesn't quite let himself savor everything that comes his way in terms of love and companionship, and appears to bear the baggage carried by his generation, hiding away from the world in his Gurgaon home, lost in his literary endeavours, content in carrying out his love affair with a man clandestinely. Adil may seek out the semblance of a father-figure in Partho, but both men are clear that they are lovers first, and Mr Chaudhuri allows the relationship to develop with a forthrightness rarely seen on stage. Even behind a tall sheer curtain, the love-making is intimate and unabashed and sometimes almost guileless, as in the scene where Mr Das sends up Meena Kumari (always the self-sacrificing paragon) in Pakeezah, while pinning Mr Dewan down on the bed.

Partho had once been married to a woman because it was something his conditioning had deemed correct at that time. By introducing the character of his teenage son, the play moves into somewhat edgier territory. It's a measure of Mr Das' proficiency as an actor, that the eroticism that informs Partho's intimacy with Adil, doesn't quite spill over into the space he shares with his teenage son. Even with his lover, Partho is never quite the 'dirty old man'- he is tender and caring, needy but never exploitative, carnal but romantic. With his son, he's as concerned and protective, but the longing gaze is now a kind of benign adoration. It's a seamless transition and Mr Das captures the subtle shift very well, and refuses to give off that incriminating 'vibe' that some people, eager to demonise gay men, would half-expect in this kind of situation.

What Mr Chaudhuri does interestingly is to unfold his tale against Delhi's notoriously homo-social culture, that finds its the most fervent expression on the Metro rail service. The proximity between men, jam-packed into train compartments, where there is no notion of personal space, creates a texture of urban inter-connectedness, which for many gay men can allow a kind of underground expression for their own repressed selves. Not being allowed to form meaningful relationships with men, they seek succor in the touch of a stranger-in the hand that just grazes another's, in a nudged elbow, in being frisked almost erogenously. The Metro is a metaphor for distances bridged, and the progress of time, but it also creates a subtext of bonding between men, that taken out of the tawdriness, is a lyrical backdrop for a gay relationship that is usually consigned to the subtextual dregs of Indian writing. Mr Chaudhuri evokes this world effectively with an ensemble of nimble-footed supporting players, who bring in their own brand of pathos-laden observational humour. In addition, on a tall curtain at the back of the stage are projected maps and destinations, street lights, and stations passing by in a green haze, with a familiar female voice-over making service annoucements.

When Adil and Partho first meet, there is no metro service between Delhi and Gurgaon-the distance between them is that of two cities almost. As the Metro is built over two years, their relationship seems to be priming itself for fresh challenges. In a way, the collapse of distances mirrors the manner in which the Sec 377 ruling brought about an accelerated change in how the queer sub-culture in India saw itself. STILL AND STILL MOVING references these real-life events to facilitate its narrative concerns. Sometimes it is too in-your-face, perhaps. An expertly choreographed pride parade sequence, replete with men in drag and rainbow outfits, and a rousing speech by gay poet Ifti Naseem, somehow feels like a stand-alone set-piece-its message of empowerment not really necessary in this particular play. Another sequence that is somewhat under-par, is an excruciating episode in which Adil is accosted by his hostel seniors and 'lifted' (a hazing ritual in which the victim is stripped and smeared with shaving foam and toothpaste), which appears to conflate ragging with homophobia, and seems like a melodramatic trope in a play that is otherwise resolutely unsentimental.

Ultimately it is all pulled together by the two consummate central performances. For Mr Dewan, his character represents a more straightforward rites of passage, and he nails the subtle changes in Adil's personality with time. As he spends time with Partho, he undergoes a refinement of sorts, and where there was once a gawky gum-chewing teenager, there is now a self-assured man of the world. In turn Partho learns to be unguarded, and more untidy. His writing suffers (or maybe benefits) from a lack of form that makes his words seem less structured, more amorphous. When he first encounters Adil in a book-launch, and drops him to his train, refusing to board it himself, the play perhaps hints that this man's life would be a series of missed journeys. Fortunately, as it pans out, Partho has undertaken an expedition after all. He allows himself a chance to love someone. Mr Das plays his character with a stoic composure but he also makes poignantly real those moments where Partho seems to be almost coming apart because of the crushing love he feels for Adil. The denouement of this play is entirely its own, and not dictated by the shadow of oppression that gay men live under. In releasing its characters from the cloistered confines that would have once been their only fate, this play represents a remarkable achievement.

*Vikram Phukan runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions-

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