Thiruvananthapuram: There was a time when parables were the most preferred means of illustrating an ideal. But in this world we live in, parables have lost their power. The problem lies not in the parable, but in us. We have sort of hardened, by both anger and indifference. Stories no more touch us. Perhaps they touch us, but only as entertainment. The values they propagate, we are a bit cynical about. Writers can be well-meaning, but also naive.
So when it was told that K R Meera's parable-like short story 'Bhagavante Maranam', is being made into a play by Kanal Samskarika Vedi, skepticism was the reigning emotion. The story is about the killing of an aging savant who calls for the burning of religious texts, and the gradual reformation of a young man who kills in the name of religion. The story appeared at a time when the murders of M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar (all of them gunned down) were a dominant concern.
The story was later published as part of a short story collection titled 'Bhagavante Maranam', and the book, in an inspired piece of design, had a bullet hole that goes right through the middle of it, as if the book had been shot point blank. (It was, however, not the hole with the “edges of a star” as Meera describes a bullet hole in the story but a perfect round.)
A month after the book was published in August 2017, Gauri Lankesh was shot dead. Less than a year later, journalist Shujaat Bukhari, too, was. This perhaps made the story very contemporary but it also revealed the writer's naivete. Reformation of the killer, as happens in Meera's story, is a mere fantasy, a writer's daydream.
So to watch 'Bhagawante Maranam' in the form of a play evoked a sense of futility. The play, directed by Hazim Amaravila, began just like any other modern play; a fully black monkishly bare set, with two square blocks of wood for a bed and a paper bookshelf, and a symbolic image in the background. Amaru (Kannan Nair), the killer, has come to Bhagwan's (Arun Nair) house with a gun in his hand. The acting seemed as elaborate and hyper-stylised as in any amateur modern theatre.
But just when the actors were in the midst of an intense moment, a man who was seen right in front of the audience giving sound and light cues steps on to the stage without warning, and breaks the flow. In a calm tone he admonishes the actors for not feeling enough. He wants them to redo the scene. And all of a sudden Bhagwan and Amaru, stripped of their theatrics, become Arun and Kannan, mere mortals deflated by the director's observations.
Things look alarmingly real, quite a contrast from the strained exertions of modern theatre. From then on the play becomes less about K R Meera's story than about a bunch of amateur theatre enthusiasts attempting to stage a play based on Meera's 'Bhagawante Maranam'. They seriously rehearse the play, fall back into college-hostel banter, and then start again. Hyper stylisation alternates with hyper realism.
Take a tennis or cricket match where it is usual for players to take energy drinks during breaks. Meera's story is no more than an energy drink these performers take in between the real action. The larger concerns are not the ones in Meera's story but the prejudices, jealousies, hypocrisies, ambitions and fears of those involved in the play. The politics of religion and caste and gender and colour come into play, not that of the society or that of Meera's characters but that of the small group of amateur performers.
This does not mean that some of the most transformative moments in Meera's story are not part of the play. Perhaps the most magical moment in the story, when Amaru comes face to face with the dalit girl in a temple, is elaborately staged. Amaru had gone there to beat up dalits who had dared to enter. Meera writes that she forces her tongue inside his mouth, and as if uttering a curse, cries out: "Let you be impure". Watch the play to see how the actors have improvised.
By making this play a rehearsal camp what Hazim manages is a sort of de-fictionalisation. It is hard to believe that they are staging a play. As a result their concerns have such an urgency that they scare the hell out of you.