Broadway stories from Bengal: Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee's new documentary, Spotlight, explores the vibrant theatre culture of Kolkata

Parshathy J Nath

In the 1870s, a group of young men, passionate about theatre, set up an independent theatre company in Kolkata that produced plays for the public €" the National Theatre. Back then, theatre was confined to the rich houses of the babus in the city, and outsiders could watch only if they were invited. Amrita Lal Basu, Ardhendu Sekhar Mustafi, Girish Chandra Gosh and Dharmadas Sur wanted to democratise it for the first time in the history of Bengali drama. But the men suffered for their rebellion.

An affluent household, where Mustafi performed his plays, apparently denied the theatre artiste his scholarship, and his father locked him up in his house. However, Amritalal and others managed to scrounge some money amounting to the scholarship fee, gave it to Mustafi's angry guardian and continued with their love for theatre.

This is the origin of Public Theatre/Broadway Bengal, a spirited theatrical tradition seen in Northern Kolkata. Every furlong there used to be a theatre house; it was undeniably the Broadway or the West End of Bengal. Two centuries on, Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, an interdisciplinary artiste and actor, pays homage to this culture with Spotlight, his video documentary on Broadway of Bengal and the future of theatre. The film is born out of a collaboration between SPCKraft, an interdisciplinary arts collective and GhoshCompany, a Montreal based YouTube channel.

Soumitra Chatterjee, Ratna Ghoshal, Rudraprasad Sengupta and Neeraj Kabi are among the stalwarts and actors featured in the film. "Daminee Benny Basu has sung 'Aamar Chaaina Ojon Kora Bhalobasha' from the iconic play Barbadhu. Contemporary theatre practitioner Sohag Sen has spoken about the future of theatre and how "digital" can theatre become, apart from elucidating on the concept of "actor's manager" €" a common factor that binds the broadway and group theatre," says Sujoy.

The concept is inspired by The Firebird, a novel by Saikat Majumdar about an adolescent boy's perspective on his mother's acting career with Broadway Bengal.

Public theatre used to be an all-inclusive entertainment and cultural space for those not just in Kolkata but also those in the hinterlands, recalls Sujoy. "It used to be a hub of film stars and theatre artistes. Box offices used to ring in with cash, there was a time when we failed to get a booking for the play." He remembers as a child going to his maternal grandparents' house on Sundays, enjoying a typical Bengali fare of mutton curry for lunch, taking a blissful nap and all of them going to the theatres in the evening.

"We had no culture of going to the pubs or discotheques. I remember how I would spend my pocket money on plays at the Academy of Fine Arts. My homemaker mother instilled in me this deep passion for watching these plays. Also for the people in the hinterlands, they had no other forms of entertainment. With the disposable income they had, it was unthinkable of going to the movies or shopping," says Sujoy.

The Broadway Bengal also flourished during Pujo like all the other theatre traditions in the world that bustled during festive times. Spectators from the suburbs would spend their weekend in Calcutta, watching the plays and roaming around the city, according to Rudrarup Mukhopadhyay, the researcher in the team and a theatre artiste associated with the Natadha theatre group, founded by Shib Mukhopadhyay. Taking your in-laws to a play at Broadway was a ritual for the newly married groom, adds Mukhopadhyay.

Distinct genres marked the aesthetics of the plays, he explains. "In the beginning, it was patriotic, with anti-British sentiments against the enforcement of the Dramatic Performances Act dealing with the regulation on theatre. By the 1950s, it gave way to social dramas about family stories. Then, during the 70s, they used more content of sensuality in theatre with the introduction of cabaret."

In the beginning, money was not the guiding spirit. But since people started investing in theatre, they expected some sort of a return, says Sujoy. So, they roped in film stars. Uttam Kumar, the first-ever film star to act in plays at Broadway Bengal in 1953, and around ten years later, veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee entered the scene. Soumitra reminisces the roaring welcome he received at iconic venues like Star theatre, Biswarupa, Rangmahal, Bijon theatre and the audience would always expect a good play and good performance. "The crowd, of course, welcomed me immediately, but initially people could not believe a lead star actor would come to North Kolkata to do theatre. People used to come and ask before purchasing a ticket whether Soumitra Chatterjee will actually be in the play and whether he will actually come on stage to perform. If I played a small role in any play then the audience would not be too happy about it." In Sujoy's film, Chatterjee, along with his daughter Poulami Bose, will read excerpts from the play Neelkontho that ran to packed houses in Rangmahal. Some actors were even ready to call on the public to watch the plays. Like Haridhan Mukherjee who would theatrically emerge from the ticket counter of the iconic Vishwaroopa theatre arena and coax the spectators who came alone into buying tickets for their families as well, according to Mukhopadhyay.

Almost all the plays had at least 500 shows to their credit. Iconic shows that have surpassed this record are Neelkontho (2,250 shows) featuring Soumitro, Barbadhu (1,700 shows) famous for its bold approach and Chowringhee which featured Shefali, the star cabaret dancer. "Barbadhu raised quite a many eyebrows because it was termed "vulgar" as the heroine was accused of exposing her bra. But Desh Patrika, a forefront newspaper, came out with a huge advertisement carrying testimonials from artists who watched the play.  The advertisement said despite all the criticisms, 'Nobody could deter the play being shown for 1,000 nights,'" recalls Sujoy. Many years later, another play Awddyo Sesh Rajani recreated the play Barbadhu and the hullabaloo around it.

Then there were plays featuring mavericks, such as Setu by Tapas Sen, the legendary lights designer. People came to watch the iconic scene where the heroine commits suicide from a train. "The lighting was designed in such a way that the audience got a feeling that they too were on that train," remembers Sujoy. The film will discuss these and showcase old posters, tickets and advertisements of the plays.

The Midwives of Theatre is another fascinating find he stumbled upon during his research, notes Mukhopadhyay. "These were less privileged women who would dress up and visit the affluent homes to canvas the babus for the plays. If the babu was pleased, he would buy tickets. And they would get a commission from that. During the play, these women will take care of their children; and cater to the babus if he needed some paan or tobacco."

Today, these spaces have turned into mere structures of memories. "Academy of Fine Arts is the only existing theatre building where everyday theatre used to be held. Places like Rangmahal and Vishwaroopa have been turned into mall and restaurant respectively. Some are renovated like Star Theatre and Minerva, but the design has been compromised with. Kashi Vishwanath stage is almost non-accessible. Rangana is still there but it is soon to be demolished. Sarkarina has already been sold," notes Mukhopadhyay.

The Government has done nothing to restore this heritage. "If a heritage building is destroyed, there will be a whole lot of movement. But, the same happens to the theatre district in a city, nobody raises a hue and cry," exclaims Sujoy.  As an artiste, he says it was unnerving to see shopping malls and outlets occupy the very same place that holds witness to this cultural legacy.

Public theatre is still seen as an unorganised sector, says Sujoy. "Think of how many artistes have gone out of occupation during this lockdown period. The government has done nothing. Theatre must have a viable revenue model. Bengal especially has been reeling under post-COVID impact and the cyclone. Corporates and Government bodies must realise the arts must survive. There must be private patronage for theatre like it is in many parts of the world. Post-COVID we must attempt to give the status of an organised industry to theatre, with digital intervention."

The documentary releases on 30 June.

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