Mumbai Mirror, Monday, November 5, 2007
Clearly, Raag Darbari can be seen as an important study of what not to do when adapting a novel for the stage
Raag Darbari’s worst cruelty lies in the promise it makes in the first five minutes. There is a fairly amusing slapstick opening sequence which leads us straight into the heart of village politics by declaring intriguingly that it hinges on the college, co-operative union and the village sabha, in that order. Thereafter it swings between saying incomprehensible and insubstantial things greased with garish ‘humour’ while you struggle haplessly to keep track of the plot. The story is set in a north Indian village, Shivpalganj, presumably in the 1950’s (for that is when Srilal Sukla’s novel from which the play is adapted was set). Everyone in this village is a corrupt, leering wretch with political aspirations, beyond which it is hard to tell one character from another. Naturally the village and its common folk (symbolized in an unbearably clichéd poor, sick lame farmer singing some Kabir doha or the other completely out of tune) are suffering. Surely the theatre group means well in wanting to portray this anguish but good intentions are not all you need to make a difference. There is no intelligent exploration of the intricacies of grass root politics that might enlighten an urban audience. Nor is there an attempt to question our own role or otherwise in this decay. One is invited instead to join the ham party on stage and guffaw mindlessly at ‘those corrupt idiots’. Now we have known for at least 50 odd years that the system is rotting and politicians are buffoons and the common man is suffering. How long will the nth expression of these obvious realities pass off as ‘socially conscious serious art’? Surely there are new perspectives to be found, new questions to be asked and real solutions to be sought. What is the aim of art that fails to provoke, insult, move or motivate its audience, merely amusing it instead on account of blistering injustices? Generous borrowings from poets like Nirala might have offered some respite if their words were not drowned out by jarring voices screaming them out to crude rhythms. The play can however be seen for an important study of what not to do when adapting a novel for stage. The mutilation of the original text is so bad, one cannot even comprehend the characters and their situations completely. The chorus sings a song about the plight of Indian women while the only female character (who is a vacuous seductress) abruptly vanishes from the play without even indicating what might have happened to her – all this without a sense of irony. After a good two hours or so of hiding its own non-commitment behind common jokes, the pointless mud slinging ends in a dutiful monologue telling us how we must stop escaping reality and take some action- again without a sense of irony.
It is not the play’s stilted bhaand style of entertainment, but its pretensions that exhaust you; and the loss of another vital opportunity for theatre to start a lasting and consequential conversation with its audience.