Mumbai Mirror, Saturday, November 3, 2007
“A Sixpenny Ending”
Sunil Shanbag flagged off the Prithvi festival of musicals with his adaptation of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. The altered ending easily plays the piece’s hero!
John Gay’s 1728 original, The Beggar’s Opera was a biting satire against the elitism of Handel’s operas, concealing in its scheme a stab or two against the ruling government’s indifference to commoners. Two centuries later when Brecht ‘stole’ it, his characteristic genius armed it with even more bite. It was his seminal critique of the capitalist society and an aggressive revolt against the practiced conventions of theatre and opera. His critique was heard, his revolt was successful and his endeavor, ironically cynical of human endeavors, was rewarded with unprecedented acclaim and popularity through decades. Clearly when Sunil Shanbag was to flag off the Prithvi Festival of musicals with his version of the masterpiece, he had no mean act to follow. Happily he did manage to hold his own against the pressure quite often.
To begin with his relocation of the play to Bombay’s Agripada in the 1960’s is more than a gimmick to pander to a provincial audience. Like Brecht’s Germany between the great wars, Bombay and much of India was emerging increasingly cynical from failed idealism of the 1950’s. The residual glory of the 1947 victory was beginning to fade irrepressibly. Maharashtra had just been carved out with a bloody knife and in its heart the ill begotten ideas of political hooliganism, corruption and the underworld were beginning to take shape. The Khadi ascetics had served their purpose. It was time to shove them under the red carpet laid out for flourishing capitalism. The setting perfectly received a play where beggars, thieves and prostitutes run organized rackets, betrayal and lust dictate all terms and whirling darkness lurks in place of a moral centre.
Kurt Weill’s legendary score for Threepenny drew heavily on popular culture. It was jazzy, dissonant and wildly inventive and went on to become an indelible part of western culture’s consciousness. Milind Joshi’s music bears the imprint of the popular cinematic music of the era. The influence of Bollywood lurks heavily even on characters and costumes. Understandably, for post independence Bollywood has held its sway as perhaps the only unifying popular mass culture. The music makes the right allusions but not the right noises. It is mostly dull and a weak resource for the sub text of the play. The lyrics (without any comparison to Brecht’s own) show signs of wit and brilliance between being adequate. Songs inspired by the Ballad of sexual dependency, Pimp’s ballad/Ballad of pleasant life and the Futility of human endeavour pack some punch. The play’s highest point comes at the end of act one with a deftly layered ‘jaise bhi the wo din’. Shanbag keeps emotional empathy at bay even in his crafting of intense moments. Brecht would have approved.
The let downs come from the singing and performances of the cast. The ensemble just does not have it in them to carry the gritty, mocking, mean irony and cynicism of the play. And they make it worse when they sing it.
The director makes a timely entry to save the day by a well orchestrated time shift and an altered ending. In 1928 Brecht mocked the happy ending tradition by letting his protagonist live most unexpectedly. But this is another age. Brecht’s worst apprehensions are now foregone realities. A lot more cynicism needs to be pumped in to make sense of his scenario today. The end of Chetan Datar’s adaptation does just that.