Baaghi Albele: Atul Kumar-directed new dystopian comedy spotlights artistes’ resolve to exist amid curbs
The Company Theatre is bringing their latest production, ‘Baaghi Albele’, to Prithvi Theatre this week
By Reema Gowalla
And Atul Kumar is back with yet another storm of a play. Premiered in February this year, The Company Theatre’s latest production Baaghi Albele mixes elements of comic absurdity and grim reality into a two-hour show. It’s an Indian stage adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 classic film To Be or Not to Be. The plot revolves around Punjabi theatre couple Johnny and Minnie Makhija, who are part of a well-known theatre company in Ludhiana. During a performance of Hamlet, a young and handsome soldier of an underground rebel organisation B.O.L leaves just as Johnny begins the soliloquy To be or not to be. This angers the actor. The narrative follows what happens next in the story.
The Punjabi play hints that the Orwellian image of art and artistes is slowly coming true in India. The siege, under which the freedom of art and artistes finds itself, is now real and terrifying. Baaghi Albele is an attempt to underline the importance of art and artistes for the healthy growth of a nation, as well as their resilience and resolve to exist, to express and to fight against all hurdles.
As the troupe gets ready for their next outing at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre from April 13 to 16 (12pm), TheatreRoom indulges in a candid conversation with Atul, who has designed and directed the play as well as acted in it. Excerpts:
Q. Similar to your recent plays Taking Sides and Aaeen, Baaghi Albele also seems to be based on the conundrum of the world we live in today? How would you describe the new piece?
A. Yes, just like Taking Sides [which will also be staged at Prithvi Theatre from April 13 to 16 (9pm)], Baaghi Albele too is inspired by a feature film that I saw when I was very young — To Be or Not to Be by Ernst Lubitsch. He’s a wonderful film director, who made this film in the early 40s. And I really loved it. Although it’s a comedy, it is basically based on the Nazi period when Hitler’s forces took over Poland. The plot focuses on a Polish theatre group and what goes on inside that group — how they manage to escape and what all they do in different disguises, playing different roles and tricking the authorities. So, I thought it’ll be wonderful to adapt it.
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What we have done in Baaghi Albele is that we have taken some liberty with adaptation and placed the story in Ludhiana. So, it’s a Punjabi theatre company; a group of very bad and loud actors, who get into a situation which is a bit dystopian where we have said that the government has passed an ordinance that art should be eradicated, artistes should be killed, books should be burned and any sort of intellectual activity should be suppressed.
They are basically going around killing people, bringing down buildings and taking over theatres. Everybody is running helter-skelter. So, the storyline follows what the people in this theatre company in Ludhiana do in that situation, and how they manage to escape. Their whole act of dissent is just to be able to survive this mayhem caused by this oppressive and fascist government.
So, that’s what we have done. We’ve loosely adapted the film and it’s working very well. Baaghi Albele is a comedy and so it becomes a satire, of course. And under the fun and frolic and all kinds of mishappenings that you will see on stage, basically they’re trying to make a fool of this authority and trying to escape.
Q. Although somewhat similar when it comes to their theme or underlying message, each of your recent plays — Taking Sides, Aaeen and now Baaghi Albele — are very nuanced and layered in their own distinctive style. Tell us about the process a bit…
A. Each play has its own requirements. For instance, it was decided earlier that Taking Sides would be done in a very realistic way, so things would be more subtle and we must layer it, so that it plays on that level. So, it required actors of that kind, which means that during audition and making that was basically the ethos that we carried in us and into the rehearsal room. Whereas when it came to Baaghi Albele, we knew that it’s a farce. So, we have to create ridiculous larger-than-life situations; add elements of comedy; it could be physical; there’ll be a little bit of clowning of sorts involved; plus it has to be loud with music, lights and all that. We must make a whole fanfare. Having said that, we must not lose sight of what the crux of the play is and what we are trying to basically say through this theatre company’s journey. So, that had to be kept close to our heart as we made it.
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Punjabi was another very important thing because I wanted to place it in Punjab. So, that became like a premise and one had to work toward that bit as well. All the actors in the play, except Ayesha [Raza], are Punjabi-origin people — they are either from Punjab or from Punjabi families. That also meant something else — suddenly, I’m working with a certain kind of people of India, right? They’re Punjabis, so there’s a certain flair and certain robustness that they have during rehearsals. The mood is in a certain way and everybody is bonded over a table of food. They love eating. So, for example, I have to give them four breaks in a single rehearsal, so that they can all just chit-chat and eat and feel together like an ensemble. So, a lot of the rehearsal process was through food, because my Punjabi friends love talking, chatting, bonding over food and that then sort of shows on stage. I let that happen.
Whereas, at the time of rehearsing Taking Sides, Mallika [Singh] and Sukant [Goel] were the kind of people, who would sit in one corner brooding, just going deeper into their own role, thinking, doing the lines some 100 times, not fooling around at all. So, then that becomes the ethos of the room. And we keep playing classical music in the background. We keep thinking of the Holocaust. So, it creates a certain mood in the rehearsals, which then gets translated to our gestures, dialogues and stuff.
So I think it’s the project that will direct us to move in a certain direction. If it’s a musical, then that. If it’s a movement, dance-based thing, like Khwaab-Sa, most of our time used to go in just movement, like hours and hours of sweat and blood on the floor, literally. So, it all depends on what we are doing. But more than anything else, I just wanted to say one thing, which is of course something that one slowly realises. I think it happens only with age and being around for a long time. I remember making theatre 20 years back, 30 years back or even 10 years back. And one thing that has changed is that suddenly theatre is not as important as the people who are making the play are. Earlier, it used to be like no, it’s the play that comes first, and that the show must go on. Come what may, we must do this well, focussing on aesthetics and ethics.
But what I’m realising slowly, especially after the pandemic, when we all came back, it was really like a cathartic thing for us. And I realised that plays will happen and theatre will continue to happen in some form or idea all over the world. It’s been threatened by so many things, but has always survived. It’s the people who are making it. So, we have started concentrating more on those values, the people who’ve come together in a room, what mental space and mood they are in. Are they happy? Are they sad? Or, are they troubled? That influences the process hugely. It brings people even closer. It brings people to trust each other even more. It makes us a lot more vulnerable, so we are able to be ourselves. Thereby, we can be more truthful to the work as well. And that’s making a huge difference on the work itself. So, that’s one big change. I won’t say like, we have achieved some great heights in that, but it’s a transformation, it’s a work in progress and we are moving in that direction with every new production.
Q. You seem to be juggling a lot of theatre, films and now even OTT shows. Your plays have always been big productions, meaning that would require a lot of time to create them, and then you tour with them as well. How do you manage that all of it together?
A. Yeah, I do that with much difficulty, and by that I mean I wish there were more hours in the day because work happens and work will happen. I’ve been doing just this for the last 30 years, so a lot of it happens as a clockwork. But what I really regret sometimes is not being able to waste time by myself, and to just spend a lot of time with my family, with my two daughters. So, I try to keep my Sundays off. I don’t work on Wednesdays second half, so things like that, I have to structure my work. But yeah, when shoots come, then of course that also goes for a six. And that needs to be done, because I also have to save some money for sending them to college. But I’m fortunate that I’m getting to do what I really like doing, which is acting or directing or producing, so I don’t have to kill myself to make money. I feel very privileged, because these opportunities are not available to everyone and I recognise that.
Baaghi Albele is adapted by Saurabh Nayyar, while the script is written by Gagan Dev Riar. Lights are handled by Rahul Joglekar and sound is designed by Gunjan Shukla. The play was originally produced for Aadyam — An Aditya Birla Group Initiative. The cast includes Ayesha Raza, Ujjwal Chopra, Danish Hussain, Harssh Khurana, Shabnam Vadhera, Manish Sharma, Gunit Caur, Deepak Sharma, Aditi Arora, Simrat Harvind Kaur, Girish Sharma, Manoj Sharma, Jaymin Thakkar, Shudhanshu Goswami and Atul.