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Cinema || Natoker Moto – Like a Play (Chronicling History)

Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s seminal masterpiece recounts how six characters show up at a theatre in search of an author who can tell their tale. Debesh Chattopadhyay’s debut feature finds him taking the onus upon himself to narrate a tale that has gathered dust in the annals of Bengali theatre since the late 70s – the story of a brilliant actor who was mercilessly taken away from the stage when she was at the peak of her thespian prowess.

The revered and prolific theatre director who has gifted us such gems on stage as the historical ‘Winkle Twinkle’, the path-breaking ‘Phyataru’ or the ethereal ‘Surjo-pora chhai’, Debesh Chattopadhyay’s nascent days as a theatre worker saw him publish a special issue on the life and times of Keya Chakraborty and it remains one of the most well-researched dossiers on the Nandikar actor (who does not even have a Wikipedia page dedicated to her) whose death by drowning in 1977 sent waves of shock and grief all across the theatre commune.

Natoker Moto (Like a Play), however, is not the official biography of Keya Chakraborty. The protagonist in this film is instead named Kheya Chakraborty while her husband’s name has its famed prefix dropped and he is simply ‘Prasad’; legendary actor-playwright Ajitesh Bandopadhyay becomes Amitesh.

The narrative follows the investigation into the mysterious drowning of Kheya during the shoot of her maiden celluloid stint, conducted by a man who is woefully unaware of the workings and philosophy of group theatre and the quality of art being put on stage. This objective starting point gradually transports the viewers into the extraordinary life and psyche of the young stage actor, from her troubled childhood to her lovestruck college days; her association with group theatre, turbulent married life and beyond.

Keya Chakraborty

Chattopadhyay delicately breaks down the conventions of a typical biography by fusing elements of theatrical performance into sequences primarily portraying ‘reality’. Kheya’s life is indeed a stage, as events seemingly out of a drama script keep dotting her life – whether it is her inherent sense of fairness that compels her to rescue a boy who is being beaten up by a group of extremist students, to her passionate stand against her husband whom she decides to leave.

The allusions galore not only pepper the film with references for the enthusiastic drama geek but are seeped in deep symbology. Kheya’s performance in Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Proposal’ compels Amitesh to propose that she should come to his group ‘Natakar’ if she ever intends to take up theatre seriously. The justification of Kheya being swept off her feet by Prasad is rendered in a beautiful turn of events as Kheya, essaying Bertolt Brecht’s Polly Peachum (‘Parul’ in translation) from The Threepenny Opera, presents her defence for falling in love with Mack the Knife. Antigone’s words of defiance directed at Creon, astutely addressed towards her director Prasad during a rehearsal, is a moving assertion of her independence and how she is not cut out to settle for anything less. Her determined bid for liberty at a time when ‘independent woman’ was an oxymoron of the most disturbing kind, is expressed with poise and passion through the scripted words that have been assigned to her.

Paoli Dam as Kheya

The inventive screenplay and its characters have been duly brought to life by a dedicated set of actors from both stage and screen. Paoli Dam, a talented actor in her own right, has probably delivered the finest performance of her career yet, imbibing Kheya’s outline like a second soul. Especially praiseworthy is her unaccompanied vocalizations and her graceful acts on stage, as Polly or as Shen Te & Shui Ta from Brecht’s ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’. The hard work that she must have put through to bring Kheya to life deserves sincere applause.

Saswata Chatterjee plays Prasad by the numbers, switching shades at will, bringing forth the twin forces of leadership and cunning cruelty with elan.

Roopa Ganguly is surprisingly apt as Kheya’s mother, playing the grief with wonderful restraint. Sujan Mukherjee is noteworthy as the Bengali professor Manoranjan too, his understated emotions towards Kheya subtle enough to be left to the musings of time. Ushasie Chakraborty essays the poet Sabita Sinha (an allusion to poet Kabita Sinha) with assured composure. The very anchor of the film, Rajatava Dutta, portraying the character of the investigation officer Bhabadulal, is perfect to a tee. Dutta’s little snippets of reactions, whether during the interrogation scenes or the awestruck wonder after witnessing ‘Sher Afghan’, is priceless.

The only glaring miscast seems to be that of Bratya Basu as Amitesh. As good a playwright as he is, Basu certainly has not been the best choice to pull off the larger than life character who is supposed to resemble the mighty Ajitesh Bandopadhyay.

The music, a heady combination of Western neoclassic and Bengali film music of the 60s, has been dexterously executed by Debojyoti Mishra. The famous Moushumi Bhowmik number ‘Ami sunechi sedin tumi…’, a cult classic, accompanies the closing credits and rounds off the film beautifully.

An intricate cinematography by Indranil Mukherjee and the judicious edit by Bodhaditya Banerjee has ensured that Debesh Chattopadhyay’s premiere feature is a seamless film experience indeed.

Piecing together the differing takes on the tragedy from myriad viewpoints, a ‘truth’ regarding the tragedy has been arrived at that is certainly not going to add any fuel to an existing fire of gossip. Chattopadhyay’s intentions are quite clear. It is not to defame an institution or any particular individual but to criticise the very tendency of murdering legacy, a disease our society is particularly susceptible to.

Bengali theatre shall forever remain indebted to Chattopadhyay for putting the ceremonial soil on a grave that the ‘King’ has expressly asked to be left untouched & forgotten. No matter Sophocles or Shakespeare, life is a stage for all: just like a play – and it is comforting to know that it shall remain in human memory as long as humanity (or art) survives. []

Film: Natoker Moto – Like a Play
Written and directed by Debesh Chattopadhyay
Release: August 21, 2015

Language: Bengali

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015