On the 18th of December, when I walked into St. Andrews to set-up for Bandish it was just another set-up day morning. Except for one thing. There was going to be no show in the evening. I had experienced this feeling only once before when Aadyam shot I Don’t Like It As You Like It, where my job was that of the Lighting Designer-Operator. After the first day of set-up, all I needed to do was operate lighting cues for a show I have done almost 40 times before. With Bandish (a similar number of shows), my job description on the second day was going to change.
After setting up the lighting rig for the play, I was to don the Show Director’s hat for the next two days. It had been four years since the last time I had called ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ on a film set. I was wary of helming a shoot that had six senior and established actors, disciples of Shubha Mudgal Ji as singers, some very accomplished musicians and a video crew who had already delivered two Aadyam plays before. This was also the first time ever I was going to direct something not written by me. Not just that, this was something written by a playwright that companies across continents swear by – none other than Purva Naresh.
Purva has a reputation of imagining and executing a grandeur on stage which hardly exhibits itself only through design. Her narrative scape is always all-encompassing, to say the least. So, on 19th December when I called for the camera to roll, I wondered if I was in the right place. For the first time I was not behind a lighting console as the panels on stage opened. With the first Black Out, as I called ‘Cut’, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the film monitors. Bandish was being captured on camera. And it looked effing beautiful.
Essentially, Bandish is a trip down memory lane of two yesteryear singers. What appears as an anecdotal collage of images is, at its core, an evaluation of values derived out of a newly acquired independence and those derived out of taking this independence for granted. While the artists belonging to two different eras justify their contrasting stances against the times they were born in, they also find themselves under the common threat of the State. In Purva’s writings, this commonality however does not lend itself to imagine the State as a monolith.
While Champa Bai (the nautanki singer) and Beni Bai (the baithak singer) describe the excesses of the imperial colonisers from Britain, Kabeer (a contemporary singing sensation) is threatened by the very people who have been born out of the same Republic as his – India. The politics of caste between Champa and Beni is another contrast, as is the politics of class that plays out between Kabeer and Moushumi. In both cases, the role of the State as the exploiter of opportunities and the divider of the people comes to the fore and yet the State is never imagined as a single entity.
The duality of State and consequently the people it administers, against a backdrop of India’s cultural diversity, which in turn negotiates its space with the prevalent social injustice, could be termed as the fickle canvas on which the foundations of Bandish’s ideology rest. The four protagonists keep re-negotiating their alliances through the duration of this musical as they enthral us with music that transcends time and at times, belief. Purva accentuates the theatricality of her conflicts through the use of dance and the power of a ‘pregnant pause’ in dialogue is sometimes magnified through what she thinks dance is – ‘It’s not how to move but how to not move.’
As a Lighting Designer and Operator for the play since 2017, Bandish’s politics have not only grown on me and helped me understand my role in society as an Artist/Maker but it’s choices of staging have challenged my imagination as a Designer. A play essentially designed for a Proscenium with a minimum requirement of 78 lights has been performed in thrust, sunken and trussed venues alike, with only 20 lights even. It was the essence of the politics that ascribed flexibility to the play’s structure – a lesson in how the micro always defines the macro. And that remained the key in re-imagining this intricate play for a digital audience.
The setting of St. Andrews imparts a Cinemascope-esque visual frame for the audience present. In a live performance, the audience has the liberty of choosing to appreciate action happening across the stage. With the camera restrictions coming into play, one now had to pick and choose for the audience oneself. In a sense, we were now supposed to meddle with the free will of the audience. The new medium now demanded that we decide (to some extent) what the audience shall see. In essence, this was a contrast to the politics of the play that has the idea of ‘freedom’ at its core. How does one shoot this play for camera without imposing one’s creative inclination upon the audience?
The inherent ‘cinematic’ quality of the staging came to our rescue and I was taken back to preliminary conversations with Purva where I mock-accused her of writing a play and directing it like a film. Purva’s ability of blending her cinematic writing with theatrical staging only made things easy during the shoot. As Champa imagines herself performing a nautanki, we almost cut to a flashback as a young Champa (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) emerges from behind the panels. What seemed like a ‘CUT’ on paper evolved into a ‘CROSS-FADE’ on stage. In our attempt to fit the CROSS-FADE back into a cinematic cut, we chose to pan the camera. And there it was – a seamless transition of time on stage was translated into a cinematic moment with the pan of the camera and the lighting change happening at the same time. Such subtle movements allowed us to amplify the drama in a few scenes.
In one instance, Munnu (Danish Hussain) is talking to characters from two different eras at the same time. It’s as if he keeps stepping in and out of a time machine by just turning his body from one side to another. This particular scene had always been a challenge for me as a Lighting Operator. It was quite difficult to pick out the exact moment of transition, since Danish would slide in and out lucidly without a warning or even a signal. On the shoot however, I took the liberty of not exposing the entire stage during these transitions. The ‘CUT’ was implemented only after the transition took place and thus the time transition is now noticed only after the visual changes. The inherent theatricality of the play thus played beautifully into the hands of our cinematic needs.
The music of the play and Purva’s staging around it needs a special mention. The exploration of nautanki as a form of story-telling adds the dimension of an immersive experience. Shifting seamlessly between song and drama, the tight nautankis written for the play have always been a highlight. Similarly, the baithak sequences have an ongoing drama that is more circumstantial than explorational. While the nautanki was designed keeping the symmetry of the stage in mind, the baithak staging completely rejected symmetry. As such, most of the nautanki features frontal visuals whereas the baithak is dealt with more angled frames.
Each and every song of Bandish carries with it a fragrance of the years gone by and the romance of a world which was about to be built from scratch. It features songs that bring with them the turmoil of the freedom struggle and the pathos of those who sacrificed their own selves to build this beautiful union we call our ‘nation’. They also bring with them the jubilation one feels when one finally confronts one’s own identity and accepts oneself the way one is. Young Champa describes it quite aptly when she says, “Logon ko hasaana rulaana agar mera kaam hain, toh unhein sochne pe majboor karna bhi mera hi kaam hain.” (If making people laugh or cry is a part of my job, then making them think is my job too).
I sincerely hope that the digital version of Bandish manages to have a similar impact as the play and we are able to achieve the purpose for which it was conceived, written and directed by Purva – to make people think as they laugh and cry, witnessing history unfold in front of their eyes. To all of that, I say – ACTION!