Friday, July 10, 2015

A Wordsmith

Interviewed Swati Raje of Bhaashaa Foundation.

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Swati Raje, founder-president of Bhaashaa Foundation, will be awarded for her work in language preservation, in Los Angeles, in July. She talks about her work and the initiatives that she has introduced.

I asked a group of Marathi-speaking youngsters the meaning of this sentence —- Gurakhi pava vajavto. Many of them professed ignorance about the word ‘pava.’ Some thought it to be pao (bread slice), others thought it to be a synonym for clapping. The word actually means flute.

It is the loss of cultural expressions like this, witnessing mediocrity, and the reliance on audio-visual images more than words, in my 15 odd years of journalistic career, that propelled me to start Bhaashaa Foundation — The Centre for Preservation and Enhancement of Regional Languages, in Pune.

We cannot do away with English, nor can we complain about hegemony of other languages, so it makes sense to strengthen and enrich our regional languages. When it comes to Marathi, sadly it is losing its flavour because we are struggling against mediocrity and there are not enough takers for it at the school level. In this regard, the seminar on Marathi Shala (school), organised by Brihan Maharashtra Mandal, in Los Angeles, between July 2-5, is important. A few Marathi-speaking women have started week-end Marathi medium schools and I have been invited to speak on the status and future of these schools in US and

India. I hope to tap into the synergy that comes from working in the same field.

To preserve any language for the generation coming two decades later, the work has to begin now. The process, in this kind of work, is mostly trial and error — it’s not like using a preservative nor is there a specific list of ingredients to follow. So we thought that we should start with the younger generation, introduce them to some fun word games, songs and poems. Language is umbilically linked with stories, dances, songs and books.

The first Bhaashaa Pustak Ghar met in the parking lot of our residential apartment. My daughter Saavani and I connected two pillars with a clothesline on which books were clipped. Then, we started meeting in parks, lanes and grounds where we took books to children.

After two years of such informal meets, we set up Bhaashaa Foundation in 2008, and a plethora of activities followed. So far, we have had three editions of Katha Yatra, a story festival, Yaksha Prashna, a research-based inter-school quiz competition, Chitrangan Film Festival and Jantarleli Mantargani.

The Bhaashaa Foundation also holds international academic conferences on languages and its work is now gaining recognition from the government authorities. It will also be celebrated at international level, where I will be conferred with ‘Achievement award for holistic vision and work for language preservation’ by Nancy Silberkleit, CO-CEO, Archie Comics in New York on July 13. That only serves to reinforce that language is our collective identity and its preservation and enhancement has no barriers.

NEW INITIATIVES
- E-journal: Bhaashaa — the journal for arts, literature and culture. It’s going to be a bi-annual initiative.
- Marathi Language Olympiad: A quiz where questions will be related to the school curriculum. There will be two levels — Bhaashaa Parichay and Bhaashaa Pravinya. Students who clear the second level, will be groomed to be discerning readers and researchers and erudite writers.
- Majhee Bhaashaa: A special online newsletter for children

TILL NOW..
- 16 ‘Read while you wait’ book corners at city hospitals and clinics.
- 14 rural libraries.
- 12 reading centres for underprivileged children.
- 9 ‘Bhaashaa in schools’ centres
- 8 language proficiency initiatives.
- 7 performances of Jantarleli Mantargani.
- 5 years of Yaksha Prashna
- 4 international academic conferences
- 3 editions of Katha Yatra

Killa-review

Had reviewed this movie for the print publication I work for. After a long time, I felt a movie deserves a repeat watch. Again and again..till I have my fill of the blue, green seas.

Hdg: A Journey

Guhagar, the coastal town in Maharashtra, is a perfect holiday spot for those residing in Pune, Mumbai and Kolhapur. Sun and sand is what people are looking for, and that’s what the coastal towns are known for.

In Killa, however, you are treated to the gloomy, stormy, choppy, placid waters, the rising and ebbing of tides and the sinister palms swaying in the twilight. Avinash Arun (who is also the cinematographer) morphs the Konkan into an unknown entity. It’s achingly, hauntingly beautiful and fearsome, all at the same time.

The rolling waves and the pouring rain sum up the feelings of a fatherless 11-year-old, who has been uprooted from his family, to be planted into a different soil. Chinmay Kale (Archit Deodhar), who moves from Pune to Guhagar, after his mother (Amruta Subhash) gets transferred there, resists the idea. He broods, scowls, acts snooty and finally smiles.

Killa is set in the ’90s, yet it’s not a period film. And, though it’s going down memory lane for the director, it’s not a nostalgic look at school days. It digs deeper — it’s about trying to fit in, trusting others and ourselves and flowing with what life has to offer. A part of it is coming of age drama, when young boys suddenly grow older. Depicting this transformation with finesse are the irrepressible mischievous Suhas aka Bandya (Parth Bhalerao) the class leader, Yuvraj (Gaurish Gawde) and the egg-head Omkar (Atharva Upasani). They give the movie its tense, funny and wise moments. However, unlike other films meant for children, which paint them as ‘mature’ or ‘sugary sweet, cute faced’, Killa keeps it real and understated.

In this amazingly visual film, the only jarring note is that of the drunkard, through whom Chinu learns to trust the world. Too many movies have employed the drunkard or village wastrel to show the light to the protagonist.

A special mention must also be made of Amruta Subhash, who fights her own dilemmas in her government job. Towards the end, and this is no spoiler, both sail on to calmer seas — wise and content.

A placid turn to the stormy beginning. And, a reason enough to watch this journey.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A cluttered life

I had interviewed Alok Rajwade and Dharmakirti Sumant of Natak Company on their recent play, Binkamache Samwad.
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All day long we are punching buttons furiously, forming words, sentences and posting, retweeting and forwarding them through several groups that we are members of. In the midst of all this, what happens to our poor brain and our ability to think and mouth original thought? What about the trash that’s generated through the meaningless conversation threads?

This is the germ of Binkamache Samwad, a play by Natak Company. Directed by Alok Rajwade, the play falls in the genre of Theatre of the Absurd, a tragicomedy, that conveys the ‘nothingness’ of the moment that we are living in.

Says Alok, “We are never confronted with simple, straight choices or situations. There are multiple layers and complexities that define our responses to any given situation. Our play tries to decode and analyse the decadence of language, why sending forwards without comprehending is a scary situation.”

Dharmakirti Sumant, who has written the play, says, “It’s written in non-linear format. What happened was that one day we were joking around. The lines were not really funny, but the way they were being presented resulted in much laughter. That made me toy with the idea where we could entertain people, but the audience wouldn’t know at what they were laughing at. We used the reference of Indonesian slang, Jayus, which means ‘a joke that is so unfunny, that you can’t stop laughing’.”

The conversation that we have on WhatsApp, is something like a forced laughter. We are unable to sift important from the trivial, we assume that what we see, hear is the reality, imagination is stunted, words are thrown around without understanding what they stand for.

“There is a crowding of too many words, dialects, lingo, but the original meanings have been distorted or twisted to become the new reality. I wanted to convey all this through a story format. So we thought of doing a play, which doesn’t stick to the structured story-telling form. Yet it answers all the questions — who, why, what and when. I am leaving out ‘where’ because there is no specific construct of location. We do have a wrestling pit, where the scenes unfold. It’s a metaphor for the distortion or manipulation of truth,” explains Dharmakirti.

Themes like these might be too cerebral for the audience, we put forth. Disagreeing with us, Alok explains, “Our play is meant for the audience who can think and reason. An art form like theatre is an interpretative exercise, and everyone has some opinion about it, matching with their experience. We are open to feedback — positive and critical. This play highlights the hyperbole associated with social media, which I think is quite topical.”

Dharmakirti, in his response, says, “It’s the intellectual arrogance of the educated to assume that certain themes are beyond the understanding of the common man. A waiter from a city restaurant had come to watch our play. When we met him later, he raised some points and asked if this is what we intended to convey. He had grasped correctly what we wanted to say. I would like to say that only education or reading does not have the bearing on the impressions, references that we have of life. Comprehension or awareness is defined by experience.”

And, in today’s hyper times, we have to concentrate on generating meaningful, while relegating trash to the background.

The plot
The play, Binkamache Samwad, unfolds through a dream sequence. Fifty-year-old Bhosanka (protagonist played by Abhay Mahajan) buys a smart phone because his Nokia 3202 gets smashed under the wheels of a train. Bhosanka swipes his card to buy an Iphone 6 and is plunged into a wrestling pit, which is placed on a smartphone’s LED screen. There he meets an old college friend Aabeka (Omkar Gowardhan), porn star Loly Loly (Laxmi Birajdar), rationalist Mopremimadhyam (Pushkraj Chirputkar), a right wing activist Oot (Dhanraj Narayankar), R K Laxman’s Common Man or Comya (Suvrat Joshi) and wrestling anchor (Veera Saxena).

In this wrestling ring, Bhosanka raises queries on decadence of language, morality, post liberalised India etc. All his WhatsApp friends vote for a new government and finally ‘Euphoria’ wins. This win is stained by a Facebook image, which makes them realise the hidden poverty and exploitation.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Enter the 'Dragaon'

My interview with Tushar Pandey


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The Hindi adaptation of Evgeny Shvarts’ Russian play, The Dragon will be staged in the city on April 5. Directed by Tushar Pandey, the play holds a magnifying glass to the socio-political changes taking place in the society, says Ambika Shaligram.

Banned by the Post-War Stalin government for its anti-authoritarian theme, Russian playwright Evgeny Shvarts’ biting satire is spun out of myth and lore. The central character is a big, bad dragon who has ruled a town for 400 years and now he has set his eyes on the town’s loveliest maidens, when enters the ‘knight in shining armour’. The ‘knight’ is a well-travelled young man who is on a mission to save the town and rescue the damsel from her tragic plight. But there’s just one problem. The townsfolk don’t want to be saved!

Power Play
Translated from English into Hindi by Harsh Khurana, the adaptation will be staged by the students of The Drama School, Mumbai, in association with Mumbai Marathi Sangha. Directed by Tushar Pandey, a graduate of National School of Drama and London International School for Performing Arts, The Dragon touches upon various inter-related concepts like leadership, power and the mechanics of their working. The concepts are universal and timeless in their pertinence.

Fantasy vs reality
Shvarts turned to fairy tales as a narrative tool for his play. Pandey didn’t make any departure from this aspect. But, he did change the treatment and style of the play.
Says he, “Yes I did change the treatment / style of the play; but it was not done to suit Indian audience more. Rather, I find this style more engaging and expressive. The focus of the whole play, according to me, is the townspeople and chorus (which are not present in the original text), and what they bring to the story in terms of the concept. This is what I’ve tried to build on.”
The fairy tales are set in the world of fantasy, fiction, imagination — a perfect medium to highlight the brutalities of power play. When asked if that makes fairy tales a convenient tool to dish out unpalatable truths, Pandey says, “Definitely, fairy tales do create a very conducive world in which one can say anything, and yet stay distant from the action. Shvarts used them to express the dynamics of leadership. I did find the fantasy in Shvarts writing most engaging. But my world in the play wrestles between fantasy and today’s time.”

Objective look
He explains that some issues are best dealt in the style which places the audience not in the centre, but away, so that they can look at an issue objectively. By making use of myths and folktales, the writer or the director achieves just that.
“In the case of The Dragon, Shvarts had no choice but to write in fairy tale format, for the time that he lived in, didn’t allow him to write in any other style,” says Pandey adding that the main change he has brought into the production is the note on which the play ends.
“Shvarts’ writing in a specific time and period, brings closure. I’ve interpreted the script to leave on a more uncertain note. This is mainly done in the third act, which is not just different performatively, but also conceptually. The current script is also technically twice removed from the original — it’s a Hindi translation of an English translation of a Russian script. And I think that’s also quite interesting as a process as far as adapting through translation goes,” he concludes.

Disquiet all around

My review of National Award winning movie, Court


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Newspaper headlines these days are all about alleged extremists getting caught/detained and incriminating material being seized from them. Most of us flip over the page and the said news is buried somewhere, until there is a brouhaha over the detention of the said terrorist. In most cases, even that dies down soon enough and the ‘accused’ is dropped from the public consciousness.

Court is the story of one such person named Narayan Kamble. The scene opens to Kamble wrapping up tuition classes at his home, to reach a residential colony inhabited by a few lower middle class families, where he and his troupe would present a powada (ballad). As his song nears the end, the police arrive and take him away, for abatement of suicide of a sewage worker, Vasudeo Pawar.

According to the charges slapped on Kamble, his song had incited Pawar to commit suicide. The seemingly ludicrous charges are actually a bigger design to detain the social activist and folk singer. Kamble, is played by a real life activist, Vira Saathidaar, whose understated but stoic performance is bound to send a shiver of disquiet down your spine.

The court scenes unfolding between public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and defence lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who is also the producer) before Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) show the functioning of the courtroom. Unlike the usual depiction in cinema, where the judiciary has been painted in broad brush strokes — in white and black, Court, without an overt villain in its midst, is a lot more grey and hence chillier.

The ordinary lives of the lawyers, outside the court, serve to bring out the intensity of the stance they have taken. Nutan, who is a loving wife and mother, can also be callous enough to talk about ‘dumping Kamble in jail for 20 years under stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code. Vora, on the other hand, belongs to the privileged class, yet has the sensitivity to reach out to Kamble and folks from the lower stratum of society.'
Besides the realistic court room scenes, Tamhane has lent his characters a sense of dignity too. The numbness of being caught in the machinery, and adherence to the rules, is so understated that it takes some time to realise that not only have all doors been shut on Kamble, but it’s also he alone who remembers the dead sewage worker, the trigger for the trial. Released on bail, Kamble is arrested again when he is in the midst of bringing out a book on the same worker, titled Apamanache Oze (Burden of Humiliation). That’s the travesty of the judiciary.

The only false note is the last 10 minutes of the movie which seeks to reiterate, rather shrilly, how callous the powers that be are.

The Subject is Queen


Ambika Shaligram chats up with Virat Husain, who is playing Empress Nur Jehan in Mehernama, and learns more about zenana politics and why the Empress was special.

* Zenana can never distance itself from politics. There are too many instances in history where women have taken on more powerful roles in the running of their kingdom. So what made Nur Jehan special?
The zenana has always been powerful in Indian history, because women in the royal family have always played a consultative role in the running of the empire. There have been instances where the women have run the kingdom in the absence of a male member of the ruling family. However, nowhere in Indian history has a queen ruled in the presence of an emperor.

* As per the Mughal tradition, the seal of the empire was often kept in the harem so that the women could read the pronouncements of the emperor and put a seal on them before they became public. But Nur Jehan has been the only empress in ancient and medieval India, whose name adorned all coinage and currency of the empire. The proclamations were signed by her, in her own name, rather than in the name of the emperor. She ruled without fear or favour through the reign of the Emperor Jehangir.

* Did Nur Jehan’s famed beauty propel her to the forefront of Mughal politics? Is that reflective of today’s power craft too?
Though attractive, Nur Jehan was hardly famed for her beauty. Her political acumen and her handling of court politics made her far superior to the courtiers of the time. Today’s politics hardly requires brilliance or beauty of any kind.

* After Shah Jehan (her foster son) came to power, it’s said that Nur Jehan went into political oblivion. If she was the ‘real power behind the throne’, then surrendering power must have been difficult for her.
No, not in the least. After Shah Jehan came to power, Nur Jehan accepted her new role with grace. She retired from active politics, lived for 17 years and engaged herself in building the mausoleum of her husband in Lahore.

*Does her character dish out a few truths about the Mughal empire too? That women had a social and political standing of their own.
It is obvious that the character of Nur Jehan reflected the social and cultural norms of the period.