Timeout - The Rape Of Innocence
by Ranjini Banerjee
The rape of innocence Britya, a small theatre group consisting mainly of senior citizens in Kolkata, recently staged the Bengali play, Darponey Sharad Shashi (which literally translated means an autumn moon in the mirror). The play is written by renowned Bengali actor and playwright, Manoj Mitra. It is set in Bengal of the previous century, and is a powerful indictment against the hypocrisies of a society that oppresses and exploits women. We are introduced to Manorama, a middle-aged theatre actress in Calcutta who was born into prostitution, but defied her destiny to become an artist instead.
Manorama is lamenting the loss of Sharadshashi, a girl she had rescued from the clutches of the notorious pimp, Natulal, and had brought her to the world of theatre to give her another chance at life. The story then moves into flashback. We are transported to a village called Panchkuri, where the reigning feudal lord's son Indranath, is getting ready to stage a play with female actors, in defiance of the tradition of using male actors to enact female roles. A group of female actors from Kolkata arrive, among who are Manorama, the head of the group, Sharadshashi, and her pimp Natulal. Manorama is looking for an opportunity to get rid of Natulal and free the girl. Other memorable characters include Shithikanto, a renowned local theatre actor ostracised due to a scandal, Gurucharan, the zamindar's lecherous son-in-law, Kalidas, the zamindar's mild-mannered accountant, and Toofan, the female impersonator who is now out of work.
Under the tutelage of the ostracised Shithikanto, Sharadshashi flowers into a brilliant actress. Just then comes the news that she belongs to a low caste. All hell breaks loose. The other actors and villagers, who had no objection to acting with prostitutes, turn puritanical at the thought of sharing stage space with a low caste woman. Indranath, however, is determined to stage the play. But destiny has other plans. Villagers ransack the area and set fire to the stage. Chaos reigns and taking advantage of this, the pimp Natulal forcefully takes away Sharadshashi and sells her to Gurucharan, who had earlier refused to act with her as she belonged to a low caste. Nothing further is heard of Sharadshashi. The audience is transported back to the present, with Manorama still searching for her. The curtains close with a group song sung by all actors in the play.
Darponey Sharad Shashi showcases some brilliant acting skills by performers who in their day to day lives are retired householders, parents and even grandparents. The story also highlights the nobility and baseness of human character. At one end of the spectrum we have Manorama devoting herself to rescuing young girls from the flesh trade; at the other end is Gurucharan, exploiting an innocent young girl's helplessness. If a fault has to be found in this riveting production, maybe it can be said that the music could have been more melodious to the ears. But overall, it was a brilliant effort and kudos to Britya for keeping alive the culture of Bengal through theatre!
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