The entrance to Purano Ghar, the theatre house staging Sulakshyan Bharati’s “Ma”, can hide in plain sight unless you’re actually looking for it. Sandwiched between a Syanko Roll outlet and a restaurant named the Taste of Kathmandu, the small, unpretentious entrance gives way to a narrow, dimly-lit passage to the theatre.
The only two things the theatre has that would qualify as invitations to a random stroller, apart from the name painted on its entrance, are a slightly protruding board on a pole with its name, and, down below, a lone stand holding a copy of the coverage of the show in one of the few English broadsheet dailies in Nepal. There is no other way a layperson would know that the place had a theatre in its womb unless they had heard or read about it.
One could lazily assume that the theatre’s austerity and lack of advertisement upfront are because of financial compulsions more than the owner’s choices. But one is also forced to question that assumption after watching the show and talking with the man himself. The narrative plot, Bharati’s performance, and the theatre house he has built at the place where his own house once stood, all have the potential to stand alone, and, more importantly, speak for themselves.
Before Bharati starts his act, a combination of monologues and recollections of encounters he’s had over the years as a theatre artist, the audience hears a continuous ticking sound. As the sound permeates through the black box theatre, building suspense, an announcer comes to the front to perform the usual drill of reminding the audience to be what they should be—a good audience, their phones switched off, no unnecessary movement or sound. Ironically, the reminder is interrupted by the arrival of a few more audience members. As the latecomers find their way to their seats, a particularly blunt member of the audience complains about how Nepalis have a loose sense of time. The announcer then gives a peculiar permission to the audience—that, once the play is over, they can shout and scold the actor but should refrain from manhandling him. The audience bursts out in laughter.
As the stage light goes on and the audience sees, for the first time, Bharati, who is playing Prayas naked except in short tights, rocking back and forth on his back, in sync with the ticking sound, it is immediately evident that the character doesn’t plan on being coy.
Bharati himself is keen on knowing on which basket of genres people who watch the play will toss it in. Some have called it “genre-defying”. Others haven’t bothered. And it is certainly a difficult task to typecast the play. The play is a melodrama in the sense that it dances in extremes. It is a tragedy because the great sorrow of not knowing who one truly is burns the character from within. And if an existentialist like Sartre was in the audience, he would certainly empathize with the character but would perhaps also have a succinct answer to his qualms—that his attempts to find a rational order in life are futile.
The play, however, is less about finding the answer to why he is in this world and more about finding the answer to who he is. It reminds one of Charles Horton Cooley’s famous lines—“I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” Prayas isn’t unaware of this dilemma but he gives the impression that he is already disenchanted by the answer. He isn’t ready to accept that he is who he thinks people think he is. But for that matter, he also isn’t ready to accept any answer at all. This philosophical and emotionally charged vertigo he puts himself through seems to originate from his own guilt and a sense of regret, the exactness of which the audience has a hard time figuring out.
I was planning to ask Bharati, who also wrote the play, later whether that was the case and if it resonated with his own life. It was a foolish question because often a writer finds the depths of his characters alongside his own depths and also because the play was filled with reflections on his own life as an artist. So I instead asked him how honest he thought he was in portraying that through Prayas. This time, it wasn’t me who thought it was a foolish question. Bharati, unintentionally, did that for me. He said that as an artist he always strives to be honest and it was not him but me who should be able to tell how honest he was.
And honest he was. The black box theatre was designed with props in a way that made one feel that one was prying the character’s psyche. Each prop was a metaphor, some used throughout the play while others just laid there, open for interpretation. On either side of the wall hung shards of broken mirrors which Prayas refers to as unchangeable windows of perceptions. It was as if he saw society’s perceptions of him in them and vehemently disliked them. The other times, he would look into the audience proudly announcing in wails that he was a demon.
By the end of the play, it was clear what he was doing. He was accepting society’s claims about him, internalizing them, questioning them, disliking them, and tearing them off him. But every time he did that, he seemed more distraught. The constant association and dissociation with identities didn’t only take a toll on Prayas but the audience, too.
But those were moments where the brilliance of the actor shone through. To add to the effect, as each character changed into another, the lights would go off and Bharati would appear again as a different man, evolving with each blackout.
In one of the monologues, Prayas announces a revelation he’s had. When reflecting on what acting truly meant, he exclaims that it was in not trying that the secret lay. It feels like he finally fully understood the paradox of his own craft. But like all revelations, it also took away something—the sense of wonder attached to actors he once saw as idols.
Bharati in “Ma” constructs plays within the play. He is acting as Prayas but Prayas is also reenacting the plays he has done throughout his life. Bharati is acting as Prayas but then Prayas is acting as numerous other characters. Somewhere, one can’t help but wonder where Bharati ends and Prayas begins.
Bharati later reveals off-stage where he felt he was acting most naturally. In the play, after reenacting the role of a lying politician who churns out false promises without flinching, Prayas turns to a bhatti at the end of the day. “The most authentic act we all do is when we’re going through life trying to be who we think we are,” Bharati said. “For me, the most authentic act I did in the play was when I asked the didi in the bhatti for a drink because I didn’t have to be anyone else. I just had to be myself.”
Throughout the play, clothes hanging on a thread move up and down for Prayas to pick one up and mold himself into the character wearing the costume. As the time for one character ends, he takes the clothes off, hangs them on the thread again which then is pulled upwards. This effect, along with the occasional disappearance of Prayas into the darkness, creates a dream-like effect. A dream where Prayas is taking the audience on a ride, nitpicking his conscience, and asking them questions that strangely reflect the moral see-sawing of all humans. And it is when Prayas isn’t wearing any costume, when he is in his short tights that don’t leave much for the imagination, that he truly looks vulnerable. As almost everything that was present in the carefully designed black box, at the center lay a circle where Prayas could be truly alone. It was there that his most profound and honest realizations came to him; the closest he could get to his Jungian archetypal self.
“Ma” by Bharati is a cry for answers. It is an emotional roller-coaster and yet a violent in-your-face round-robin between the people inside Prayas, and maybe even Bharati himself. What it isn’t, however, is a masquerade. Although repetitive in its narrative storytelling in some places, and borderline overuse of rhetorics, the play largely manages to stay on course. And it is in some special moments, where the play manages to kiss the silver lining of the perfect flow, that one gets to know the range of Bharati’s performance.
At one point in the play, Prayas says, “We all need fantasy to go to sleep.” Maybe Bharati also fantasizes about finding who he truly is when he goes to sleep.
The play runs from September 17 to October 6 at Purano Ghar, Sinamangal.