Interview - Manoj Mitra : Dramatist, Actor, Director, Producer and Bengali Film Maker


MANOJ MITRA - WBRi Kolkata Tube

Manoj Mitra talks about the great days of Bengali theater, and the subsequent shift in mass attitude and business decisions that have lead to the downfall of the Bangla Natok. He also expresses hope for a resurgent future, perhaps in a different format.

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Manoj Mitra - you are deeply involved with stage plays and Bengali theater for over five decades. You are a playwright, producer, director, actor, theater organizer and much more. The golden era of amateur and professional Bengali theater lasted from the 1950s through the 1970s. Today, professional Bengali drama and stage plays have almost totally disappeared. Why do you think this happened ?

There is not just one reason for this - there are many reasons. One reason I would like to mention is Professional Theater has not been able to keep up with contemporary expectations, tastes and preferences of the audience. This happened because the businessmen who came to own the theaters displayed significant lack of imagination as well as narrowness in thought. Second - it used to be that the owner of the theater hall would also be the producer of the play being performed. Later on the hall owners stopped production, and leased out the hall to others in exchange for money ... it became difficult to figure out who the actual owner of the hall was. These people - the middlemen - who were no owners of the hall, but had virtual control of the hall - completely neglected to maintain the halls, which came to look like stables. Torn curtains, broken sets, electrical wire hanging open on the walls waiting for accidents to happen ... these became daily challenges. The actors and actresses and artists were paid a fixed salary, and that was it - no attention was given to the halls. People did not want to go to watch shows in there theaters.

Talking about actors - let me tell you about one incident - which is representative of the situation. There were powerful actors and actresses in the Rangmahal theater. There were comedians like Jahar Roy who I think of as a great actor, Saraju Debi ... so one day I visited Rangmahal, and a performance was one - a scene was being performed by characters from my play, but that scene was not in the play I had written ! The dialogues were different from what I had written. The director was Jahar Roy ... I went to him and asked him what was going on - the dialogues, this scene ... these were not there in my play ? I come after two weeks and what is this I see ? Jahar Ray took a peek from above (the stage), and he commented about the uneducated people that stage play had fallen into the hands of.  Jahar Roy then said he will teach them a lesson, and asked me to wait while he goes and fixes things, and he entered the stage as an actor, and got rid of all the actors and actresses from stage performing the fabricated scene via an impromptu performance. Such was the talent of directors and the actors like Jahar Roy. But Jahar Roy himself did the same thing that the actors were doing prior to him ... so the audience must have not known the play they were watching!

In 1961, Satyajit Ray approached Chobi Biswas to play the leading role in his film Kanchenjunga. By then, Satyajit Ray was an internationally acclaimed film-maker. Chobi Biswas was an actor for Star Theater at the time, and he was performing on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ray told Biswas that Biswas had to stay in Darjeeling for around twenty days for the shooting. Chobi Biswas said that he would not be able to act in Ray's movie, because he had a commitment to theater and he had to go and play his role on stage - he could not be absent for twenty days. Salil Mitra was the owner of Star Theater at the time, and came to know of this from somewhere. Salil Mitra then asked Chobi Biswas what Biswas was thinking - a world-famous director was offering him a lead role in a film and Biswas was not accepting ?! Biswas asked how he could go, he had theater. Mitra said - so what ? Mitra will give him leave for twenty days, he will not put Biswas' name on the ads, and find someone else to fill in for twenty days. Satyajit Ray then stepped in, and he told Chobi Biswas that Biswas would be flown to Darjeeling on a plane on Mondays, and put on a plane back to Calcutta on Thursdays, and Ray would not keep and work for Biswas on Fridays so that Biswas can play his role in Star Theater on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and be back in Darjeeling on Mondays.

So - people like Satyajit Ray gave Theater its due importance. Coming to the 1990s, the situation changed - actors started saying that "I have a shooting, I cannot come (to perform in the theater)." - this the actor informed about 15 mins to 30 mins before the stage play was supposed to start. How can theater go on ? For who ?

In that case, do you believe there is a future for professional theater in Bengal ?

I don't think there is a future for Bengali professional theater - at least in the old format. That will never return. There was another reason stage play used to be big - for the vast rural audience. Now there is TV and film, and there is no glamor in stage theater that will get a person living in Basirhat to get on a train to Calcutta to watch a stage play.

Can veteran actors, directors, writers and producers like yourself not take amateur theater to a professional level once more ?

That may be possible - if not today, it will happen over time.

Great films can be made based on good literature. Can crowds not be pulled into theater with great plays ?

Surely that can be done. But, today the cultural goodwill of our country is in such a state ... if I want to pull crowds using good acting and a great script, and if you want to pull crowds into a mediocre play using a different means, probably more people will watch your play than mine.

The old theater can only be replaced with the new kind.

- Interviewed by VOA Washington Bangla Radio. Transcribed for this post by WBRi.

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