NEW YORK – Much before the end of the almost four-hour long two-act epic Théâtre du Soleil’s magnificent and riveting play ‘A Room in India’, before a Charlie Chaplin-like character delivers a mock, ironic monologue from ‘Great Dictator’, one begins to understand why it’s vital and important to understand the women of the Mahabharata, to get an epiphany of the world at large; not to speak of getting an insight into the intricacies of India itself.
‘A Room in India’, directed by the grand dame of exploratory French theater Ariane Mnouchkine and her company Théâtre du Soleil – which ran its course at the Park Avenue Armory, in Manhattan, last week, is set in Pondicherry.
It’s literally a fantasy concoction of the artistic travails of Mnouchkine and her 100-member strong multinational troupe from over two dozen nationalities, based in La Cartoucherie, in the suburbs of Paris, after they traveled to India, to research and do a rendition based on the ancient epic Mahabharata.
Their initial plans were stalled after terrorist attacks in November, 2015, when 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated terror attacks in Paris. What emerged thereafter when they visited India next year, was ‘A Room in India’.
In the play, events unfold as dreams, nightmares and visions of a rather dim-witted middle-aged woman Cornélia (played with stunning aplomb by the veteran actress Hélène Cinque), who has been given charge of a French theater company in Pondicherry overnight after the head of the company quits for philosophical reasons, and is later jailed for public intoxication, nudity and desecrating a statue of Gandhi in town.
Cornélia’s agony to stage the perfect play, in her debut venture – as her worries mount because of external pressures, is the tumultuous play-within-a-play perfected by the visionary Mnouchkine, along with the collaboration of the French feminist writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous.
The single room set at the humungous Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Armory – touted as the most exclusive place in New York City for big-sets theater to come to pulsating life – becomes a veritable crucible for global events to unfold at a frenetic pace which at first seems confounding, but then settles into a fluent, pendulum-like rhythm, as precise as a cuckoo that peeks out and croons at the strike of every hour.
At the heart of the play, connecting all the strewn dots and patterns between the sleep bouts of Cornélia – as inexplicable in the beginning though, as the hum of indecipherable sounds that emanates periodically from the windows on the set, to truncated voice message on a laptop – is the predicament of women, which resonates even louder in the current throb of a new feminist movement, over the issue of sexual harassment and sexual innuendoes.
In between vignettes that depict Islamic terrorism, suicide bombers, civil wars, climate change, love – or remnants of what’s left of love after the ravages of living life controlled by patriarchy; dictatorships – or what some faux modern democracies now resemble; power of social media and the Internet, what permeates through like a halo-enhanced meteor, is beauty and bravado of women, and bestiality towards women, in India, shown through two famous stories from the Mahabharata.
The two stories – a microcosm of the struggles of women in India over the centuries despite their access to education and liberal movement – are the humiliation, and redemption of Draupadi after Lord Krishna intervenes and helps her salvage her modesty from the cruel Kauravas as the hapless Pandavas stand by after losing their wife in a game of dice; and Karna’s interaction with his inconsolable, entreating wife, Vrushali, before he valiantly embarks for battlefield, and his eventual death. In the Mahabharata, Vrushali committed ‘sati’ on her husband’s pyre. Draupadi, arguably the most powerful woman in the Mahabharata, is known more for her humiliation, than her honor.
The two stories from the Mahabharata, enacted through Terukkuttu – a traditional form of theater practiced in South India through music and emotive dance and featuring the venerable fifth generation artist Kalaimamani Purisai Kannappa Sambandan Thambiran – form the most dynamic, and lyrical scenes of ‘A Room in India’.
The Terukkuttu narratives threads the context of the play together, which at the beginning, with its mix of Hindu-Muslim tensions, ‘visitations’ from playwrights like Shakespeare and Chekhov, and even a cow and monkeys, along with dash of humor featuring despicable ISIS terrorists, had to rely upon apophenia.
Women’s inequality, discrimination and confusing place in society comes into sharp focus through those two stories. Those themes pervades through the course of the entire play, from the hapless predicament of a rudderless Cornélia, to her multi-layered personality of a landlady and schoolteacher in Pondicherry, Mrs. Murti, who is as vulnerable to love as any other woman and falls for the overtures of a Frenchman after she was denied from being with the man she loved in her youth by her tradition-minded family.
Like Draupadi, Mrs. Murti is almost raped by a Hindu nationalist in town, and Cornélia, like Vrushali, is found most times beseeching and lamenting her fate, which hinges on the acts of a stubborn man.
In ‘A Room in India’, no woman’s place in society is totally secure; they face ignominy, at short notice. Given a chance, a woman would kill each and every man in sight – a scene that comes to life during a wonderfully humorous film shoot in a desert, when a veiled Muslim woman does just that, when handed a gun.
Strong, recurring humor is a constant hallmark of the play, and despite the gravity of the subject matter dealt with, Mnouchkine devotedly sticks to it, evincing strong guffaws from the audience.
‘A Room in India’ is also a fascinating look into the world of multicultural actors, who pride themselves in not only researching a subject, but learning its language too, to nail the act. It’s performed in French, English, and Tamil, along with some Arabic, Japanese, Russian; with English supertitles.
Viewers who understand Tamil are likely to wince at its enunciation by some of the international actors, but that’s only a minor aberration to the superlative, committed acting that accompanies it. The relentless immediacy of the play throughout its span of three hours and 35 minutes (apart from a 20-minute break between the acts), is a wonderful testament to the high quality caliber of the actors themselves, all of whom give virtuoso performances.
It’s safe to say that ‘A Room in India’ is the most powerful and beautiful play to come out of India, and to be staged in New York.