"Muavze": a political satire by Naatak Theater Company
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
Dark comedies are not generally my cup of tea. Give me a straight up comedy, or give me straight up darkness. The combination somehow makes me queasy. Take, for example, the romantic black comedy “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover.”
I saw it in Westwood, Los Angeles, soon after it was released in 1989. You might say I had led a pretty sheltered life, as I had never encountered a black comedy before. Yep. I went in expecting, if not a barrel of laughs, a reasonable level of amusement. (It’s a comedy, yaar, how “dark” can it be?) Pretty dark, it turned out.
The Peter Greenaway film completely shocked me. The visuals were exquisite. The music, surpassingly beautiful. I still remember the awe I felt on hearing the pure melody of the castrati singing pouring out of the kitchen boy. But the plot? Torture! Murder! Cannibalism! Where was the humor in all this?
I staggered out of there in a daze, sick to my stomach. Let’s get a drink, I said to whoever was listening. Let it be known that until that point, I did not drink alcohol. My friends took pity on me. They shepherded me to some local watering hole. And ordered me something. A White Russian it might have been, or perhaps a Black Russian. Straight up. Hideous film. Damn’ fine drink.
All this to say, I’m not crazy about dark comedies in general, but can stomach some categories more than others.
Political satire, into which category “Muavze” falls, is more palatable to me. Particularly when it is presented by Naatak, the bay area’s Indian Theater company. It is written by Bhisham Sahni, famed for his brilliant and moving tale of Partition, “Tamas”. “Muavze” is a popular, oft-performed play, even by Naatak which has performed twice before, in 1996 and 2004.
“Muavze” means “compensation” and refers to the monetary compensation paid to surviving family members in case of accidental death. In an unnamed city in India, everyone opportunistically awaits a riot. Politicians are busy preparing speeches for every eventuality. The police prepare to act in the event of a riot, and safeguard money already set aside by the government to be given as compensation. Merchants offer knives, guns and bombs for a most effective riot. In one gasp-inducing scene, a shopkeeper swings back his chaste storefront of religious figures to reveal weapons for sale.
The residents of a slum learn of the amount of money they will receive if a family member dies. Excitedly, they persuade Dinu to die in the riot so they can collect compensation and improve their lives. Dinu is played by Chinmay Vaidya, who was most entertaining as the plastic surgeon Dr. Luqman in the hilarious “Arsenic and Lace” presented some months ago by Naatak (also a dark comedy! Is there a pattern here?). Once again, Vaidya delights us with his Chaplinesque gift for comedy.
Deepal Pandya is a commanding presence as the autocratic Commander Bulbul Pandey and switches roles with ease to the coquettish Mrs. Keshoram.
Ritwik Verma is terrifying as the thug Jugga, and his henchmen Magga (Pawan Suresh) and Bagga (Murali Gandluru) swagger around equally menacingly.
The violent interpersonal conflict that so churned my stomach in “The Cook, the Thief….” started to do the same here as Jagga launches into a creepy song about all the ways in which he wishes to do harm to Gumashta, the middleman (Anush Moorthy). Gumashta hires Jagga to clear the slums under the auspices of the much-anticipated riots, so that his boss might claim that land. Corruption and opportunism is rampant.
Some clever touches helped hold the audience’s attention for the duration of the 100-minute performance.
Naatak has become quite adept at bringing down the tension a notch or two from serious themes, with the use of song and dance, and Director Harish Agastya does it well here. (Oh balle balle Bollywood!) Shanti (Roshni Datta), Bijli (Neha Goyal) and other colorfully costumed slum dwellers dance and sing most engagingly.
The music of Muavze is quite creative. They have taken popular tunes, new and old, and parodied the lyrics to hilarious effect. The song “Yeh Hai Mera Neta” set to the tune of “Vaada Tera Vaada” had the audience in splits. And setting “Muavza Jo De De Humko Sarkar” to the tune of “These are a few of my favorite things” elicited many laughs. I was reminded of T.N. Seshan (India's witty erstwhile Election Commissioner) who sought to eliminate corruption and came up with the catchy phrase "Tu Cheez Badi Hai Brasht Brasht", in parody of a wildly popular song.
From the credits in the program, the main mastermind behind many of the lyrics appears to be Ritwik Verma – Jugga the thug himself. Perhaps Naatak will post the parody lyrics for each of the songs--it would certainly provide continued enjoyment.
During a political meeting on stage, the house lights came on, and some cast members engaged in fiery discourse from seats in the audience – the animated Seth Amreeksingh (Chanpreet Singh) and Seth Bhagatram (Dilip Ratnam). This added the feel of the street play which “Muavze” was originally intended to be—it was happening before and around us.
In the ideal career path for a thug, Jagga, not held back by something as trivial as illiteracy, runs for office and becomes a politician as the play ends.
Naatak is taking on some biggies for their upcoming productions: “Rashomon” and “Mahabharata.” (NOT dark comedies, phew.) I can hardly wait.
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