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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"Rashomon" by Naatak Theatre Company

A shorter version of this review was published in India West newspaper on Aug 1, 2018.

In eager anticipation of Naatak’s adaptation of the classic 1950 film “Rashomon”, I reacquainted myself with the short stories which inspired the film.

The Stories

They were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, regarded as the "Father of the Japanese short story". The Akutagawa Prize, Japan's premier literary award, is named after him. I found on my bookshelf the collection “Rashomon and other stories” that I had bought at Kinokuniya Books during a visit to Tokyo.

What a marvelous bookstore is Kinokuniya! The section with Japanese literature translated into English is filled with gems: the poetry, short stories and novels on its shelves have held me captive on every visit. This collection of seven stories (1914-1927) is translated by Takashi Kojima with beautiful illustrations by M. Kuwata.

“In a Grove” is a melodramatic tale. A man was found murdered in the woods. As the story begins we hear the testimony of a few people as they are questioned by a High Police Commissioner. First, a woodcutter who discovered the body of a samurai. Next, a priest who had seen the dead man and his wife as they traveled earlier that day. Then, a policeman who made an arrest, followed by an old woman, the mother of the dead man’s wife.

After that, we hear confessions of three people, each claiming to have caused the samurai's death. First, a notorious thief Tajomaru relates how he saw the couple as they passed by him. He described being captivated by the wife and how he ambushes the couple to capture her. He rapes her, and claims to have killed the husband later, even though he had not planned or wished to do so. The next confession is from the wife of the dead man, who reported fainting on seeing his coldness towards her, and when she recovered consciousness, saw that he was dead and believed that she had killed him with the small sword she had in her hand. Finally, we hear from the dead man himself, speaking through a psychic medium. He claims to have killed himself.

The story “Rashomon” takes place in pouring rain at the immense dilapidated Gate. A footnote to the story describes the gate:

“The Rashomon was the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was 106 feet wide and 26 feet deep, and was topped with a ridge-pole; its stone-wall rose 75 feet high. This gate was constructed in 789 when the then capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto. With the decline of West Kyoto, the gate fell into bad repair, cracking and crumbling in many places, and became a hide-out for thieves and robbers and a place for abandoning unclaimed corpses.”

The former servant of a samurai, now in dire circumstances, takes shelter from the rain at the Rashomon. There he encounters an old woman. She is plucking hair off the corpses at the top of the Rashomon, so she can make wigs and sell them for money. This grimness pervades the story.

The Film

These two stories, “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”, were taken by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa and made into his exquisite 1950 film “Rashomon”, regarded by many as one of the most influential films ever made. In 1951, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The setting and title of Kurosawa’s film are taken from the story "Rashomon." The woodcutter, the priest and a passerby gather at the great Gate to seek refuge from the pouring rain. We see flashbacks to the woods and to the courthouse illustrating each individual’s account.

Watching the film, I was struck by how Kurosawa depicted the beginnings of a breeze which lifted the woman's veil and gave Tajomaru a glimpse of her beautiful face: as Tajomaru sleeps, the shadows of leaves on his face start moving to and fro. Kurosawa's use of light and stage was at the time unprecedented in film. And the pouring rain serves to demarcate the present from the flashbacks.

In an interesting twist at the end of the film, not in Akutagawa's story, the woodcutter retells his version at the end, this time including details that he had withheld earlier.

The Play

"To err is human and so is to embellish" reads the subtitle in the elegant program cover. The graphic shows a chess piece -- a pawn -- but the shadow it casts is that of a king.

Naatak’s play is based on the film and is set in Mumbai. It is directed by Savitha Samu, who was inspired by a stage production of Rashomon at the Prithvi theatre in Mumbai years ago. In her introduction to the play, she spoke of how memory and ego influence our perspectives, and what we narrate is sometimes neither true nor real, but neither is it not real.

The Director's Note in the program begins with a saying from the Upanishads: "Aham Brahmasmi Tat Tvam Asi." I am Brahma, so are you. It continues,

"Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. So in that sense, you and I are all Brahma, creators of our own imagined worlds, creators of our won truth, creators of our own aham, ego. No one person is capable of seeing the entire truth in all its rawness, so is it possible for 2 seemingly opposite arguments to both be true then?"

Despite reflexively reaching for my pen to edit "2" to "two", I was drawn in.

The opening scene reveals a woman and her husband training in martial arts. The man has a blue-faced “shadow”, who doubles as a musician.

After the couple have been training and conversing for several minutes, explosive drumming breaks out from the doors into the main theater. Down the aisle comes a group of men, two drummers accompanying a man clad in leather jacket and sunglasses, who is dancing wildly to the loud drumming. What an entrance! This is Bhai, underworld don, who then leaps onto the stage and approaches the woman. He mirrors her every move, both lyrically and menacingly. The continuous drumming underscores the building tension, and then the lights fade out.

When the lights come up again, we see a woodcutter (Vineet Mishra) and a priest (Mukund Marathe), deep in conversation, overcome by some recent happenings and unable to understand them. A man was murdered and no one has been able to uncover what exactly happened. Soon, a chaiwallah (Natraj Kumar) appears, wheeling his bicycle. The priest laments that his old ears have never heard such a strange and frightening story. Differing versions from three different people! They draw the chaiwallah in, appealing to him to listen to all the versions presented at Borivili Police Station, and then tell them which of the three is true. The chaiwallah settles down to listen, and interjecting periodically with questions and commentary, humorous at times, profound at others.

The woodcutter gives his account of having found white earphones in the woods, then a woman’s handkerchief, then a pair of hands, and then the rest of the body – a dead body. The man had two swords, a dagger and a bamboo stick. From the woman’s attire, he concluded she was a dancer. He reported what he saw to the police station immediately, he says.

As the telling of events continues, a policeman (Maunic Dharia) brings in the captured Bhai who is shadowed by another blue-faced musician. As the policeman is giving his testimony and his version of what transpired, the flamboyant Bhai interrupts, insisting on telling his own story.

Bhai claims that after he approached her, the woman found him attractive and surrendered to him. He throws in a comment about how unpredictable women are. She wanted to be with him, but could not as long as her husband was alive.

Bhai had not intended to kill or even fight the husband, but instigated by the wife, the two men sparred, and the husband died from a sword wound. The woman fled.

The police found the woman hiding in the shrine, and her story was different. First, the woman’s mother (Vinata Karra) takes the stand. The mother spoke of being childless for years, after which someone handed her a child. She spoke of raising this “beautiful child”, with great love, giving her everything, and even sending her to Sunday mass “not like those vernacular kids.” She had come to Bombay to fulfill her dreams, having heard that Bombay is “the city that never disappoints anyone.” But disappointment comes when she discovers “it is a crime to be a woman here.”

After listening for some time to her mother’s account portraying them as well-to-do people, the young woman is unable to remain silent any longer. Overwrought and shaking, she tells her story, accompanied by a guitar solo. Her mother was a maidservant, she said, in the house of her husband’s father. When the young woman was a teenager, she and the young man of the house came to be together and got married. She molded herself to his liking, wearing the clothes he picked, and walking, talking the way he wanted.

The director’s choice to flesh out the woman’s background was particularly interesting to me. In Akutagawa's story and in Kurosawa's film, I wanted more than the impressionistic sketch of the woman. In Naatak's "Rashomon", the details added to make the young woman a fuller person are indeed a welcome addition. The story of her childhood, her evolution into the person she is today, her hopes and disappointments, the clarity of her expression all give us added insight into her motivations and add more color to the entire story.

In her account of what happened in the woods, she was raped by Bhai. When she ran to free her husband and looked to him for solace, his coldness and rejection shocked her to the core. “I have done nothing wrong,” she cried, “I didn’t ask for this to happen, and still you blame me. You are the one who left me alone with him.” Distressed and overwhelmed, she lost consciousness. When she became conscious, he was already dead.

The chaiwallah is skeptical. Tears, he says, are woman’s best weapon. "They start crying and we melt like wax."

The priest and the woodcutter exhort him to listen to the dead man’s testimony. The chaiwallah is incredulous, and asks if they are smoking something. The dead man spoke through a medium, the others explain. And why on earth would you think that a dead man’s testimony is believable, the chai wallah asks. Disconsolate, the priest replies, “I cannot believe that people are so sinful that they will lie after dying.”

“Goodness is an illusion,” cracks the chaiwallah.

Mataji , a psychic medium (played intensely by Ranjita Chakravarty) comes on stage.

“Come, you are safe here” she coaxes the spirit of the dead man.

“I’m in pain, unbearable pain,” the spirit replies.

And then, through Mataji, the dead man tells his story. After having his way with his wife, Bhai tried to win her affections, asking her to go away with him, to marry him. He would change his ways, he said. As he continued to try to brainwash her, she looked at Bhai almost in a trance. And then she said to him that she could never marry Bhai because she already had a husband. Bhai should kill her husband, she said. “Have such hateful words ever been uttered by a wife,” lamented the dead man.

During the telling and retelling, as he fields the chaiwallah’s probing questions, the woodcutter declares with certainty that the man was killed by a sword, not a dagger. The chaiwallah senses that the woodcutter knows more than he has said so far. The priest, even more distraught, implores the woodcutter to speak: “When a crime witness hesitates to tell the truth, morality dies,” he says.

The chaiwallah offers many more lines of wisdom such as “No one gets justice in this world, only good luck or bad.” And “People can only tell as much truth as they can bear.” And “The path to salvation is strewn with filth.”

The woodcutter’s second, more complete account sheds further light on what might have happened, but also raises questions.

The chaiwallah summarizes the happenings, states his conclusions and throws out some accusations. Fed up and cynical at everything he has heard, he takes his bicycle and sets off.

As at the end of Kurosawa’s film, suddenly, a baby’s wails are heard. The priest and the woodcutter discover a crying infant in a basket in which is also some money. The baby has a precious amulet tied on it, leading them to speculate about its parentage.

The chaiwallah takes off, revealing in a final twist that he is no impassioned observer, leaving the woodcutter and priest cradling the infant. As with the Baby Jebeen who brought hope at the end of Arundhati Roy's "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness", this infant brings a ray of hope into this bleak picture. The woodcutter’s affection towards the baby restores some of the priest’s faith in humanity.

The Players

The cast, in typical Naatak fashion, does a phenomenal job. In the July 8 production which I watched, Devika Ashok was the wife, Rohit Dube the husband. And Rajiv Nema (who also serves as Naatak's Head of Marketing) is a compelling Bhai. His swagger, lechery and thuggery were convincing and riveting. It turns out he has a role in the film "Sanju", a biopic on Sanjay Dutt!

Natraj Kumar , recently seen in Unicorns as well as Toba Tek Singh, was a delightful chaiwallah, his witty pronouncements and wry delivery offsetting the seriousness of the play.

There was a double cast for these three main actors, who plan to perform in alternate shows, and for good reason. The roles are intense and no doubt draining, and also involve considerable physical activity, from the martial arts scenes to the fight scenes. Curious about how the actors were trained for such physically demanding roles that also presented potential risks, I learned from Rajiv Nema as well as Harish Agastya (who directed Muavze earlier this year) that they received training in movement and stretching from a young martial artist. Despite this, one of the cast members suffered an injury, and could not perform in the show I watched. (Get well soon!) The double casting proved to be a wise move.

Finally, a word about the music. Live music adds a deeper level of engagement to Naatak's plays. Rahul Zingde and Kunal Mamidpalliwar provided a captivating soundtrack and were also striking as the blue-faced shadow men. And the Dhol players Harshavardhan and Anush Moorthy added to the drama.

Once you see the play, we can discuss who you're going to believe: me or your lying eyes?!

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