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Moteram Ka Satyagrah is as political a play as ever

It is reminiscent of the Sheila Dikshit government's whitewashing of Delhi prior to the 2010 Games.

ART & CULTURE  |   4-minute read  |   23-08-2016

Moteram Ka Satyagrah, adapted from Munshi Premchand's short story by the late Habib Tanvir and Safdar Hashmi, is one of the most well-known productions of Arvind Gaur's theatre group Asmita.

Coming from Kolkata, with a fervent interest in theatre, I always wanted to watch a play directed by Gaur. So, when Asmita staged the play on Sunday (August 21) evening at Shri Ram Centre in the Capital, I knew I had to go. Asmita's production of Moteram Ka Satyagrah is, perhaps, what a good political play should be - a marriage of sharp socio-political observation, great performances and fluid stage direction, not intellectually hollow agitprop.

The 90-minute play was single-mindedly focused on the subject and instead of trying to impress the audience with shock-and-awe methods, Gaur's play won over the the 550-odd crowd in the auditorium with, simply, a story well told. The play is a comic-satire set in pre-Independence Banaras, where the Viceroy of India is supposed to come, because of which the entire city goes into a tizzy.

The bureaucrats led by magistrate Sir William Parkinsons (a fantastic Ishwak Singh) are at a loss to make the dirty, corrupt, poverty-ridden city chaka chak for the viceroy.

On the other hand, a nationalist movement is on the rise, among Banaras's people, calling for a strike in protest of the viceroy's arrival. To counter the populist sentiment, the magistrate gets hold of the gluttonous priest Moteram (Nishant Agarwal), who decides to go on ananshan (hunger-strike) to stop the city's people from going ahead with the strike.

Asmita's production of Moteram Ka Satyagrah is what a good political play should be.  

At the end of the play, when Gaur came on stage, he told the audience that Premchand's story Pandit Moteram Shastri ka Satyagrah, on which the play is based, is still relevant today, as the issues it deals with viz. political hypocrisy, corruption, casteism, communalism and nationalism are still pertinent, perhaps more now than ever. Truer words have seldom been spoken. The efforts of the magistrate and his ministers to "clean-up" Banaras for the viceroy were reminiscent of the Sheila Dikshit government's whitewashing of Delhi prior to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

In one of the first scenes in the play, the magistrate summons his ministers to suggest ways to organise the viceroy's arrival to the city. The magistrate hopes to do a swell job so that he gets promoted as district magistrate of the nation's capital, Delhi. One by one, his ministers suggest ways to hide the rot and corruption in Banaras from the viceroy's gaze. They suggest evicting the city's poor from the slums and deporting them to other cities.

On the other hand, crooks, dacoits and thieves from elsewhere would be brought in to wave the Union Flag and put on a celebratory show for the viceroy.

One of them suggests getting green paint to make the city look lush and fresh. Of course, the magistrate is very pleased with the suggestions and gives the nod to each one of them. When a minister comes and tells him that narrow roads cannot be made wide because there are small settlements on either side, the magistrate nonchalantly asks him to raze the houses.

Also read: Bombay unmoved: When 5,000 watched a play a day after 1944 explosion

However, the minister quickly adds that the roads that are already wide are becoming narrow because hawkers are encroaching on these roads. Moments such as these made Moteram Ka Satyagrah too close to reality for comfort. Thankfully, the humour made the caustic criticism of the Indian state agreeable to the audience. An interesting part of the play was the use of the words deshbhakt and deshdrohi and how the characters so easily interchanged them. While the British magistrate calls the strike-organisers deshdrohis, the merchant class says they are being pressured to support the strike by the deshbhakts, or else they will be called deshdrohi!

In today's time, when the word deshbhakti has developed a cancerous, toxic connotation - ironically, in line with the British's idea of loving the Union as loving the nation - this part of the play was particularly thought-provoking. But, probably, the most surprising part of the play was how politically aware and secular the Banaras crowd was!

When the merchant community and the Pandit Mahasabha are trying to coax the people to call off the strike by appealing to their communal insecurities, the people of Banaras come together, irrespective of religion, and thwart off all plans to dismantle their unity using wit and intellect.

Sigh, if only, India's people were as intelligent, we would not have to witness the clout of self-styled bapus and babas in the 21st century. Today, when the relevance of theatre is questioned in the face of cinema's dominance as a more accessible, glossy and cheaper form of entertainment, Gaur's production of Moteram Ka Satyagrah showed what theatre does better than cinema - Ideas.

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