Ai Weiwei said: “Everything is art. Everything is political”. Art and politics are not subjects separated from each other and for good artists, everything they do is political. So, it was quite appropriate that the first thing that the audience saw, when they streamed in to watch the latest staging of Deepan Sivaraman’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, was the bold statement of support for the victim of a recent gender atrocity involving prominent film actors in Kerala. From that moment, the stage was set and the declaration made about the politics of the play and Deepan himself. The play was staged at Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy, Thrissur, Kerala on the 13th and 14th of October, 2017.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a silent movie made shortly after the end of World War-I and it had received critical acclaim as a movie that predicted the rise of a strong dictator in Germany. It had great influence on very many films that followed and was considered a great example of Expressionist cinema. The movie itself is narrated through the experiences of Francis, who sees through the evil designs of Dr. Caligari as he manipulates others – even to do heinous crimes – to achieve his objectives. Caligari controls Cesare, who suffers from somnambulism, and uses him to carry out his vile acts like murder. First the town clerk and then Francis’ friend Alan are murdered. Both Alan and Francis are in love with Jane, who herself is abducted by Cesare one day, leaving her a nervous wreck. Francis alone understands that Caligari is the evil brain behind all these incidents and exposes Caligari, but in a strange twist at the end, Francis himself is found to be a lunatic. Critics were of the view that this twist made a rebellious film into a conformist one. The scriptwriters said later that the director had made this change without their consent.
So, why would Deepan Sivaraman, who stands tall on the Indian stage, want to go back a hundred years and drag out an old tale? What does he have to offer when he makes over a silent movie into a play fit for a modern audience?Deepan has already made his mark in Indian theatre scene with his play Spinal Cord and more recently, the theatrical adaptation of OV Vijayan’s epic Malayalam novel “KhasakkinteIthihasam”. Deepan started his life as a carpenter and this has helped him to remain rooted and connected to the realities of the common people. While he developed his skills in the theatre through his post-graduate and Doctoral studies in India and UK, he always maintained a keen interest in socio-political issues. The rising intolerance and evident growth of Fascism in India in the last few years, the increased polarization of the society have all affected Deepan deeply. This play is a political response from Deepan and as he says: “Caligari and his sinister companion, the somnambulist, can be read as the allegorical representation of India’s powerful right wing Fascist mechanism and its lynching gangs and shooters which have become a threat to the life of rational thinkers and also the common man.”
Prakash Bare, noted actor and producer, had been in discussions with Deepan about producing a play which could expose the looming threat of Fascism. The culmination of these discussions was the production of the play “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. To quote Prakash: “In these days, when Fascism is knocking on our doors, I felt that everyone, including artists, must come together to put up a front of resistance. In discussion with Deepan, we felt that this play captures the current scenario quite well”. The play has been co-produced by Blue Ocean Theatre and NSS Engg College Alumni Association of Bengaluru (NECAB) in association with Performance Studies Collective, Delhi.
The play opens to a scene that makes a deep impression – the sleep-walking Cesare dancing to the tune of Caligari while a shocked Francis sits staring at something in the distance. The stage is set rather starkly with the image of a leaf-less tree painted diagonally across the stage.The stage is set very differently from the film, which was full of buildings with unusual shapes, curving lines etc. Yet, it conveys a sense of foreboding, implying the presence of something dark and sinister with its sharp lines and very bare look. Scenography is a forte of Deepan and that he is a master at it, is evident throughout seventy five minutes that the play lasts. Light design (by Alex Sunny) is brilliant, to say the least. The music is haunting and lifts the experience of the play to a higher plane – Kaustubh Naik has excelled in sound design. Deepan himself has enacted the role of Alan with LeenazBicha (Jane), Vijay Singh (Dr. Stern), Taha Abdul Majeed (Cesare), PuravGoswami (Francis) and Prakash Bare (Caligari) playing the other main characters. All the actors performed superbly but Prakash Bare and PuravGoswami stood out for their intense portrayal of Caligari and Francis. The use of space and timing was impeccable and the performance space was extended to the audience gallery as well with some characters popping up from amongst the audience. The transformation of Caligari from someone who seeks permission from the town clerk to conduct his show, to someone who asks you why you feel it is important to control your mind is amazing. Prakash has carried it very well with subtle changes in the use of his body, gestures and expressions. Purav brings in tremendous energy and vitality into the character of Francis and the outrage he feels spills over into the audience and envelops them. Finally, Francis the dissenter is silenced by throwing him into a lunatic asylum and subjecting him to electric shock. The use of sound in this scene is such that it is something that hurts the audience and causes them to cringe, along with the other characters, under the watchful eye of Dr. Caligari. This single scene is enough to expose Fascism in all its bestiality.
Dramaturgy has been handled by PuravGoswami himself and the transition from a silent film is handled exceptionally well. The text blends in with the play and brings in a new dimension to it. Purav’s understanding of the issues facing the socio-political milieu is evident from the text and he says: “The dramaturgy emerged during the devising of the performance in negotiation with the space. In a sense, the attempt was to try and displace the text from the top of the theatrical hierarchy”. Innovative use of video, lighting and the space ensure that Purav has achieved this objective.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a multi-layered play that invites and even demands, active involvement from the audience. It is gripping and thought provoking and even disturbing but the audience have to make the effort to engage with it. At one level, as the play unfolds, we see the manipulations of an evil genius who plays around with the human mind and compares it with putty. He rejoices in his ability to wreak havoc and exercise total control on those around him and finally seeks to achieve a superior position with metaphysical questions such as “Do you truly know what you know?” “What came first, the universe or consciousness?”.
At another level, the play is a reflection of what is happening around us today. Dr. Caligari is the personification of a dominant force conniving and scheming to take over an unsuspecting and unthinking majority, controlling and directing their thought. We see Francis getting isolated and finally thrown into a mental hospital and thus silenced, a price he pays for standing up against tyranny; Jane and her father, Dr. Stern, become mindless subjects bowing down before the cruel authority, an ever-sleeping Cesare being forced to commit crimes that he doesn’t even realise he is doing; in essence a society that is being slowly brought under the control of a dangerous, evil authority that is focused only strengthening its position and achieving its nefarious designs. The distance from the setting in the play to what is happening in contemporary India is not too far. Cesare is hypnotized into the conduct of brutal acts – and you think of the lynching that happens in the name of the cow. Caligari wants to control minds and even wonders why everyone wants to have control of their own minds – and you are reminded of the current effort to control the very institutions that generate thought. The person that questions Fascism is painted mad and taken to the madhouse and the audience remembers the rants about anti-nationals that ring in our ears every day. In the last scene, Caligari comes on stage, douses the fire lit by Francis and declares quite calmly:“Why do you need mental freedom? Do you think that makes you a free man? Freedom is not absolute”. This is what Fascism is – control of thought and thus freedom.
Germany under Hitler and the Nazis saw its people turn a blind eye and even support one of the worst genocides in human history. After the war, when they were released from the clutches of the Nazis, the horror hit them in its full force. They couldn’t come to terms with their acquiescence and what they allowed to happen. In India, we see the signs of Fascism rearing its ugly head, of people losing their mind and ability to think and starting to view anyone who dares to question, to be different, to be non-confirming, with suspicion. It is here that Deepan steps in with an intervention in the form of this play. He brings back the theme to its rebellious glory by removing the twist introduced by the director in the movie and thus forces the audience to face arather hard question. Are we Francis, Dr. Stern, Cesare or even Caligari himself? Therein lies the politics of the play and therein the reason why this play is very important in current times and needs to be watched and discussed. Congratulations to Deepan Sivaraman and his entire team for standing up for what art really is!
Sudeesh Yezhuvath is a member of NECAB and he lives and works in Bangalore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Aloshy Antony