The crackle of brilliance


A review of the play ‘Kusur’

Director & Lead actor: Amol Palekar

Co-director & Playwright: Sandhya Gokhale

Veteran script writer, costume and set designer, scholar of Hindustani classical music and lawyer, Sandhya Gokhale staged her play, ‘Kusur’ at the inaugural function of New Delhi’s National School of Drama’s 21st Bharat Rang Mahotsav – India’s International Theatre Festival spanning 21 days – on February 1st, 2020. Written by Gokhale and adapted from the Danish film, Den Skyldige, the play was co-directed with her husband, veteran actor Amol Palekar, who was both director and lead actor in the role of retired Assistant Police Commissioner, Ashok Dandavate. Premiered at NCPA, Mumbai on November 24th, 2019, ‘Kusur’ was Gokhale’s gift to her husband on his completing 75 years on this day.

In the Director’s note on the play, we learn of the couple’s earlier experience of adapting a play for a feature film but to do the reverse was a challenge. For one, Dandavate’s own story as sub-text had to be extrapolated by the audience through the numerous calls that he had to respond to as volunteer on a rainy night in a Mumbai police emergency control room. Second, the taut realism of cinema frames had to be adapted to create the same claustrophobic tension on a single set on stage within a one-act framework of 80 minutes! As the drama unfolded through constant phone calls, climaxing through the trauma experienced by one particular family, the sets and sound served as characters in themselves: a cluttered table, a maze of telephone lines, headphones, control panels and six blinking lights; an elaborate sound design that enabled the audience to hear the distress of anonymous Mumbai residents calling in for emergency services – some trivial, others fraught, yet others electrifying.

One of very first calls sets the stage for the drama to unfold: it is of a terrified male voice, certain that his companion is dying, gasps and death gurgles renting the air. Dandavate suspects it to be a drug addiction case, locates the site and sends the alert for an ambulance service to reach the site. As this dramatic incident peters out, Dandavate presents the persona of a self-assured and experienced man who knows how to respond to every call with a sense of duty, as he attempts to energize police services nearest to the affected. At the same time, he is detached for when he gets a call from a man who has fallen off his bike and suspects a broken leg, he tells him categorically to call for a cab and reach the nearest hospital.

The constant telephone ring, the strain to connect, the interruptions from background noise and rain, the breakdowns in transmission, the blipping of lights all add to the claustrophobic chaos of a city descending on a control room manned by a single aging person who has volunteered there for unknown reasons. As director, Palekar masters this chaos by breaking it: there are silences where nothing happens as the audience absorbs the sight of an engaged and dignified figure spending long moments pouring out water from an electric jug and drinking from it or clearing his nose. As actor, Palekar offers subtle variations to his role: his voice and movements are practical and efficient; his voice and movements are also intense and empathetic as he gets involved in the multi-layered trauma of a single family, each of its three members possessing a distinct voice of her/his own.

Gokhale’s script itself, revealing the barest bones of plot, allows focus on performance and an inner story. The audience, too, is drawn into the task of discovering this story. The first reference to Dandavate’s own past comes from the visit of an ex-officer friend, Pande, who refers to Dandavate’s court trial to be held the next day – vaguely but ominously suggesting that he himself would be ‘witness’. Though friends, there is a confrontational nature to their meeting which is unsettling.

Later, Dandavate practically reveals his ‘kusur’ to the audience: he had killed an unarmed man with knowing deliberateness. He is now looking for resolution, a way out as a penitential volunteer where the terms of service are both humble and anonymous. He finds his chance in the story of a couple and their two children. The man appears to have forced his wife into their small red car, driving off forcibly with her. The voice of the trauma-stricken wife dominates the stage, crackling intermittently through the wires as she begs Dandavate to take care of her son who is alone at home with his baby sister.

Tracing their home land-line number, Dandavate has the most heart-rending conversation with 7-year old son, Bunty who weeps for his mother Kaveri, revealing how his father had dragged her away, holding a knife in his hand. The darkest secret surrounds baby Haseena who lies in a closed bedroom – a bedroom to which the father, in one dialogue, pleadingly forbids Bunty entry. The father’s religion is suggested in the baby’s name – Haseena. Though Kaveri’s voice is hauntingly overwrought, the script gives no indication that she could be mentally unbalanced. Knowing she is Hindu, Dandavate urges Pande to visit the couple’s home, his plea indicative of a need for his own catharsis: “Please do this, Pande. For Bunty’s sake.” Pande obliges, only to witness a scene of horror.

It is only when the audience realizes that the marriage is an inter-religious one that it guesses that Dandavate’s first ‘kusur’ was based on religious hatred, of which preconceived bias he was not even aware. Dandavate’s second ‘kusur’ is his misjudgment in understanding the couple’s intense predicament. But, true to Gokhale’s script, he is looking for catharsis. He finds this by finally seeing the relationship between action and consequence, between cause and effect. As Dandavate’s night ends, he is a weary man, yet a glimmer of understanding relieves his gloom. Palekar walks slowly off the stage and into the audience, the azaan sounding in the background. His last words resonate: “I’m indebted to this night…..Good intentions alone don’t absolve us of our sins. Thank you Kaveri for helping me realize this!”

Palekar made a comeback to the stage after 25 years, and to the Kamani auditorium stage after 50. His performance was mesmerizing for the subtle yet intense shifts he allowed for revealing his real character behind the persona of a respectable and controlled senior ex-police officer. Gokhale’s script achieved all the effects of stress, claustrophobia and trauma and gave the audience enough involvement to shape its own suspicions and conclusions. It took her six months to persuade the Danish producers of the original film, Den Skyldige and its director-co-writer, Gustav Moller to grant her the theatre rights for the film. With Moller insisting on a word-to-word translation, Gokhale resisted this with the explanation that cultural sensibilities differed, and while she would be faithful to the spirit of the script, she needed the latitude to adapt it to the Indian context. Finally, they were so happy with the script that they gave her the rights to adapt it to any Indian language. Consequently, the background voices of anonymous Mumbaiites calling in, each with her/his own story lent the play the overall crackle of brilliance.

First published in the Spring Issue, 2020 of Verse of Silence, Issue 1, Volume 3.

Neera Kashyap has worked on health, social and environmental communications. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled, ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co.,2003) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays, story/book reviews and creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in two poetry anthologies published in the U.K. (Clarendon Publishing House and The Poet) and in several South Asian journals including Papercuts, Kitaab, Mad in Asia and Out of Print & Blog. She lives in Delhi.




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