Sohan Bandyopadhyay: the theatrical journey, ‘Natranga’, Bengali plays (Interview)

Sohan Banerjee-Bengali Theatre Actor-Director
Sohan Bandyopadhyay

June 8, 2011 (Calcutta Tube): Actor director Sohan Bandopadhyay, one of the most promising faces of Bengali theatre, recounts his journey with ‘Natranga’. The recipient of this year’s ‘Shyamal Sen Smriti Samman’ shares his thoughts and values about the art form in his candid interview with Calcutta Tube. Explore the illustrious actor-director in this exclusive CT feature.

Calcutta Tube: What was your starting point?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: I think it’s my very birth in our family. Nat-Ranga was created by my father Sushanta Kumar Banerjee, a few months (on 2nd of Oct’1972) prior to me on this earth. So, right from 7.10 AM of 10th February 1973 I am into theatre. I think unconsciously or may be subconsciously I got inculcated into theatre from that moment and thus, even though I made lot of efforts to come out of this ‘addiction’, still am caught in its grip.

Calcutta Tube: Who was your mentor in acting?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: Obviously my father. I have seen him acting right from the early days of my childhood. I have been greatly influenced by him. Though, he has never tutored me in the true sense of it, but I used to watch him closely and developed lots of things on my own. Later on, I got some guidance from Shyamal Ghosh (the next director of Nat-Ranga after my father; a prolific actor himself). Other than these two persons, I never really got influenced by anyone on Bengali theatre.

Though I must acknowledge certain characterisations by few actors have created impact in my mind, viz., Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Kaushik Sen in ‘Tiktiki’, Supriyo Dutta in ‘Gontabyo’ and ‘Agunmukho’, Shyamal Chakraborty in ‘Winkle Twinkle’, Debshanker Halder as Aurangzeb in ‘Shahjahan’ and as Joseph in my play ‘Snuopoka’, Dwijen Bandyopadhyay in ‘Mushtijog’, Debesh Roychowdhury in a lot of plays, Gautam Halder in ‘Borda’, ‘Moromiya Mon’, etc. But these have been momentary impacts. I honestly don’t know whether I got influenced in my acting or because of these great acts. I should rather say that instinctively I developed a sense of acting in me (maybe I had it in my genes). I also got extremely influenced by great film actors like Anthony Hopkins, Lee Van Cliff, Ben Kingsley, Peter Ustinov, Nana Patekar, Smitha Patil, Rohini Hatangadi, Irrfan Khan, Santosh Dutta, Rabi Ghosh, Jwahar Roy, Tulsi Chakraborty, Molina Debi, Chhaya Debi and many others.

Sohan Banerjee in Bengali play 'Megapode'
Sohan Bandyopadhyay in 'Megapode'

Calcutta Tube: What is the history of Nat Ranga?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: Nat-Ranga started off on the 2nd day of October 1972. My father Sushanta Kumar Banerjee was the founder. It’s a long saga of 40 years. I suggest you visit our blog . There you will get details. Only thing which I want to add here is that, despite repeated attempts by lot of people (who have been by chance associated with Nat-Ranga not because of their merit but rather through personal connection) to shut down Nat-Ranga, we still survive despite all odds. Financial constraints have been a regular problem. We have been blessed with grants from the Ministry of Culture for the last two years. Prior to that we totally survived out of our pocket. We can proudly say we never had any so called patronage or out of the way media help, yet we remain eloquent.

Calcutta Tube: Megapode, Aami Weds Aami, Snuopoka, Gulbaaj – The Man of the Match, all these are based on concepts, some unnatural, rather than conventional stories with a message, these are quite appealing too, any special reason to promote these type of drama?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: Ahh…thats a tough question to answer. Frankly speaking, am not very convinced about the term that you coined, i.e., ‘unnatural’. Because these events are frequently happening in the nature around us. Yes, as you rightly said, they are unconventional with regard to Bengali theatre. Actually I feel, there is dearth of intellect in Bengali theatre, specifically on the script writing aspect. Rarely you come across a good script. I know I might be offending a few, but still, with reference to what I have seen or read, Bengali play scripts are still fixed on notions of 1970. Either most of the playwrights don’t identify or are unaware of the present era and its socioeconomics or else they don’t want to keep their eyes open. With the changing time, not only lifestyle, but values are also changing. Outlook to life of a 25 year old is different now. So, I should, as a playwright, prospect and identify something for him which he can touch and feel. In present day’s world where individual existence is the norm of the day and even nuclear families are degenerating, I simply can’t afford to gaga on the moral values of a joint family and its rosy existence.

Sohan Banerjee in Bengali play 'Ami Weds Ami'
Sohan Bandyopadhyay in 'Ami Weds Ami'

Calcutta Tube:  What is the underlying message that you want to convey to the audience through your drama?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: Believe me; I simply don’t want to convey anything. Am not a preacher. I just want to put up a slice of present day life, its economics, problems, etc in front of the society from an analytical angle giving the audience a scope to think and judge for themselves. At the same time I also want to assure them the true essence of entertainment (not comedy; rather a feeling of enrichment or fulfillment- value for their money and time) in my productions. I want to be a perfect performer giving the audience full return and dividend against their investment.

Calcutta Tube: So why housefulls are common in cinema halls rather than drama halls? Does it mean the audience love sophistication rather than appreciate the true essence of acting?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: No. Nothing like that. Even couple of years back Bengali cinema was in a bizarre state. Nowadays, with interestingly developed storylines, slowly Bengali cinema is gaining back. Same holds true for our theatre. I would like to reiterate, if you don’t give the audience the value for their money and time- why the hell will they come? If I do something of real worth, am sure audience will come. Yes, Bengali drama has a big legacy of ‘preaching’ (GYAN DAAN). We really need to come out of it. Why will a man spend his hard earned money and hear doctrines from the stage? He is already well aware of them in his day to day life. I don’t know why we theatre people consider the audience as fools? If we are so good in deciding what is good or bad for others, we should be in politics and not on stage.

Our job is to portray the societal aspects and not to propagate our own doctrines of what is good or bad. Let the audience decide. Can anybody tell me about a single play which has changed the society/world? Am sorry to say, there’s none. Rather, plays have taken advantage of current state of the society and have earned box office repute. So, let’s not be pretentious and let’s not preach something which we ourselves don’t believe. That’s the irony of our theatre.

Another point- over the years Bengali theatre has always posed a ‘beggar like’ existence. We have been feeling proud to say, “Ami khub koshto kore theatre ta korchi?” I feel like asking such people, “keno korchen? ke mathar dibbyi diyechey? apni na korley prithibir kon khotita hobey?” Actually, its an self-ego massaging statement. As if to say that I am a real generous human being who is devoting my life for the welfare of the society. We feel proud to beg and that is why, sadly though, we have not developed independent economics.  Can you imagine, still people ask for a Rs. 20/- ticket to watch a performance. Even when great actors like Debshanker Halder, Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Debesh Roychowdhury, Saonli Mitra, Dwijen Bandyopadhyay, etc., act in these plays. 40 plus people work together to co-ordinate and produce a play. And you want to see that just for Rs. 20/- ? It’s a farce. You buy a chicken roll at that price. The same person spends more than Rs.300/- to watch a film in a multiplex which is not at all a live product like theatre. A film is acted only once and a play germinates freshly every day, every moment. Still we theatre people don’t have the guts to ask for a higher price. So, if we ourselves tag a cheap strip to our own job, why will people be convinced to come for it. Yes, I do admit, there is another side of it. Sometimes people get shocked to watch inferior productions on the same stage and may be they are not even worth of that Rs. 20/-.  That’s a different issue altogether. It’s the lack of standardization prevailing in this field. Actually, anyone can claim to be an actor/director. There is no index to measure his abilities…….Huh!! I think am getting carried away!

In a nutshell, it’s a complicated situation and lots of things are involved. Whatever I said, if you can make out from that then its good…..or else you need to have few days of extensive brainstorming to find out the real cause, if at all it could be done.

Calcutta Tube: Do you plan for any plays that will reflect the state of mind of the present generation?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: I think I have already answered it earlier. All my plays are intended for the present generation. Only point is that, present generation means people living in this era. So my plays can even be targeted towards a man of 70 who is living now and facing the present society in its present form.

Calcutta Tube: Have you faced any problem in doing theatre from Howrah?

Sohan Bandyopadhyay: If you ask whether I faced any problem doing theatre from Howrah- I would rather say- No, nothing of that sort. May be 15-20 years back people used to stigmatize theatre of Howrah as ‘MOFOSSWOLER THEATRE’. But believe me, I have seen numerous productions from Howrah which were thousand times better than so call renowned plays of Kolkata. But just because they didn’t have enough exposure to the media, they remained unsung. However, in a nutshell I never faced any problem. May be the reason is, I did maximum theatre in Kolkata only.

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