Nati Binodini is an ambitious play. It aims at being much more than a biography of the nineteenth-century Bengali prostitute who achieved almost mythical renown as a stage actress. It sets out to tell a story about modern Indian theatre, to expose the intimate yet exploitative relationship that actresses have had with the stage, and to probe the nature of acting itself.
As a line in the play has it, “Abhinaya swayam ko jaanne ki ek kriya hai, par aisa abhyas karna bahut kathin saadhna hai. [Acting is a way to understand oneself, but to practise that art is a very difficult exercise.]” But for Binodini, acting is a way to transcend her socially-scripted role as a low-born woman whose profession makes her irretrievably immoral in the eyes of society. Once on stage, she can be Juliet, Kanchan, Kapalkundala – or even Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
The script gestures several times towards the irony that the theatre allowed her to transform herself into a bhadramahila by the sheer ability to act like one, but would not let her escape her tainted status in real life. Rather than catapulting her into respectability, the stage remains tied down by the immorality associated with actresses like herself. The alternative is also not appealing for a woman who has experienced her kind of professional success. As her mentor Girish Ghosh (played with conviction by the sonorous-voiced Jayanto Das) puts it, “Baganbari – that’s what your life will be reduced to if you leave the theatre”. (Baganbari - lit. garden house - is a kind of suburban villa that many of Calcutta’s bhadralok built as a retreat from the city.)
Director Amal Allana seeks to play with time and identity by having five different actresses play Binodini at different ages, and having them appear on stage at the same time. It’s an interesting experiment to watch, but the performances seem to clash and detract from each other, rather than allowing one to be moved by the power of a singular persona. The performances are also, by and large, extremely overblown – Salima Raza as the old Binodini has a pronounced hobble and wailing voice (not to mention her incorrect pronunciation of Bengali words) that are cringeworthy. It’s clear that the idea was to interleave the play with fragments in the melodramatic declamatory style popular in Binodini’s time, but that style seems to have taken over the production, making it difficult to be drawn in or moved by the acting. Nissar Allana’s lighting and set design is fantastic, with a transparent stage lit from below, as is Devajit Bandopadhyay’s immaculately-researched musical score, but in the end you’re left with the sense of a tremendous spectacle, and little else.
Published in Time Out Delhi, Issue 14 Friday, October 01, 2010