Utpal Dutt first staged ‘Aajker Shahjahan’ in 1985 and played the title role himself. Decades later, Suman Mukhopadhyay of Chetana, one of the oldest theatre groups in Kolkata, recently picked this play to present it as part of 75 years of Group Theatre in Bengal at a Theatre Festival organised by Bulu Dutta at the Rabindra Natya Mandir in Kolkata.

In 2007, Rituparno Ghosh made ‘The Last Lear’ adapted from Dutt’s play with Amitabh Bachchan playing the senior actor Harish Mishra.

The name ‘Aajker Shahjahan’ throws up a relatively contemporary interpretation of the emperor Shahjahan, who was held captive by his own son during his last days. In ‘Aajker Shahjahan’, the characters and the ambience are different as are the time-space paradigms.

The play is about a forgotten, but once-famous, stage actor Kunjabihari (Shankar Chakraborty) who, though away from the stage for many years, holds himself captive within the roles he played in performances like William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and the historical ‘Chandragupta’, when he is not drinking his way through the day and night, left alone without a life partner or children.

The other prison he finds himself caged in is when Subrata (Riddhi Sen), a strapping young film director, persuades him to play the role of a joker in his new film. Kunjabihari has never faced a movie camera before and is not interested in facing one now. But Subrata and his team persuade him to step in with accolades about his past performances never mind, considering his youth, whether he has watched his earlier performances or not.

Kunjabihari accepts in exchange for a high fee and with the assurance that he will be given his daily dose of his drink. From this point on, the story shifts to the environment around the film being shot, with a large screen covering the back of the performance space. Subrata is a director hell bent on investing his play with authenticity, never mind the risks these demand of Kunjabihari, considering his age, health and addiction.

The role he is to play has many risky shots such as climbing to the top of a mountain and slipping down the ice, considered dangerous for any actor specially for an aged person like Kunjabihari. However, Subrata ensures that a stunt master from Mumbai will do the actual stunts, and also protect the old actor from any possible danger.

The proscenium space keeps vacillating between the preparation of the shoot with trolley, movie camera, boom man with his boomstick, make-up staff and crew occupying centre stage, and the white screen at the back where we find huge clips of close-ups of the performance by Kunjabihari.

This invests the play with a third dimension pulling the viewer to concentrate on the goings on without a flicker of the eye. Splitting the stage into two clear segments – the real and the illusionary – is established imaginatively by Suman and his crew.

The captivity of Kunjabihari slowly deteriorates to the eternal conflict between the honest dedication of a committed theatre artist, and the great risks a creative director actually takes with his main actor not bothered about the risks these will fall on Kunjabihari. Subrata nixes the initial take and decides to shoot the most dangerous shot of sliding down the mountain top without the stunt man and with Kunjabihari performing the act himself.

The dedicated performer that he is, Kunjabihari accepts the challenge knowing that it will be a risk to his life. But some members of the crew, and the cameraman withdraw from participating in a film shoot that might lead to murder. Subrata, in a classic case of “commitment” of a different kind, is least concerned about the danger to Kunjabihari’s life. The stuntman refuses to leave Kunjabihari and promises to stay beside him to guard him.

This is also the other reason why the play is titled ‘Aajker Shahjahan’. It is the captivity Kunjabihari is held in by the much younger film director Subrata to give of his best in the first, and probably, the last film of his long career.

Suman Mukherjee’s Subrata, and his so-called, unending praise of the old actor amounts to a no-holds-barred, scathing attack on the ‘commitment’ that masks the benign face behind the realistic, uncompromising filmmaker. He is fake, lesser than a normal human being as he is prepared to make the greatest ‘compromise’ for his film, and put the life of his main actor at stake for that realistic shot.

Shankar Chakraborty who kept himself captive in roles in teleserials and occasionally, in films, returns to ‘Aaajker Shahjahan’ as Kunjabihari. Chakraborty is brilliant in the title role though he was a mere backstage worker when Utpal Dutt first staged the play.

A brilliant actor in all circumstances, he has done himself proud with applause at certain points of the performance and a loud cheer by the the entire audience when, as he departs the sets. he tells Subrata, “Subrata, you could not kill me after all”, and the entire theatre bursts out in unified and loud applause.

This resurrection of a near-forgotten actor like Shankar Chakraborty to enact Kunjabihari is perhaps the biggest milestone this play has laid for the future of theatre in West Bengal. His performance veers away from any kind of theatrical stylisation which may be against history but gives it easier access to today’s audience. The performance of all actors fits into the contemporary scenario where loud and high-pitched theatrics are not demanded.

The play is peppered with a lot of acidic satire, humour and irony from time to time when the producer steps in and is wary about whether the money spent will come back from the play. This lightens the atmosphere and adds fun to the serious play.

National Award-winning actor Riddhi Sen matches the senior actor in every scene and sets new standards of excellence. The actress performing the young ‘actress’ role in Subrata’s film, is very good and establishes her “goodness” with conviction. The cameo characters give excellent support to the main characters.

The set design splitting the proscenium space into two halves, the shooting site and the big screen at the back, blends the two mediums of cinema and stage. It effectively gets across the conflict between the old stage actor and the new-age, young director, and how it is purely a product of human manipulation and exploitation veiled under the guise of artistic creativity and commitment.

Suman happens to be the older of Arun Mukherjee’s two sons, both sucked into theatre, Suman stepped into direction with ‘Gantabya’ (1997) under Chetana. He has directed feature films too.

Credit goes to Suman Mukhopadhyay who took the challenge of resurrecting an Utpal Dutt play where, as a young man, he had assisted Dutt. He carried the memories strongly enough to revive the same play for a contemporary audience.

The costumes, imaginative, colourful and convincing, sometimes raise the question of which of the two – the actor or the director – is the joker of the story even if the actor is portraying the ‘joker’ in the film.