Chetana, under the auspices of Mukhomukhi Theatre Festival and presented by Bilu Dutta, recently held a theatre-cum-film festival in Kolkata to celebrate the double-identity of Suman Mukhopadhyay of Chetana.

Mukhopadhyay, the elder of the two sons of Arun Mukhopadhyay, the founder-director of Chetana, is a celebrated persona in Bengali theatre, and also a filmmaker. Three films he has directed over the years, were screened as a part of the six-day festival.

‘Don – Take Bhalo Lage’ (Don, He is the Liked One) was adapted into a play inspired by ‘Don Quixote – The Man of La Mancha’ by Miguel De Cervantes of Spain. It was originally published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615.

It is often labelled as the first modern novel and one of the greatest works ever written. Don Quixote is also one of the most-translated books in the world, and one of the best-selling novels of all time.

The play ‘Don – Taake Bhalo Lage’ was translated into Bengali by Arun Mukhopadhyay from American Playwright Dale Wasserman’s ‘The Man from La Mancha and not from Cervantes’ original novel which was written in Spanish but later translated in many languages across the world.

Is it a ‘period’ play? Yes, it is. Is it a journey play? It is that too. Is it an adventure play? Yes, of course, it is.

Is it a musical performance? Yes, perhaps this is the most outstanding feature of this performance. The live music by Prabuddha Banerjee, on either side of the stage, is amazing.

The actors are magically flexible, mobile and mesmerising in the way they switch scenes and dialogue. The way they switch from dance to song to music to acting is magnificent.

It is also a political satire filled with caustic comments touched with intelligent comic dialogue and repartee often linked to the contemporary political reality we are living within.

Down the years, the adventure story of Don Quixote has been performed many times, sometimes as a musical play, the first performed in 1965, sometimes in the shape of a film in 1972 and now in Bengali.

It projects man’s universal desire to create an illusory world of dreams distanced from the reality in which he lives, till he begins to identify with the illusory Knight who does not exist except in his dreams. His dreams may seem unreal but they have an agenda of “being a knight in arms and setting things right” whatever it means.

The Mukhomukhi presentation by Chetana however, has created a version of this classic into a musical opera-cum-social satire with Don by adhering to the original creation. Several scholars have interpreted that Don Quixote is an imaginary character which is the author Miguel De Cervantes himself.

So, this Bengali and contemporised version introduces us to renowned poet, theatre director, and actor Subhomoy Dutt (Suman Mukhopadhyay) who is arrested for his outrageous comments against the state, and locked in custody with other petty convicts.

Does this not remind us of the recent arrests of great intellectuals by the present government at the centre such as Hiren Gohain , Dalit scholar Anil Teltumbde on charges of being part of an ‘urban Maoist’ plot to incite violence at Bhima Koregaon?

There are others like Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves – some of the most respected voices in the field of tribal rights activism – all of whom were arrested in 2018 on similar charges?

Don Quixote in the original novel, is tall and skeletally thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs.

The mismatched couple has remained a key literary archetype. The characters are an anathema to the common conception of a “hero” figure as a handsome, muscled, macho figure of ‘physical’ masculinity.

Shubhomoy soon begins to direct a play with the other prison inmates, drawing out costumes and masks and shields from his ‘magic’ trunk of theatre wear. Sancho Panza (Sujan Mukherjee), who is neither short nor fat in the play, is slightly more pragmatic than his leader Shubhomoy-turned-Don.

But he cannot answer when asked why he follows this crazy leader and sings - he “loves him and that is why.” This defines a beautiful relationship created out of pure love, affection and a kind of leader-follower relationship which is also illusory.

La Mancha, the village, is a surreal village created by Subhomoy-Don in his rich, imaginary world where he begins to identify with the Knight-in-Arms who arrived to rescue and ‘save’ the “wrongs done to people” which is surreal.

La Mancha assumes the role of a character in the play because Don is unimaginable without La Mancha and even without Sancho Panza and Dulcinea. The uniqueness of this ‘dreaming’ lies in the richness and hope that fills the reader/audience with dreams that can make life more of a pleasure than it is in the real world.

The bars of the cell sometimes extend from behind the stage to the stage front. This denotes the flexibility of ‘freedom’ versus ‘imprisonment’ as much outside as it exists within the bars of a prison where the prisoner-cum-actors reside from time to time and come out to portray a given character within the play.

The problem with “Don” is that he imagines the prisoners, the characters becoming ‘real’ not only within the play but also in his illusory life. This extends to his falling madly in love with a prostitute whose original name he changes to Dulcinea, as he feels that a knight in shining armour (his helmet, shield and spear are indigenously produced) who looks more funny than authentic, must have a woman to love.

Never mind how much she tries to persuade him that she is not Dulcinea, a woman of noble birth fit to be the lover of a knight-in-arms, Don refuses to believe her.

Another bonus in this performance is the bit appearance of the legendary director-actor-playwright and founder of Chetana, Arun Mukhopadhyay who appears as the deaf-mute barber whose metal bowl is transformed into a crown by one of the characters, a prisoner who has lost her son and is desperate to bag a part in the ‘play’.

When he is upbraided for using sign language that cannot be deciphered by Suhbhoy, he suddenly opens up and retorts, “But you did not give me any dialogue to deliver, did you?” and the audience goes into splits.

Nibedita Mukherjee as Dulcinea throws up the most outstanding performance among all. Throwing up her wide, colourful sassy skirt, lifting it up to assert her identity as a prostitute and trying to dissuade Don from giving her the dignity she thinks she does not deserve is electrically charged.

The rest of the huge cast, including Suman Mukhopadhyay as Subhomoy/Don, Sujan Mukherjee as Sancho Panza in his colourful jacket and the other major players are almost as challenging as she is. The costumes are more funny than real but that is precisely the aim, right?

In his directorial statement, Sujan Mukherjee rightly states, “to dream the impossible dream” has been the quest of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. He adds, “Designed as an opera, this is a hard-hitting musical, questioning the reality we are living in, arguing our existence in the modern, socio-cultural situation.”

So, where is the catch? Towards the end, it begins to drag because it is just too long at more than two hours watched by a full house in mesmerising silence. A bit of clipping of some scenes that seem repetitive could be cut out, perhaps.

But hats off to this festival that offered many of us the chance to watch a theatrical performance on a proscenium space, a classic piece like Don Quixote and that too, in Bengali!