Dire Desire

Club Desire: NCPA, Tata Theatre, Mumbai, 24.10. 2013 (JM)

Written by Sapan Saran.
Directed by Sunil Shanbag.

The opera “Carmen” is one of those univerally-appealing theatrical works that has been adapted countless times…with varying degrees of success, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. “Club Desire” which is said to be “inspired” by the opera, comes dangerously close to the latter end of this spectrum.

To begin with, one wishes the “inspiration” had dug a little deeper. For “Carmen” is a work about fundamental conflicts on several levels: between good and evil, law and lawlessness, society and the self, love and lust. In this, the soldier Don José’s passion for the wild gypsy girl Carmen is contrasted by the chaste love he shares with his childhood sweetheart Micaela; his need to serve his “flag” and do his duty as a soldier clashes with Carmen’s demands that he throw it all away and follow her (and her smuggler friends) in a life of unbridled freedom.

Carmen too faces a conflict of her own: whether to allow herself to be fettered by the bonds of love which José demands; or be free to follow her primal instincts in responding to the irresistably sexual charisma of the bullfighter Escamillo.

“Club Desire” dispenses with the Micaela character almost entirely, keeping her firmly offstage with only a couple of half-baked references in the dialogue. Thus she ceases to be an effective counterpoint to Carmen, who is here a nightclub singer, appropriately named Chahat (desire, in Hindi). Don José becomes Jayam, a somewhat nerdish, language-obsessed poet; and Escamillo, a flashy DJ named Abeer. The personal conflicts are merely twofold: that of Jayam’s call of duty towards his dying mother vis-à-vis Chahat’s demands; and her choosing between the two men…though even this is made a non-issue when she says its quite all right to sleep with one man while loving another.

Another conflict of sorts is introduced in Sapan Saran’s script by pitting the high art of poetry against the skill required to mix a DJ-set. Hardly earth-shaking; but Ms Saran makes a meal of it. She also holds forth at great length on language, on how “precious” words are, with interminable, jejune debates on their correct usage and expression. Considering all of this begins with an etymology of the expletive “f**k”, it is difficult to take seriously. Ms Saran alternates these intellectual exercises with dialogue that is mercifully naturalistic; and though the latter may not be great writing for the theatre, at least it isnt boring.

The same dichotomy exists in Arundathi Subramaniam’s lyrics, which  attempt to be pithy and raw…but so much ends-up sounding pretentious. A prize line is “The heart is a verb; and it hurts” (WHAT does that mean??). And when she tries to be simple (as in Chahat’s only ballad, near the end of the play) the results are embarassingly cloying and clichéd.

Sunil Shanbag is an immensely respected director; and one wonders why he chose such trite material to work with. One senses he is trying his best; but there are some longeurs during scenes and awkward transitions between them. Also, one senses his hands are tied by fear of the “moral police” in this city; as the interplay between Chahat and her lovers has about as much sexual aggression as adolescent groping in the school backyard. Ditto for her violent encounters with Jayam.

The music is generally hard rock; much of it monotonous, derivative, tuneless and forgettable. The few exceptions are Chahat’s ballad; and a couple of sensuous rhythmic “loops”. There are even a couple of references to the music in “Carmen”, with Chahat attempting to sing Carmen’s signature Habanera to a pop rhythm.

Which brings one to the performances. Manasi Parekh Gohil is a refreshingly “open” unmannered actress; and thus perfect casting for a character like Chahat who is free as a bird. She conveys a sexuality that is integrated into the characterisation rather than a too-obvious add-on. Unfortunately, her voice lacks a true “centre”, coming across as somewhat high-pitched in speech. In song, however, she employs her lower and middle registers more often…though there is a slight, audible “rasp” (probably brought-on by misuse) and some strain on the high notes. Her singing of the lyrics is mostly unintelligible in the rock numbers, or made so by the excessively loud band accompanying her.

Faisal Rashid as Jayam gives a finely-graphed characterisation, going from innocent poet to psychotic, spurned lover. One wishes, however, that his character had been made an English poet, as the frequent departures into flowery Hindi are irritating and distracting in what is supposed to be an English play.

Gagan Dev Riar offers comic relief as the vividly-etched nightclub-owner, though the comedy is too broad and stagey to make him truly convincing. On the other hand, Karan Pandit as the DJ has little meat on what is essentially a two-dimensional character; but he makes the best of it…though one misses a more libidinous swagger.

Ultimately, the most powerful image one remembers from this production is the DJ’s simian-like jumping, gesticulating and nodding to a mind-numbing, repetitive, electronically-generated rhythm. This is, sadly, a sign of the times, one of the themes driving the play. However, it is equally sad and apparent that “Club Desire” panders to the lowest common denominator in this city’s cultural life.

Jiten S. Merchant

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