A writer recounts his odd friendship with an actor past his prime
by Sayantan Ghosh
Theatre in Calcutta has been rapidly losing its significance. Anirban-da’s* intervention was timely, but it wasn’t entirely voluntary. He didn’t have much choice given that his last feature film — one based on his own family history — wasn’t seen by very many people. And his supposed row with a powerful film production house in Calcutta had made it harder for him to find financiers for new films. So, it wasn’t surprising to anyone when he announced one day that he’s going back on stage, which is where his unconventional career began some forty years ago.
On a damp day in October, I stood behind the Gyan Manch on Pretoria Street sipping tea from a plastic cup. Anirban-da’s new play, based on the life of an Italian scientist, was set to premiere in just a few minutes. The crowd had begun to assemble near the entrance gate and it was mostly made up of familiar faces. He had feared this. Only friends, flatterers and wannabe actors looking for parts in his next movie had flocked to the theatre. I ’d known him long enough to know the faces he saw in his head when he had mentioned to me that this might happen. These same faces were gathered outside the gate now.
By the time I took my seat in the theatre, the lights were already dim. A young boy from Anirban-da’s theatre group wearing a Jim Morrison t-shirt made an announcement about turning off mobile phones. His speech was so languid and ineffective that some people started making last minute calls to check on their children, or to confirm that their driver had found a parking space, simply to annoy the kid. When the curtain lifted, an elemental, bare set lay in front of the audience. It was bohemian in an almost rebellious sort of way. Boxes wrapped in brown paper served as tabletops while lighting instruments and crumpled sheets of paper were thrown around the stage in disarray. Anirban-da later told me the crumbled papers were pages from his unsold film scripts. A live band sat on barstools in the shadows behind the set playing jazz music from the early 60s.
The scientist character on stage was portrayed as a misunderstood, alcoholic, moody philosopher from the very first scene. Perhaps this was a reflection of the state of Anirban-da’s own mind. His appearance was almost clown-like, with face paint and a garish costume. Artists seem to be increasingly willing to forego subtlety and slap on some melodrama if it sells more tickets. “A play begins long before the curtains go up, and remains long after the last person in the audience has left the auditorium”, Anirban-da once said to me. I wanted to ask him what this meant, but he passed out from too much whiskey on a single-seater sofa in the drawing room of his Behala residence before I got the chance.
Anirban-da started doing theatre during his university days under the guidance of the thespian Badal Sarkar. In the early eighties, he regularly performed plays translated from the works of Sartre, Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht. The unexpected happened when veteran filmmaker Mridul Sen spotted him and offered him a film gig in the title role, which he accepted and went on to win an international award for. But most acclaimed films in the 1980s began to attract the unwanted label of “art films”, almost predestined to fail commercially in the minds of the general cinema-going public. These works of art are instead reduced to subjects of conversation in self-appointed intellectual circles and in coffeehouse debates.
By the early nineties, Mridul Sen had grown old and the rest of the industry began to forget him. For a large part of that decade Anirban-da wrote songs, and a few of his early numbers created quite a stir with their uninhibited frankness in the relatively conservative Bengali society. However, fate wasn’t on his side and he was accused of plagiarism for ripping off a Leonard Cohen song, as well as being criticised for his disharmonious voice and repetitiveness. In interviews he neither denied nor accepted any of these plagiarism accusations completely, choosing rather to remain vague with his answers.
When I asked him why he picked Leonard Cohen’s most popular song to copy instead of a lesser-known one, he said “I’ll buy you chicken momos if you don’t ask that question ever again”. It was a fair deal. Much later I realized his music was only an extension of the actor in him. An actor that subconsciously tried to emulate De Niro’s walk in Taxi Driver, that fed on Woody Allen’s comebacks, and that strived continuously to stay relevant even through his obvious “unwanted-ness“.
The first performance of ‘The Irreverent Man of Science’ was a success, earning a standing ovation from the audience and a couple of good reviews in the local dailies, but, more importantly, was the number of people that hung around outside the theatre gates after the show. Almost everyone in the audience had decided to wait to meet the performers. Granted, many were family members of the actors and musicians. From all the congratulating and celebrating, only Anirban-da was missing. His wife asked me to go look for him. About fifteen minutes later I found him in an abandoned green room backstage.
He hadn’t taken off his make-up and was staring blankly at a rickety mirror that hung from a decrepit wall that smelled of cobwebs and Plaster of Paris. I feared interrupting him: I feared that he may break down before me, because I knew him to be a dramatic person. So it was funny when he spotted me in the mirror and asked “have you come for an autograph”?
I said to him, “You’re not a star”!
His rehearsed, quick reply was, “You’re not my audience”.
I asked him to come outside and meet the people who were waiting for him. Although he didn’t turn around, I knew that he had heard me. It was an intimate moment that could have lasted longer if I hadn’t walked out. But with that one flippant response he had established his sadness for me. A sadness he always spoke of while talking about Bob Dylan, or even Mridul Sen, both had changed too quickly for their own fans to keep up.
He had found his own audience as a serious actor among a crop of mediocre superstars in the beginning, but then that very same audience had rejected him as soon as he started making a name for himself for the same reasons they had rejected the mediocre superstars. They missed him in his obscurity. His credibility seemed only to be accessible to people in his absence. He produced films for both television and the big screen, but he always wanted to act in them. The more his films failed, the more dependent he became on others to help him survive. The solitary experiences of his college days aimlessly walking around the meandering lanes of North Calcutta — inspiration in his earlier performances — had been permanently lost.
It’s been almost three years since ‘The Irreverent Man of Science’ enjoyed its success. In fact, it was even remounted for a few extra shows to accommodate the growing interest of a Calcutta audience that was apparently tired of watching the same old theatre; the kind that plays around with the same old political themes or sappy family dramas. He has since written and directed one unprofitable play, a couple of flops and one moderately successful film. I haven’t spoken to him in over a year because I simply don’t know what to say to him. I have never understood what to do with this relationship.
But two weeks ago, I saw a picture of him on his wife’s Facebook profile. It was a rather unexciting photograph of a man in a brown suede jacket sitting alone on one of those green benches in Darjeeling. He was staring into the distance like many people do in an effort to get the “perfect photo”. Only three people had liked it. Part of his face was covered with his hand and it was taken from a distance, making him almost unrecognizable in the crowd. If I hadn’t known him as well as I did, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him either.
Three days later, I read in the papers that he was acting in another play, directed by his friend this time and based on a Brecht script. His number of fans and flatterers has dwindled even further in the past few years. But from what I could gather from that photograph in Darjeeling, is that, perhaps, he has found his solitude again.
*The names of the people in this story have been changed.
Sayantan Sunny Ghosh writes from a 11×11 room in New Delhi where he works as an editor for a publishing house. His work has appeared in Youth ki Awaaz, The Aerogram, Northeast Review, Reading Hour, The Bangalore Review, Antiserious among others and one of his short stories was long-listed for the DNA-Out of Print short fiction prize 2014.