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Mobile (theatre) magic in Assam

Saswati Kaushik, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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The mobile theatre of Assam that presents contemporary themes and adopts even Hollywood stories like the TITANIC is extremely popular both in urban and rural area of the state. Saswati Kaushik reports

The festive season heralded by Durga Puja is now full swing. In Assamís entertainment arena, itís also the time for the 'carnival on wheels' to roll out with its 'magic', 'miracles' and much more 'up the sleeve'. The vastly popular mobile theatre companies (known as Bhraymaman theatre locally) have launched their annual shows with stunts and emotional quotients packed together to make a winning combination of drama on stage.

To match its unrivalled record of bringing to life what even filmmakers think twice before venturing on reel, the mobile theatre companies of Assam have roped in contemporary issues - right from 'Saddam' to 'Superman' to 'vampires' to 'dwarfs'. Even Gabbar Singh and Sholay have got a new lease of life on Assam's stage though the much - vaunted Ram Gopal Varmaís version got the boot from the public and critics alike.

An industry in its own right with an annual turnover of over Rs 10 crore, the mobile theatre industry of the northeastern state has been entertaining the masses for the last few decades gaining in stature progressively.

Though mobile theatre of Assam has certain things in common with the 'Jatra' of West Bengal, for example, the roving nature and performance on make-shift stages, the Assam productions put in much more effort for technical perfection and have evolved from depictions of mythological stories to themes of contemporary nature.

Adaptation of ever-new themes and an eye to changing interests have ensured that the mobile theatre genre does not loose its appeal to the young audience either. With the Assamese film industry in a deep slumber, the plays have also provided the artists another platform to showcase their talent. The glamour quotient in these plays is ensured as Assamese film stars take up lead roles. It thus vindicates the significant place the mobile theatres hold in the media and entertainment industry in the state.

Most of the groups start their tour from mid-August and wind up by April. The rehearsals start from June, with the entire unit camping together till the end of the season.

Technology forms a very important role in these show-stealers. From sinking the Titanic to making the Anaconda crawl to recreating the Jurassic Park, the mobile theatre groups have 'been there, done that'. Even Princess Dianaís tragic death has featured in one of the plays.

A leading group, Kohinoor, which has an enviable record for wowing the audience with innovative technical feats on stage, has a dwarf up its sleeve this season. In its banner play this year Abuj Dora, Achin Kainya, the group is staging the tale of a dwarf and his two look-alikes of normal physical heights. A top actor of the Assamese film industry, Jatin Bora, has been roped in for the role. To transform the six- feet-tall Bora to a dwarf for one of the three characters is no mean feat. The play has similarities with the Kamal Hassan starrer APPU RAJA, but the producers maintain that the similarities are only to the extent that both have lead actors in the role of a dwarf. From lighting effects to specially tailored clothes with Mumbaiís help, the producers of Kohinoor have spared no cost to ensure that the effect is complete. And it has paid off well too. Already it is breaking records in revenue collection wherever it performs.

Last year, the group had staged a play with an actress in a double role, with the actress even appearing 'together' several times on stage.

On the social content in his plays and accusations that his plays play to the gallery (stage adaptation of TITANIC was done by his group) rather than propagating social values, 'Kohinoor' owner Ratan Lakhar says, "TITANIC was followed by a on the life of 'Kakalguru' Bishnu Rabha the next year.

"Bishnu Rabha is a cultural icon of Assamese society and greatly admired. I produced a play on his life but there were few takers. We have a business to run and along with producing plays with social content, we have to make plays which pull crowds."

"The plays always have a message for the masses, even though it is wrapped in a package of entertaining gimmicks," he says.

On the urban-rural preferences of theatre audience, Ratan Lakhar says people's expectation from theatre is not different in cities from that in villages or small towns. "Cities draw as much crowds as the smaller venues and the arrival of the cine stars on stage has added to the glamour quotient of the theatres. We pull more crowds now," he says.

A desi version of SUPERMAN is also making his appearance on the stage in Aashirbad theatre's play. The protagonist is set to fly around the stage with the acquired powers from an outfit with special powers.

Evil forces figure as a Dracula-inspired vampire in a production by the Deboraj theatre group. The vampire, more than 250 years old, sucks the blood of his victims. The group brings alive the blood sucking scenes in the play with technical help.

And if RGV's AAG left you with a sour taste, then check out the stage adaptation of SHOLAY by Rajashri Theatre this season. Varmaís attempts to divert from the original masterpiece may have fallen flat on its face, but the producers in Assam are happy sticking to the old plot and style.

From the famous motorbike ride to the train dacoity sequence of the original film, Rajashri Theatre has aptly translated on stage the magic of the blockbuster from the Sippy stable.

The mobile theatre groups of Assam have not just entertained the masses; they have also chosen contemporary topics and personalities as themes for their plays. This year too, a play based on Iraq's executed former ruler Saddam Hussein is being staged by the Saraighat theatre group.

Many plays by different groups have also helped spread social messages, from terrorism to AIDS, through their productions.

Bollywood, and Hollywood stories to some extent, however, are major inspirations for many of the plays. Among motley of such plays this year is one based on the life of a robber, an expert in breaking lockers, staged by the Bhagyadevi group. A host of such films, from DHOOM:2 to the remade DON to the just released CASH to VICTORIA NO. 203 have figured as inspiration of many of these plays. But the difference is the playwright has adapted it to suit local sentiments.

The mobile theatre groups are striking the right balance between entertainment and social content till now and the growing popularity of the plays even among the youngsters in urban areas prove that they are hitting the right chord.

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