Wednesday, November 26, 2014
රංග බූන්දි | "Gutikamata Niyamithayi"- A serious indictment on our existence in a desensitized society - [Upali Amarasinghe | උපාලි අමරසිංහ]
The third bell rings. Yet the curtain does not open. Instead, an actor appears on the left of the stage welcoming the audience and engaging in a monologue.
This is how Thilak Nandana Hettiarachchi makes his re-appearance as a dramatist after seventeen years of hibernation plotting his latest play 'Gutikaemata Niyamithai' (loosely translated as 'Destined to be beaten')
Strange as it may seem, the characters of the play are a Beedi Kote (butt of a local cigarette), a Dadiya binduwa (drop of sweat) and a Gulla (weevil). The three characters in their inimitable style bring forth to the audience the tragedy of their lives; the tragedy of being imprisoned inside a loaf of bread. They want to break free but do not know how.
At the outset, they have told the dramatist about their problem and he has suggested presenting their problem to the audience in the form of drama with the fervent hope that the audience would come up with a solution! It is their last desperate appeal to the audience to find a way to escape from the agony of their imprisonment.
However, viewers begin to understand that the border lines between characters of the play and the members of audience are becoming blurred in the ensuing process. Everyone on stage and in the audience seems to have been trapped inside a loaf of bread, the symbol of a smothering system or a structure and the tragedy of three characters of the play gradually begin to be seen as a tragedy of the people in and outside the theatre.
The story is unfolding with the three characters grieving about their lost freedom and the multitude of futile attempts being tried out over the course of their lives to break away from the ‘structure’ of the loaf of bread. They appeal to all deities of the world invoking their super-natural powers. Yet no powers come to their rescue. They question whether all forces in the world are serving the interests of the loaf of bread. They begin to doubt whether their way of thinking is the barrier. In an effort to change their ‘attitudes’, they run looking for ‘factories’ dishing out ‘positive thinking’.
The dramatist at this moment of the play takes the audience to its dizzy heights of satire! He creates a scene where the characters of the play engage in a ‘workshop’ on positive thinking giving individual consultation to probe into the issue and identify a way to break away from the loaf of bread. Next ineffective effort revolves around ‘hypnosis’ to see whether such a technique would help them break away.
Afterwards, a 'company representative' appears promising them the freedom but suggesting them they will be ‘owned’ by the company after they break free. The audience gets the symbolism here. It is as if a society of people cruising through the historical process of both feudalistic and capitalist modes of production. The company man in the play paints rosy picture of the civilized life in the ‘company’. But the characters in the play are in no mood to be freed from one structure to be caged by another immediately afterwards. They realize that they are going to be owned, manipulated and exploited for profit in a different structure.
In the process of the play, they decide to make an international appeal as well. They decide to write to ‘Obama’ since they believe that he has found a solution to live in the best way possible in this world. While they are writing the letter to obama, the loaf of bread gets sold with the three characters inside and is taken away in a shopping bag. Deprived of all prospects of freedom, they even contemplate suicide as a solution to retain their identities.
Finally, they collectively decide to resign to their fate - to live without thinking about their sorry state of affairs. Tilak astutely brings in the philosophical proposition by René Descartes and re-interprets it. Descartes oft quoted saying “I think therefore I am or I exist” is being re-conceptualized in the play as “I do not think therefore I exist”.
The characters of the play seem to suggest that people in this contemporary society of Sri Lanka are desensitized and devoid of rational thinking. And that is how they have ‘chosen’ to live - to live without thinking. The play drives home the point that people have made the choice not to ‘think’ about what is happening around them even if the ground beneath their feet is slipping. They only want to ‘enjoy’ life without coming to grips with the realities of our times. What is being examined here is the moral, intellectual and political degeneration as well as confusion of the people in the society.
The play has a marvellous denouement where dramatist of the play is called upon to stage to be beaten for producing the play! It is because he had produced "an inappropriate play for an inappropriate audience in inappropriate times".
The audience is watching the ‘drama’ laughing about the journey of the lives of the three characters and the absurdity of the request being made to the audience. They could be initially laughing without realizing that they are laughing at themselves! The audience is assailed by the sheer originality of the play. The creativity of the dramatist for encapsulating the reality of our lives through three symbolic characters within a structure of loaf of bread is at its zenith.
Tilak seemed to have been in a long hibernation for good reason. He has done a great deal of thinking germinating the concept of the play over a long period of time since his first play Gabsawa (abortion). The dramatist’s subtle analysis of the development of socio-political history of the Sri Lankan society within the overall globalized economy through seemingly simple story immediately captures the imagination of a real rasika (a connoisseur). Tilak’s play is extremely rich in sub-text telling two stories at the same time.
Tilak is engaging on a quest to reveal inner workings of a structure to which people seem to be inescapably shackled in. The discourse is about how people perceive the structure ignoring its crushing effect on the critical mass and trying to find refuge in unrealistic solutions such as appealing to super-natural powers and engaging in self-deception of ‘positive thinking’. This deliberate evasion is done for the sole purpose their egocentric existence.
In that perspective, the key theme of the play is to blow away the smokescreen and fantasy that we are living in a free world. Tilak creates space for the audience to gain the political consciousness about the inhumanness of systemic powers that govern our society.
The three actors of the play, Sarath Kothalawala, W. Jayasiri, Dharmapriya Dias hold the audience spellbound to the end. All three of them equally make the audience feel the smothering feeling of being held captive inside a loaf of bread. But beyond the symbolism, they bring to life the sorry state of people who are restrained in a system that has blinded them and prevented them from reasoning. Throughout the play, the three actors bring the witty, ironical, satirical and sharply provocative dialogue of the script to life.
Tilak uses alienation effect to the maximum. His way of distancing the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance is an effective balancing act. All three characters of the play constantly remind us that it is not real life; it is a play. The actors complain to the audience that they are being told by the dramatist to say particular things to the audience referring to the dramatist sometimes in an abusive manner!
In the conceptual development and script writing of the play, I wonder whether Thilak made a deliberate choice to do the play exclusively with male characters. Of course, it is the freedom of the artist to decide the content and the form befitting the theme of the play. Yet, one cannot help notice that representation of women as equal players in this ideological discourse on human existence has been ignored. Don’t they have the same struggle as men to deconstruct the structure, the systemic malaise in our society?
In his subsequent plays, Tilak will hopefully continue to deepen the discourse and provoke thought on these crucial issues from a socio-political perspective in the lively and evocative theatre he has developed over the years.
In essence, the play is a serious indictment on our existence or non-existence in a desensitized society. Upon leaving the theatre, the people in the audience realize that they are being challenged for engaging in a process of 'not thinking' and almost staying fossilised and for not acting against social injustice just for the sole purpose of survival.
The true purpose of art is to dig deep into realities of our existence enriching the horizons of our intellectual and emotional capacities to ‘think’ beyond what we see on the surface. “Gutikaemata Niyamithai” does exactly that. It is a play of extraordinary daring and courage.
Upali Amarasinghe | උපාලි අමරසිංහ