Director: Dr M Sayeed Alam & Niti Sayeed; India Habitat Center, New Delhi
[Guest author's note: When I sms-ed my daughter, Shuchi, from Stein Auditorium the other day that I was watching the play Big B, it was one of those little things you share with your family. I least expected that she would ask me to write its review for DramaDose. She has been writing her reviews like a pro, and I was conscious that I could not match her knowledge or flair for writing. However, I decided to give it a shot. So, if what follows sounds incongruous with the general tenor of DramaDose, you know the reason – it is not written by Shuchi but by her Dad. And my explanation for this trespass is Main aya nahi hun, laya gaya hun – to paraphrase an old Mohammad Rafi song, (Mujhe duniyawalo sharabi na samjho) main peeta nahi hun pilayi gayi hai.
That is a rather flippant start to a review on DramaDose. It could be because ‘flippant’ was the most dominant feeling I had when I came out of the auditorium after 100 minutes of Big B, a play that has long been on my must-watch list as it was said to be based on Premchand’s famous story Bade Bhai Saheb. – AK]
The play Big B
When a literary work is adapted to a performing medium – theatre or cinema – a comparison between the two is inevitable. But let me start with Pierrot’s Big B as a creative work on its own.
The play opens with two brothers – the elder or Big B, Kamta Prasad, aged 17, and the younger, Samta, aged 12 – squatting on the floor at low reading desks, cramming some lessons in a sing-song style. Big B mangles the pronunciation of an Urdu couplet, which prompts an old man in the theatre to correct it and go up to the stage where he takes a chair in a corner of the stage. At this point we get to know that he is the younger brother, Samta Prasad, now very old, recalling his young days with Bade Bhai Saheb, in flashback.
Big B was older by five years in age but senior to the younger brother (say, Small B) in class by only three years, as he believed in doing things thoroughly, and if necessary, spending two or three years in the same class. He was studious and disciplined and not given to wasting his time in game and jump (खेलकूद), more so because he had the responsibility of mentoring Small B. Big B would scold, warn, admonish Small B, and emphasise the importance of learning English which was not a laughter game (हँसी का खेल) as Small B seemed to believe. Big B would insist that they converse only in ‘English’, which allowed the Director, who also played Big B, to disgorge Bol Bachchan style Hinglish comedy throughout the play.
Alas, Big B failed in his class for all his industriousness, and Small B passed away – not only did he ‘pass away’ but for some unfathomable reason he also stood first in the class. This caused some dent in Big B’s authority but not enough to deter him from exercising his elder-brotherly duties.
The play proceeds in this fashion – Small B passing away year after year until the two brothers are in the same class – and there is no let up in Hinglish.
The play ends when Small B, while chasing a fallen kite, bumps into Big B, who is aghast that Small B, obviously swollen by his success, squanders away his time with vagabonds and street children. Big B still has to mentor him and breaks down while telling him that he also wants to chase kites but he has the responsibility to mentor the younger brother, that this kind of academic success and arrogance does one no good. Small B feels sad and repentant. As another kite sways down, Big B runs after it to catch it, momentarily becoming as childlike as Small B.
Premchand’s Bade Bhai Saheb
As the play progressed I had an uneasy feeling that this was not the Premchand I remembered even though I had read the story more than forty years ago. To whet my curiosity I read the story again, and I dare say the Director misses the essence of Premchand in his zeal for relentless Hinglish gags.
Premchand’s journey as a short story writer is generally viewed as progression from overt idealism of his early stories such as Panch Parmeshwar (1916) to stark realism of his later stories such as Kafan (1936). There can be various shades of gray in between for which literary critics have coined terms like आदर्शोन्मुख यथार्थवाद or यथार्थोन्मुख आदर्शवाद. But there is a third Premchand which skirts away from any –ism, which is about people and relationships, which is funny, sweet and poignant. Bade Bhai Saheb is a perfect example of this Premchand. Instead of analyzing the differences between the play and the story, I would strongly urge you to read the original. Here is a link to its Hindi text. In case you are more comfortable with English here is an excellent English translation of Bade Bhai Saheb.
Two things permeate Premchand’s Bade Bhai Saheb – superb humour with simple phrases and tender affection between the brothers. Bade Bhai Saheb is stern as a part of filial duty, but he is also vulnerable and his tough exterior falls off in the last scene when he also runs after the falling kite.
Assessment of Big B
There are inherent problems in adapting any story to a play, especially one like Bade Bhai Saheb which does not have a plot in a conventional sense. It is essentially the delineation of the character of the elder brother through the eyes of the younger brother. The Director gets around this problem by having the ‘old’ younger brother as the narrator. But one big flaw to my mind was that the narrator on stage was mostly forgotten. He sat forlorn in a corner, getting some lines sparingly. I have seen some outstanding plays with Tom Alter as the narrator playing a powerful role, without the play descending into pure narration. I believe Pierrot’s Troupe has also cast Tom Alter as narrator in some of their plays. One sorely missed a person like him on stage, coming to life at crucial moments to capture the nuances of Premchand through his narration.
I also got the feeling that the Director who played the role of Big B dominated almost the entire air time, leaving not much for the younger brother. The actor who played younger brother seemed quite good and could have been given more space. Having said that I must add that M Sayeed Alam was very confident and outstanding in his role in so far as he had created it.
Was Big B successful? You bet it was. Theatre is said to be a medium that forges instant bonding between the actors and the audience. Big B was more than that. It was interactive – with the audience trying to figure out each Hinglish gag as it came. Some were straightforward such as ‘My head is eating circles’ and ‘Don’t put your leg in this matter’, and the Director was quite helpful in the case of trickier ones such as ‘Blood, sweat, thick money Pitaji mix in mud’. In such gags the younger brother would ask the Big B, “Matlab?” Big B would provide an explanation. The audience would roar with laughter.
My recommendation – go watch the play, with a scrapbook to jot down all the Hinglish gags. You will get a huge collection. In case you were impressed by all the unsolicited mails containing “forwarded” jokes, you could now impress your friends with your own compilation. But if you thought you are going to a play based on Premchand’s story, please do read his Bade Bhai Saheb.