Silence! The Court Is In Session by playwright Vijay Tendulkar, was originally written in Marathi as "Shāntatā! Court Chālu Aahe". It was staged for the first time in 1967, and has been translated into several languages and adapted by various theatre troupes over the years.
The play is a social satire on middle-class society, particularly its treatment of women. There are also telling asides, like the failed lawyer who takes to acting and the adopted son who is treated like an errand-boy.
With the little background info I had about the play, I had expected it to be grim and intense. The "light" beginning took me by surprise. There’s trivial banter, lots of laughter. A play is being enacted within the play, and through the mock-play ugly secrets start tumbling out.
Over the course of the first act, the tone gradually changes from jovial to menacing. This shift is masterfully done – a lot of credit goes to the powerful script for that. The interval break happens when Ms. Benare tries to escape from the room but finds the door jammed. The claustrophia she feels is palpable.
Post-interval, the chirpy Ms. Benare turns quiet. She sits stone-like while the others pass judgments.
There is a sequence towards the end when the lawyer walks amidst the audience denouncing single, independent women. An interesting tactic here was that when saying his piece, he deliberately chose women in the audience to make eye contact with. Looking at me with fiery eyes he yelled: "Women are not fit to be independent!". A spine-chilling moment, that.
In the climax, the lights dim, and under a single spotlight Ms. Benare delivers a monologue. This is meant as a profound statement for women who are betrayed, abused and blamed by society for their "unwomanly" conduct.
This play must have been very progressive for its time; that it is so popular decades after it was written is proof of its strength. That said, I felt that the finale did not come off very well, maybe because the story is dated. I could not shake off the feeling that Ms. Benare was not so much mistreated by society as muddled in the head. Why was she going around asking anyone to marry her? Why did she make multiple attempts at suicide? Was the sub-plot about the infatuation with the uncle necessary for the play? I thought it diluted the message.
I generally complain that the quality of women’s acting in plays almost never matches up to the men’s. No such complaint for this one. There were two female actresses, both top-class. The older lady had to straddle the line between comic and mean-spirited, not an easy feat. She managed it with great skill and expert timing.
The focal point of the play, Surabhi Herur who played Ms. Benare, had a lot to live up to. She did full justice to the role. There are very few actors who can cry on stage, even fewer who can do spontaneous laughter convincingly. She went through the whole gamut like a pro. A very talented actress whom I hope to see much more of.