Print Edition - 2017-12-16  |  On Saturday

The deadly game

  • Masantaar might give you a cursory glimpse of the life in a conservative village, but the narrative is so confused that one has to struggle to make out what the play actually aims at
- Timothy Aryal
The absurd theatrics of the jhankri (played by Kiran Shrestha) makes for some laughter and also the uncanny showing of those zombie-like masaans are eerily appealing. And that perhaps is the only redeeming quality of this feeble drama

Dec 16, 2017-A majority of the recent crop of plays being staged in Kathmandu’s theatre circuit bring to stage the stories from a rural landscape. Since many of the directors working today came of age in villages, it is understandable that stories they personally experienced are their favourites to bring to stage. But how the rapid development of technology is showing its effect in remote villages or how the trend of foreign employment is changing lives—these are issues that need a thorough examination, not just issues that are touched upon superficially and then brushed off. And that is exactly what the new play Masantaar does: It insinuates that the spectre of the practice of shamanism is haunting the remote villages and in the absence of educated young people, the superstitious practices are still prevalent. But its judgement of this new world is so superficial and inauthentic that for the audience, it is hard to decipher what the play is actually all about. 

The most telling moment in Masantaar comes towards the end, when the play’s protagonist, Rupak (played by Sudip Khatiwada), who returns to his native village after completing his higher studies in town, compares the village with the country itself. What the character says is something along these lines: “The imaginary masaans of this village akin to the ‘unseen forces’ are in play in the corrdiors of powers in this country.” 

The line is not just the epitome of the folly that haunts a lot of Nepali theatre productions today—that of throwing in a line or two that vaguely touch upon the larger national context—but it also comes outside the context of the whole narrative of the play, and you wonder what the makers are actually trying to disseminate through the play. Who would have thought a play ostensibly about the practice of shamanism also goes as far as to make a commentary about the state of affairs in the country? Here, the producers aspire to kill two birds with a single stone, but they end injuring their own hands in the process. 

Masantaar opens with a bunch of masaans, who look like zombies from a horror flick, hop-scotching across the stage. While one wonders what they are, the light comes on and we know that they are creatures existing in a character’s dreamscape. The character believes that the creatures are masaans coming to haunt him, and he wakes up and clangours a plate to ward off the spirits. The villagers suspect that the clangour itself comes from the masaans. But our protagonist Rupak, of course, is not one to believe any of it. Then one day, Rupak’s sister Ashmi (played by Patrika Ghimire) falls sick, and while all of the villagers call for a jhankri, Rupak runs through the forest to call for a medical doctor, and accidently he falls off a cliff. While he lays unconscious, we are shown him being treated by a shaman and he wakes up suddenly. Which further gives weight to the villagers’ assumption that any kind of disease or ailment can be cured by shamans. 

But how did this incident resemble the state of affairs in the country? How and why are the masaan-like “unseen forces” playing around the country’s corridors of power? It’s with these kinds of questions that one leaves the theatre. 

Producers of Masantaar have said that the play was staged only after a week of rehearsals and with regards to that, the performances put together by the novice actors are noteworthy. The absurd theatrics of the jhankri (played by Kiran Shrestha) makes for some laughter and also the uncanny showing of those zombie-like masaans are eerily appealing. And that perhaps is the only redeeming quality of this feeble drama. This has been a heady year for Kathmandu’s theatre circuit, taking into account the rise the number and quality of the theatre productions. But while plays like Masantaar might provide the platform for up-and-coming actors to show their skills, they don’t contribute much to the evolution of the theatre scene that we have seen in Kathmandu. 

If theatre groups want to maintain their growth, then they will have to invest themselves in researching on the various aspects of village life and the prevalence of those superstitious beliefs. A proper research to understand the complexities and practices of village life, including the centuries old practice of faith-based healing, would help plays steer away from stereotypical depiction of rural life. Masantaar is a lively example of a play that gives a panoramic view of a village but fails to present the audience with the dynamics of the people who are living in a semi-isolated place–perhaps then the theatre can set itself in becoming a cultural force. 

Published: 16-12-2017 08:25

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