In 1977 during a film shooting, a young woman of 34 died, death due to drowning. Mired in mystery, it was not known for sure whether it was a suicide, a murder or an accident. This tragic end to the life of a young and versatile actress on the Bengali stage is the starting point of Debesh Chattopadhyay’s 2015 film, Natoker Mato (Like a Play). The film is based largely on a book on the maverick theatre actress Keya Chakraborty who also died a mysterious death.
In 1977 during a film shooting at Sankrail, on the outskirts of Kolkata, a young woman of 34 died, death due to drowning. Mired in mystery, it was not known for sure whether it was a suicide, a murder or an accident. This tragic end to the life of a young and versatile actress on the Bengali stage is the starting point of Debesh Chattopadhyay’s 2015 film, Natoker Mato (Like a Play).
The Calcutta Port Police begin an investigation into the matter and it is in the interactions between Bhobodulal Roy (played brilliantly by Rajatava Dutta), the police personnel designated to investigate the matter, and a number of characters who were part of and were associated in some way or other with the young actress, that the film pieces together events in the life of the protagonist, Kheya (played by Paoli Dam).
As the investigation moves on, snippets of Kheya’s life are unfolded by myriad people. What is interesting is that the investigation is carried on by someone who is far removed from the world of the theatre, a man who is surprised by the number of books one could have read in a small lifetime. This becomes the starting point that takes the viewer into the world of theatre and most importantly into the workings of a brilliant young stage actress. Beginning with her troubled childhood to her college days, her association with group theatre, her unhappy marriage, the film covers the entire life of Kheya, a sensitive, thinking character whose passion for theatre is immense.
Human relationships are delved into as they help reveal facets of Kheya’s character – Kheya’s independent mother, her bonding with Amitesh (playe
d by Bratya Basu), her mentor in the theatre group Notokar, her relationship with Monoranjan (played by Sujaan Mukherjee), her teacher in college and later her colleague, her close childhood friend. Kheya’s marriage with Prasad is dealt in a subtle way, her unhappiness in domesticity which curtails her creativity is portrayed feelingly. One thing that stands out clearly is Kheya’s love, dedication and passion for theatre. It is this that gave her sustenance, made her endure her marriage up to a point where she could not take it anymore, made her give up her job so that she could devote herself completely and wholeheartedly to her first love, theatre. Debesh Chattopadyay bases much of the film on a book on the actress Keya Chakraborty that he once edited. In an essay written by the actress, “Mrs RP Sengupta,” she, presents the case of the woman artist in the arena of the theatre world.
Natoker Mato is a film about the journey of Kheya, her experiences as a woman and as an artist. The film does present the social and cultural scene in Kolkata from the 1950s to the 1970s while depicting the struggles and conflicts that a woman artist had to undergo. It raises questions about the way women had to fight top carve a place in the realm of male domination. In an interview given to The Statesman, the director said that his film was not a biopic and was not intended to be one – “Those who have watched her [the actress Keya Chakraborty] perform on stage and are familiar with theatre of those times will be able to identify with the period, the theatre and the person and that is what I think matters the most. It could have been Binodini Dasi or Tripti Mitra or Shakila, anyone who becomes a metaphor for a woman who lived with courage and determination on her own terms.” Though theatre personality turned first time film director Debesh Chattopadhyay insists that his film is not a biopic, the names of his characters are very close to the real people involved in actress Keya Chakraborty’s life.
Debesh Chattopadhyay interweaves scenes from theatrical performances into scenes which portray the life of Kheya, thereby bringing theatre and actual life together, working in a way to reveal that theatre and life have all got intertwined. Life as a play, a play as being based on vignettes from life – hence bringing into significance the title Natoker Mato (Like a Play). There were scenes from Kheya’s notable stage performances in Bengali group theatre. These included Bengali adaptations of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan, Antigone and Noti Binodini, are woven into the story of her life. Lines that Kheya delivers in her performances often merge into real life situations. An overtly theatrical method of acting is seen in the stage scenes while scenes of the ‘real’ life are handled subtly. At times, the shift from one to another, from the real to the drama, jars.
A brilliant ensemble cast work at recreating the world of theatre and a bygone era with great feeling and sincerity. Translations and performances of world classics, rehearsals and breaking away due to differences of opinion are presented realistically. Life and drama converge and diverge at various points in the film as Bhobodulal Roy becomes more and more engrossed in his questionings. He also becomes more and more interested and involved in the unravelling of the mind and work of a great theatre personality. Kheya becomes a symbol of the woman actor who always lived a turbulent life in a male dominated sphere and who always had to struggle to be heard, to be known, to survive on her own terms. The incident of her tragic death, the script notes is not the main concern, the circumstances which led to her death are of major concern. As one leaves the multiplex after watching the film, one could not but be reminded of another film based on the life of a woman actor struggling and carving out a space for herself in a male dominion, belonging, off course, to another time, Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika.
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