Book Review: Cut by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu

Book Review: Cut by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu

High on drama

Marathi theatre of yore incorporated traditional elements such as tamasha, sangeet natak and street theatre with Western concepts like changeable scenery. The movement was fierce, raising questions about the prevalent social and political conditions.

This theatre is the backdrop of Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s new book CUT: The Death and Life of a Theatre Activist. A stray news headline apparently caught the author’s eye and inspired her to pen a story about a famous fiery theatre person who dies on a busy local train station in Mumbai, unrecognised and unclaimed. Amitabh Kulasheshtra is the hero of this tale even though he is dead in the first few pages.

Indeed, he is the pivot around which other characters revolve. The narratives of all people inhabiting this tale are about Kulasheshtra, dead or alive. Like a play, the book is divided into three acts: Mi Jivanta Ahe (I Am Alive), Blindside, and Cut. In his lifetime, Kulasheshtra has been an idealist revolutionary theatre activist obsessed with social causes and theatre.

Passionate about his work, he manages to rile quite a few people: politicians, family, friends, co-workers, even the mafia. But like all heroes do, he continues doing what his conscience tells him to, raising the hackles of governments and public alike.

Born to a Hindu father, who was an ardent follower of drama by the renowned Dada Saheb Sarat Chandra Joglekar, and a Muslim mother who wanted to be a professional dancer, Kulasheshtra had the right genetic material to be in the arts. However, his parents’ dreams crashed when they married and were disowned by their families. They take up jobs in a circus as a clown and trapeze artiste, respectively, where, a few years later, Kulasheshtra is born and raised till his teenage years.

With his doggedness, the semi-literate Kulasheshtra catches the eye of Dada Saheb,  joins his drama troupe, and gradually becomes the son the thespian never had. They are mentally and intellectually alike. A young aspiring actor from Punjab, RK Chopra, also joins the troupe to be mentored by Dada Saheb. RK’s eventual aim, however, is the holy grail of films.

Dada Saheb’s young daughter, Sarla, is the companion and almost-sibling for Kulasheshtra and the three become friends with Sarla and RK becoming secret lovers, almost always covered for their trespasses by Kulasheshtra. The utopia does not last and the lovers are found out by Sarla’s parents who are not happy with the goings-on, to say the least. The guru, Dada Saheb, asks for his guru-dakshina from his shishya Kulasheshtra, and asks him to marry his daughter. For all her boldness, Sarla is in awe and fear of her father, and demurely marries her chosen groom, leaving RK high and dry.

RK leaves the troupe and joins films, and becomes a film personality with a larger-than-life presence and enough money to make him secure. Sarla and Kulasheshtra have a baby daughter Maya who dies at a very young age. This causes a further rift in their not-too-idyllic marriage. Meanwhile, Kulasheshtra has carved an identity of his own in theatre and is a force to reckon with now. Into this scenario now walks in Maya Shirale, an aspiring actor, who is taken in by Sarla, treating her like the daughter she lost. And the inevitable happens!

Kulasheshtra and Maya carve a relationship of sorts while he also has a thing going with his lead French actress in the Indo-French production he is helming. Sarla remains aloof, bitter and simmering at her fate. The revelation of the affair between her husband and adopted daughter breaks the thread the three had with each other.

Maya leaves Sarla’s house and joins films starring with who else but RK. The world is indeed small!Kulasheshtra’s death years after the break-ups of all characters joins them tenuously with the man becoming their pivot yet again. Their narratives bring to life the life story of the thespian for the readers of the book.

Kundu is the bright new spark in Indian writing and her premise for the book is praiseworthy. However, the timeline going back and forth accompanied by numerous characters makes this a book that necessitates flipping pages back to get a sense of what’s happening to whom and who is doing what to whom.

Her characters are, convincingly so, not holier-than-thou and are uniformly flawed like flesh-and-blood individuals. All characters seem to love Kulasheshtra, while at the same time, hating or at least disliking him. They love him, hate him, but in the end forgive him. However, why the man is so entitled is not brought out very well. Is it his fabulous talent, fierce zeal, or interpersonal skills?

The book could do with a fair amount of editing. The grammar and punctuation is sloppy, and jars. Commas and ellipses are spread around the entire book like Legos in a four-year-old’s room! Messy.

Look at this example: “Just because you can’t see things Sarlu, doesn’t mean they don’t exist…” he took a deep breath, adding slowly, “Like us…what we were… the things that truly mattered…the edifice of our marriage, Sarlu… Each day, each month, every year…each word I have managed to make a note of…is,really, the sum of us…every sentence we ever uttered…the pent-up silences, my nights locked away in that airless terrace room, your lengthy sighs after we touched…the months we lived apart...the affairs that were sensationalised…Maya, our daughter…and, and, her.”

Yes, some careful editing was definitely needed in this carefully researched story.