Theatre should be for welfare of society

'Natasamrat' Girish Choudhury - a name Assamese cultural workers and theatre lovers cannot miss for a moment. The path breaking contribution made by this octogenarian dramatist, playwright and social worker along with his writer/producer brother late Anil Girish Choudhury Choudhury in the field of Assamese drama movement is invaluable. It is to them the women theatre artists of the state owe gratitude to, for introducing co-acting in Assamese theatre amidst severe criticism and hurdles.

Born on March 5, 1921, in Guwahati, Girish Choudhury started acting on stage at the age of 12 years in 1933 and since then there has been no looking back. His memorable roles in 'Shahjahan' and as a drunkard husband in 'Pratibaad' has left an indelible impression on the viewers. He has acted in nearly 55 plays (with repeat performances), acted in Bengali dramas, worked in 12 Assamese movies, has produced around 9 documentaries and has written around 10 plays. To top it all, he has acted in around 400 radio plays till now. He has also been the editor of the magazine Paribahika for 12 years. He received the Jyotirupa award on January 24, 2001. Earlier he was awarded special recognition by All India Critics Association for his life long contribution in acting. And is also recipient of the Bishnu Rabha award and the Assam government's literary pension for writing. A man of indomitable dedication to the cause of theatre, Girish Choudhry looks back into his life as a man of theatre with commitment for upliftment of the society.

RS: Would you like to express your views regarding the role of cultural and literary workers in the field of social reform in our country vis-à-vis developed countries?

GC: Cultural and literary workers definitely have the power to carry out major social reforms. A lot can be done, but the cruel truth is progress is very slow. The main reason being political pressure which often stop the artists from expressing their views freely. Journalists and writers have also suffered over the years due to such problems.

RS: Hallmark of your acting career is believed to be 'Shahjahan' and 'Pratibaad'. Would you like to comment?

GC: Shahjahan has been a very satisfying chapter of my life. Since I was just 27 years old when I did the play, I was initially much apprehensive. I wondered if I could do justice to the role. But by the grace of God the play was a success and people appreciated my performance.

It was with this play that my brother Anil Choudhury, my nephew Makhan Dewan and I decided to introduce co-acting in Assamese threatre. We had to face a lot of hurdles as a result of this decision. But some of these brave and bold women like Kamal Sarma, Renu Das, Urbashi Das, Jaya Das, Reba Das and others came forward and worked in the play contributing to its success. It was a satisfying experience.

The second co-acted drama was 'Pratibaad' that was first staged on July 1950 in Arya Natya Manch and later in Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir on August 4, 1950. The then chief minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi, along with his wife, daughter, Bhubaneshwar Barua and Tilak Das watched the play very happily. 'Pratibaad' was written by Anil and we jointly were facing difficulty in finding someone who would suit the villain's character. Finally it was decided on me. It was my first performance as a villain. The female lead was done by Baruna Mukherjee (Choudhury).

Gopinath Bordoloi, while watching the play, said that the performance of the villain was so realistic that it pained him to continue watching. He came to the stage, blessed us all, invited us to his house the next morning and left. That midnight he passed away. It was one of the most painful moments of our life. After Bordoloi's sad demise, we could not perform for a long time. It was a major setback. But gradually we started work again with Anil Choudhury's 'Chirantan' in 1953. 'Chirantan' has been translated into many Indian languages. In this play also Baruna acted with us, and once again I played the villain. It used to really hurt me to see the heroines cry because of the villain (i.e. me). So I decided not to play villain any more. In fact, after watching 'Pratibaad', Dr Birinchi Barua told me "Girish I felt like beating you up while watching the play."

RS: Could you please reflect back on the hue and cry raised by a section of the so called custodians of social morality after the first co-acting in 'Shahjahan' in 1949.

GC: Yes, many prominent persons ( I would not like to name them) criticised us very badly on the issue of co-acting. Our feelings were badly hurt. But there were others who blessed and supported us. Inspite of all the negative reports in the news papers, people like Preeti Barua, Anupal Das, Dolly Hazarika and a few others supported us and wrote letters praising us.

And above all, the blessings of Gopinath Bordoloi, Justice Holiram Deka, Bhubaneswar Barua and others were with us which gave us enough moral strength. It is the result of all those efforts on our part and all the blessings and support that we received that co-acting in Assamese theatre has came to stay ever since.

RS: Tell us the achievement and dream of Guwahati Shilpi Sangha in the field of Assamese drama movement.

GC: The Shilpi Sangha's foremost aim was to take theatre and acting towards the path of progress. And one very important aim was to let women play the role of women in the plays. And we have succeeded in both.

Amateur theatre groups always suffer a lot. We never make profits, so we have to go to people selling tickets or for donations. In the process we also had to face humiliation from people. Surprisingly, even some prominent people have insulted us by making us wait for hours and then sending a rupee with the servant.

But, there have been people like Radha Gobinda Barua too, who have been kind and good. I remember one incident when we went to him to sell tickets for one of our plays. Radha Gobinda Barua not only treated us with tea and snacks but also bought away around 50 tickets from us at one go. Theatre needs such patrons, to flourish. In 1954, our group was invited by Phani Sarma to Tezpur. We performed for the mental asylum. It was a good experience.

One more problem that we faced was of amusement tax in 1953 while doing 'Chirantan'. Some government official entered our greenroom and wanted to check our tickets. When we showed our anger he disappeared, but later a notice was sent to my house saying that I owe Rs 52 to the government as amusement tax. We were surprised, since we were not a profit making body.

The problem was somehow resolved when Bhubaneswar Barua spoke to Bishnu Medhi (the then chief minister of Assam) about it.

So, passing through a lot of pain, sorrows and struggle, we were able to achieve some of our goals.

RS: Your opinion on contribution of 'Yatra theatre' in Assamese cultural and political evolution.

GC: 'Yatra' groups can bring major changes in our society. Both yatra and mobile theatre are often successful in bringing political issues to the notice of common people in a light manner. Their contribution is not negligible. Though things are moving fast today, but yet lot has be done.

A lot of new actors and actresses have came up in recent times and I believe they will bring a major cultural revolution some day. These young talents from the northeast are no less in any way than their counterparts in the rest of the country and the world.

RS: In your opinion, what is missing in our dramas that can make it relevant and in with time.

GC: What is missing is a complete freedom to express, as I have mentioned earlier also. We are not free to do all that we want to. Though many are trying, but this gap is yet to be filled.

Theatre has always faced such hurdles. I remember, in our times we had to get our plays passed by some British officials before any performance. Most of them did not know anything about theatre. Such policies still run. An artist has to many a times depend on some incompetent officials to let his work reach to the people.

Under such circumstances, very often, we lose interest in writing and performing.

RS: What is the future of Assamese drama and cinema and your message for people dealing in both these mediums?

GC: The difference between cinema and theatre is, in theatre we are in direct relation with the audience. We touch their heart directly. They are in front of us and we can see how they react. In cinema, though a lot of things can be said due to technical advancement, the above mentioned factor is not present to its fullest. But both are very important in today's society along with television.

Cinema and television are much influenced by western culture today. The violence through these two media reach millions of children daily. This is a matter of concern.

These three mediums owe a lot to the society and hence must realise their responsibilities. Their aim should be to convey the right kind of message. The follies need to be understood and improved.

My message to the new generation of people involved in these mediums is, they should be careful about what they do since it reaches millions. Their aim should be welfare and progress of the society.

RS: When you look back at your life today do you feel satisfied?

GC: Throughout my life I have tried to give something to the society through my plays. I have devoted my life to acting and theatre and I feel happy about it.

My plays like 'Shahjahan', 'Meenabazar', Anil's 'Pratibaad' and many others have been admired. There are a lot of precious memories attached to them. After watching 'Jatayu' Justice Kiranmoy Lahiri sat and typed a letter to me at 2 'o' clock in the night saying that he had never seen such excellent performance. It was his first encounter with the typewriter.

After watching 'Chakari', Mukti Gogoi asked me if I was really drunk on the stage (which I wasn't).

I still remember the joy I felt when my first performance in the studio in Calcutta in 1953, was praised. When I look back, I do feel satisfied. People have loved me, my brother and our plays. Though I still wish I could have done more.