bollywood: film as theatre

bryoni trezise joins the extras in fearless n

 Chris Murphy, Fearless N

Chris Murphy, Fearless N

Chris Murphy, Fearless N

A POSSIBLY OBSCURE THEME GIVES WAY TO FUN AND FRIVOLOUS THEATRICAL FARE IN THEATRE KANTANKA’S LATEST PRODUCTION, FEARLESS N. BASED ON FEARLESS NADIA, THE ALTER-EGO OF AUSTRALIAN-BORN MARY EVANS, WHOSE UNCONVENTIONALLY STRONG FIGHTING PROWESS AND STURDY PHYSIQUE TRANSFORMED THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE BOLLYWOOD FILM INDUSTRY C1950, FEARLESS N TRACKS A REMARKABLY HIDDEN HISTORY—BEGINNING, INTERESTINGLY, ON A DISPLACED BOLLYWOOD FILM SET PLONKED IN THE MIDDLE OF HOMEBUSH BAY.

Enter to tabla drumming and a warm waft of heady incense. Ahead is a shrine-cum-props table, replete with all manner of East Indian paraphernalia. To the right is the pathway for us ‘extras’ to be herded—a role the audience will play to delightful effect throughout the performance. Above the stage sits a film director (Georgina Naidu) who calls the clamouring set to order with humorously intoned requests for singing extras, soldier extras, cowboy extras and dying extras, who should—if asked to die—“please do so without making a fuss.” Naidu’s timbre establishes the self-referential tone that is to underpin our journey: an interpretation of Nadia’s rise to fame through the theatrical contrivance of documenting the story as a Bollywood film. The production hence draws on the tropes of a film genre that is possibly more at home in the theatre itself—using melodrama as the key, farcical connection between the two forms. At the same time, it dips into the politically incorrect giving Fearless N a self-knowing wryness amidst its busy east/west references and marking a “postcolonial field” that even the director admits is “getting pretty crowded.” (Director Carlos Gomes himself appears comically from time to time in a sari as a prostrate beggar with a baby pram).

The production’s most amusing contrivance is its employment of voiceover and live camera work to conjoin disparate stage sequences into the semblance of a ‘real’ cinematic image, projected above the stage action in appropriate sepia tones. Nadia (Chris Murphy) strangles pin-stripe suited villains on top of a moving train (read: Nadia stands above a projection of a moving train and wobbles appropriately); Nadia beats up lazy cowboys who are comically instructed to end their death-fight in the ‘much better’ formation of a human pyramid; Nadia launches into the fight by swinging tarzan-like from a rope, and later, we see her emerge bedecked for a true Bollywood dance-style wedding. At times, the effects are especially revealing, as in a car ride sequence that is generated by a cardboard chassis jiggled in front of a projected moving street scene. Similarly, ‘extras’ dressed as female colonials are given iced tea to sip while their actions are overwritten by suitably plummy voiceovers and a palm-leaf fanning boy behind them.

The text, written by Noelle Janaczewska, offers the potentially awkward theatrical device of an onstage director as narrator, but this actually works well to get a jam-packed story out with ease. At times, there are glimpses of Janaczewska’s signature writing style—a spare prose with tightly spun metaphors that evoke internal character states. This kind of craft is almost out of place in the overall spectacle of Fearless N, but gives it grit and hints at the underbelly of a life that this biography didn’t reveal. The lightness of the production sometimes pushed the narrative into pure parody, and yet the darker textual moments and the question of historical reference hovered temptingly over the work. My desire for real footage of Nadia amidst all of the fakery suggests that Kantanka’s version might just be the first take on a story with more riches to reveal.

Theatre Kantanka, Fearless N, writer Noelle Janaczewska, director, designer Carlos Gomes, performers Rakini Devi, Annette Madden, Chris Murphy, Georgina Naidu, Parth Nanavati, Ahilan Ratnamohan, Rajan Thangavelu, Bruno Xavier, Carlos Gomes, vocalists Ankita Sachdev, Sarangan Sriranganathan, composers Bobby Singh, Ben Walsh, video Andrew Wholley; Sydney Olympic Park, March 7-23

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 40

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2008