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Theatre and politics: Bengal minister Bratya Basu's balancing act

Kolkata: A decade-and-a-half back he had ruffled many feathers in West Bengal's Left Front establishment with his bold play "Winkle Twinkle". Now a senior minister in Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress government, Bratya Basu, whom many regard as the most powerful contemporary Bengali playwright, concedes the twin roles at times trigger conflict of interest.
But the playwright-actor-director averred he finds a way out using metaphors in his writings when faced with such a conflict.
"Yes, there is a conflict. But when I'm determined that I want to write, a metaphor comes, so there's a way out," the minister, celebrated for his writings that break free of straitjacketed norms, told IANS in an interview here on the sidelines of the Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsav.
For example, in the Kaushik Ganguly directed "Darjiparar Marjinara", penned by Bratya, prostitution is used as metaphor for exploitation and oppression.
Or consider the play "Boma" (2015), said to be a take on modern-day politics, based on the 1908 Alipore bomb case in which nationalists such as Aurobindo Ghosh were among the 33 on trial in the wake of the attempt on the life of Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford at Muzaffarpur by Bengali revolutionaries Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki in April that year.
Notwithstanding the political undertones in his writings, Bratya said he keeps politics separate from theatre.
"It is going parallel... I don't know what will happen when both (theatre and politics) come face to face," said the 48-year-old multifaceted man, whose expanding oeuvre is now embellished with acting roles and directorial ventures in films.
An academician, armed with a post-graduate degree in Bengali literature, Bratya now handles the crucial Information Technology portfolio in the state cabinet, after stints with the high profile education and tourism ministries since 2011 when he entered the assembly by humbling CPI-M heavyweight Gautam Deb.
Bratya is equally adept at "balancing the stage", having started out with the theatre group Ganakrishti while in college to launching his career as a dramatist with the play "Ashaleen" (1996), described by theatre critics as the first post-modernist Bengali play.
In 2008, he formed the Bengali theatre group "Bratyajon". He has constantly pushed the envelope, introduced new socio-political trends and not shied away from speaking the truth with plays such as "Aranyadeb", "Winkle-Twinkle" (an allusion to Washington Irving's classic Rip van Winkle) and the anti-establishment play "Ruddhasangeet" (Stifled Songs of the Marginalised).
Apart from directing films like "Raasta", "Teesta" and "Tara", Bratya has also stepped in front of the camera to act in several movies including "Kaalbela", "Hemlock Society" and "Muktodhara".
Having flirted with ultra-left politics during his student days at Presidency College (now university) -- "I was one of the founder members of (student body) Independent Consolidation (IC) at Presidency" -- Bratya found himself in the vortex of Bengal's political cauldron towards the second half of the last decade when he joined the growing tribe of civil society representatives upset with the Left Front's handling of anti-land acquisition peasant movements in Singur and Nandigram. He soon emerged as one of the most powerful anti-Left Front voices in television debates and public meetings.
It was not long before an impressed Banerjee requested him to contest the assembly polls.
"I don't think it was my conscious effort or my choice to join politics. It was the situation. In 2011, she (Banerjee) asked me to fight the elections and I won. I'm still enjoying this," the minister said pensively, but pointed out he has never set aside theatre for politics.
How does he see through his commitments in both arenas?
"I don't know how I balance. Each has a different facet. I ask myself how would I balance, how do I manage it? I am still an agnostic. This is all part of life; so I am enjoying living it. I ask myself every day, 'What you do, is it fulfilling?'," he observed in-between puffs of smoke.
Bratya said he was ignorant of politics from 1990 till 2002, when he wrote "Winkle Twinkle". The play was sharply criticised by the CPI-M mouthpiece, Ganashakti.
It revolves around a political prisoner shot dead in police custody in January 1976 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Akin to Rip van Winkle, he returned in the year 2002 and discovered everything had changed.
"I don't consider 'Winkle Twinkle' an anti-Left play... this is the depiction of two different time periods. It shows a conflict between two different times. Politics is a part of this. It is not hardcore political theatre... I won't believe that," he averred.
Bratya concedes politics has deepened his understanding of society.
"I've learnt a lot from politics. I've matured as a human being. I've actually learnt how people are living in this world.... politics is an eye opener."
Theatre, he said, has taught him discipline.
"From theatre I have learnt discipline, time management and to obey your leader because when I am doing theatre... there I am a leader. So when I am doing politics there should be a leader," he said.

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