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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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The Promise of Heaven, Play review: The buffoon as philosopher

The Promise of Heaven, Play review: The buffoon as philosopher

Viagra in heaven, virgins, virgin-swapping, deflowered virgins re-virginating, really long-lasting erections, homosexuality, masturbation with a prop, sexually stimulating deodorants…what is this play about? (Kashmiri/IS) Suicide bombers. Yes, you read that right. But it is equally about all of the above, and in good measure. Having restricted entry to adults, writer-director Kamlesh Acharya has a field day playing with the three-letter word and its four-letter counterpart, as he proceeds to try and demolish suicide bombers’ idea of paradise, and 27 eternal, evergreen virgins, as reward for killing infidels.

Only, the subject does not lend itself to satire and ludicrousness, at least not the sort that he lets loose upon an unsuspecting audience. Here’s what he defines as the subject, and he should know:

“A comedy with a soul. Experience the rib-tickling moments of two goofy terrorists, who, lured by 'The Promise of Heaven', are about to embark on their final mission. One of them is overly prepared for an entry into heaven, and, in his over-enthusiastic buffoonery, messes up everything, loses his memory and seriously thwarts the plan. The other guy takes up the responsibility of reviving him and taking the plan to fruition. But this quest for revival throws a new light on their assumptions, leaving us wondering who is reviving whom?”

Indeed all this does happen. The problems lie more in the form, not so much the content. The play begins rather loosely, with a terrorist arriving at their night hideout, occupying a chair, and then going to the toilet. In the meanwhile, the second terrorist arrives, and occupies the same chair. No. 1 returns, and wants to reclaim the chair, but No. 2 refuses to let go, and puts up glib arguments in favour of retaining the chair. It takes some pushing and shoving to get him off. All this while, you notice their tools of the trade on the floor: a gun and a bomb-laced jacket.

The stage is now set for constant banter between the two. No. 1 is committed to the cause and has all the makings of a genuine suicide bomber. No. 2 is a weirdo, who has made elaborate preparations for his stay in heaven, yet questions everything about the mission, his religion and a ‘selective’ God. His ‘preparations’ include a large supply of Viagra, AXE deodorant (because it rhymes with sex!) and the attar his father loved. He wants to enjoy himself with the 27 virgins he has been promised, but, showing amazing fore-sight, enters into a pact with No. 1, to share his virgins too!

At one stage, No. 2 swallows several pills of the Sildenafil Citrate (Viagra) that he is carrying, and develops a huge erection, which prompts No. 1 to send him to the toilet, where he has a near-fatal fall. Dragged back on to the stage, face downward, No. 2 lies balanced on a huge erection, supported by a piece of piping, in which position he lies for several minutes. When he finally recovers, he appears to have amnesia, butt…sorry, but (read on) is revived by No. 1, who repeatedly shows homosexual attraction toward No. 2. This is partly the reason why he does not kill No. 2, who tests his patience time and again. And guess what? The erection is intact. So it is time for another round of necessary masturbation. In between, we find No. 1 talking to his handler, an ‘Amelu’, who gets turned on by the mention of the word ‘but’, being fixated on No. 1’s derrière. Incidentally, the only Amelu I could trace dates back to the Babylonian empire, when the population was divided into three classes Amelu, Muskenu, and Ardu.

Besides the actor playing the Amelu, there is one more member in the cast, an amply endowed woman, who plays multiple roles, just as the actor playing Amelu does. In one, playing a prostitute, she has to lie on a bench, spread-eagled, as No. 2, in his earlier days, visits a whorehouse, to buy her services. Both are recent entrants into the play. Yes, there are flashbacks about both the protagonists, focussing on the daftness of No. 2 and the inability of No. 1 to provide chicken biryani for his family of wife and three children, which ultimately leads to his volunteering for the mission. No. 2 is back from the toilet, and the clock is ticking away. Daybreak will signal their departure on the mission. But not before No. 2 will attack the concept of believers and non-believers, a god who creates non-believers too and then commands believers to annihilate them, with the promise of heaven.

A longish, repretitive music track (Nisarg Desai, Venugopal Agrawal) kept playing in the back-ground, somewhat on the lines of the German group Kraftwerk’s works. Some dialogue was delivered from back-stage, and could represent the voice of god. There were a few glitches in this arrangement. An almost bare stage was employed, with only back-packs, jackets, two chairs, a bottle of water, a bench and two guns. Wonder whether the cylindrical device, used as a ‘prop’, can be so listed! Lighting (Satyendra Parmar) was appropriately designed and light effectively operated. On a couple of occasions, the light operation faltered, though.

Kamlesh Acharya spent a lot of time on the introductions. He should have made his No. 1 avoid the monotone staccato he talks in, and brought in more vocal variety, but this is mitigated by the fact that the character had been brain-washed, and hence the hypnotic  dialogue delivery. In which case, why did Kamlesh, himself, as No. 2, deliver so much vocal variety, being slow on the uptake apart ? Besides vocal variety, Acharya indulges in over-the-top acting, often resorting to contortions.

Darshil Damani, well-built and bearded, plays No. 1, and maintains a serious, grim expression. Ayyan Karmakar is a slick, polished actor, who has to ham hopelessly as the Amelu, but his talent surfaces in the other roles, as the younger No. 1 and as his father, as well as the younger No. 2. Kanksha Vasavda, a plus-sized actress, slips easily from being a mother and a wife to a prostitute, a good example of how size does not matter when performance rules. All the actors show good command over English, with only the occasional slip-ups. There were times when they forgot dialogue, but luckily, it was not too long before they managed to move on.

The Promise of Heaven was staged at the Cuckoo Club, Bandra, Mumbai, on 30 June, a mini-theatre that was almost full. Some two or three women guffawed at all the risqué dialogue and the erection escapades, which, I found to be only mildly funny, while being in bad taste. Nobody expects a puritanical experience in a play recommended for 18+ audiences. That does not, however, mean that anything related to sex can be inviagrating…oops, invigorating and entertaining. In the end, Kamlesh Acharya’s effort is captive to his own script, for it gives no fresh insight into a burning issue that has taken thousands of innocent lives.

If logic and philosophy, herein delivered by a buffoon, could persuade militants to eschew violence and killing, it would be welcomed with open arms. Preaching to the converted, and merely using cyclic, and often blasphemous, ways of saying that the killing of so called infidels is wrong, will achieve little or nothing. If the play works for some as a comedy, a black comedy perhaps, I would find the situation tragic. Being irreverent is no crime, if you know where to draw the line.

This is how Ahmedabad-based Kamlesh Acharya describes himself: “An MBA by qualification. A bard by ramification. A thinker through introspection. A seeker through meditation.

I quit a promising corporate career, after having worked with the likes of KPMG, Oracle, and Emirates Airlines, to pursue my passion of writing and theatre. My plays include Bare Bones, Unseen Unheard, and Bare Bones Returns.”

The Promise of Heaven made it to the short-list of the Sultan ‘Bobby’ Padamsee Play-writing Award, 2018. I am sure the jury saw in the script things that I did not, or did not see things that I did, a lot of which has to do with performance. I am nobody to cast any aspersions on the decision of the jury, which must have had to sift scripts with higher merit from so many entries.

Ever since it was established in 1965, the Sultan Padamsee Award aims to celebrate new voices emerging from Indian theatre. The award, presented by the Theatre Group (founded by the late Sultan Padamsee, in 1941) had a hiatus for over twenty-seven years, before it was revived in 2016.

That year, under the leadership of film-maker Ayesha Sayani (a member of the executive committee of the Theatre Group), daughter of late Hamid Sayani and niece of Alyque Padamsee and Ameen Sayani, the awards had a reincarnation. Criteria for eligibility are: an unpublished and unproduced play in English, written by a person of Indian origin, from any country, between 60 and 120 minutes in duration.

Advertising guru, late Alyque Padamsee, Sultan’s younger brother, was one of founders of the award. Alyque was a theatre veteran, who had entered the world of drama in 1954. Sultan, better known as Bobby, returned to India after studying at the University of Oxford, and, in 1941, set up The Theatre Group, considered the pride of Mumbai’s drama scene. Unfortunately, Sultan passed away at the tender age of 24. Alyque, along with Theatre Group, initiated the Sultan Padamsee Award, in 1965. Over the years, prominent recipients have been Gurcharan Das, Gieve Patel, Dina Mehta, Cyrus Mistry and Ram Ganesh Kamatham.

Watch a short performance clip of the play, from an earlier show, here: https://youtu.be/Nuwd8g_M1cA

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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