Heroes and villains

As we know, all traditions are subject to change on the basis of funding. Hence, this year, Agra’s oldest Ramlila considered some changes. They tied up with ISCKON, in order to provide an 18-foot tableau for their Shobha Yatra. And since humans must match the art-direction, only very good looking actors from Mathura and Vrindavan were to pose as Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Ravan.

Illustrations/Uday Mohite
Illustrations/Uday Mohite

Now, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the question arose, what is meant, by good looking?

That was certainly the question asked by Matru Singh (no, the film Matru ki Bijli Ka Mandola is not about him. Please, calm down). Matru Singh, who has played the character of Ravan in the play for 20 years, wanted to know: Were they implying that he is ugly? In response to the insult, he declared: Jaa jee le apni zindagi, Ravan. His Ravan would not die during this year’s the play.

Has there ever been a more brilliant protest than this? If the committee thought they could write Matru Singh out of the procession and still have their Ravan, and by killing that Ravan, the illusion that they have slain the demon, which makes them gods, then, by God, Matru Singh would show who the real villain is by not performing his assigned role either. Mujhe Jeene Do!

In a world and time when appearances serve for reality, public relations professionals decide the truth and what you are seen to do is somehow more important than what you actually do, only an advanced bahrupiya could open up such philosophical questions about truth and reality, good and bad, showing up a mirror to ask: Let’s see who is the fairest of them all, huh? Taaliyan!

The Ramlila committee tried to match this brilliant philosophical move with sanctimonious realism — never an impressive weapon. They accused Matru Singh of drinking. He shrugged, it’s necessary for the role. It’s hard to argue with a method actor and professionalism.

Matru Singh has a predecessor. In 2010, Raju, another Agra-based Ravan refused to die. He enjoyed his time centre-stage. The audience did too. So who was the organiser to insist he should die? Instead, he merely went off the stage, setting off passionate public discussion. Even if his effigy was burned, the character lived on. Was Ravan dead or not?

Like all good stories, this one has layers. Matru Singh muttered insinuatingly about history: “Clashes are always a part of Ramlila. Anything can go wrong. In 2013 Ram-Ravan armies had started fighting in real.”
Though not quite saying Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the committee nonchalantly said they would have two separate battle scenes in two different locations this year — one featuring only Ram and Ravan and the other featuring their armies. Plotlines are subject to change without prior intimation and the management is responsible.

Eventually, Matru Singh claimed that the real issue was that the Ramlila committee has two factions, one committed to the Samajwadi Party and the other to the BJP. He is interested in neither. He is only interested in playing Ravan — meaning, in doing his job.

That sounds all too familiar. Increasingly, there is constant pressure to declare which side you are on, to show your political badge rather than respond to an issue on the basis of the ideas, not partisanship. Apparently those who won’t choose sides and fixed positions in battle armies risk being outsiders and villains today.

Stories change to echo reality and sometimes stories resonate and change reality. As Shahrukh Khan could tell you, that’s how outsiders become insiders and villains sometimes become heroes.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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