Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Taming the Tiger
A software researcher's adaptation of the Pulitzer-nominated Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo is not about feline, but human behaviour, in a self-destructive war setting
Actors assembled under Pune's Rangdrishti group trying to get under the tiger's skin while rehearsing Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo. Pic/Mandar Tannu
When a play, set in the war zone of Baghdad, is adapted and directed by a data science researcher, the audience has other-than-usual expectations. Pune-based Niranjan Pedanekar, who does theatre alongside his job at the Tata Research Development and Design Center, seems to have factored in audience anticipation of a different treatment. His Hindi-Urdu-English adaptation of the Pulitzer-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo presents two actors who play opposing personality facets of a tiger. He says halving the tiger's character into two, without making any changes to the script, is his way of showing the dichotomy inside the tiger's brain. The segregation is akin to the clustering of mathematical data he undertakes at his day job as a principal scientist who works on algorithms to extract insights. "In my successive readings of the lines attributed to the tiger, I sensed one side was irritated about being trapped, and the other was remorseful. That's why I thought of splitting the big cat into two," says Pedanekar, now readying for the play's summer season shows after the opening in Pune.
Scene from the Pune shows of Niranjan Pedanekar’s version of Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo. The play is now set for a fresh slate of summer season shows
The director, along with the 14-member crew, is currently involved in mapping other clusters. Corresponding with the "tension or intensity graph" that Pedanekar prepared while mounting his production, the team is assessing the "tension" created by the script at different points in time. Calculated in terms of the play time (horizontal axis) in relation to the impact of the scene or sub-scene (vertical axis), Pedanekar's tension macro graph ascertains how the piece of art can better hold audience attention and the exact slots where the impact lacks. He has trained his actors to draw a 'visual salience' map of the performance, in which each visual frame on stage is analyzed and broken into individual shots - just to see where audience attention was lost or gained. In fact, Pedanekar's work at the Tata Research Development and Design Center involves capturing human reception of audio-visual material (movies, music, TV shows, sports telecast), through computational methods such as Deep Learning which try to mimic how humans learn through neural networks. Recently, the team predicted the intensity of emotions users might feel at every point in Oscar-winning movies.
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo has been on Pedanekar's mind since he started reading about the Broadway production of American playwright Rajiv Joseph who wrote the play in 2009. In the 2011 production, Robin Williams played the tiger. He was attracted to the seemingly real-life characters caught in unthinkable absurd war situations - an atheist tiger wondering about God in his afterlife; a leper woman whose hands have been decaying; a little girl with a deformed half face and yet enamoured by the beauty of a half-burnt topiary garden. "The play was a riot of themes - war, guilt, God, life. It depicts the state of limbo which follows war or death," he recalls reading passages of the play to fellow theatre actors in Pune, who did not seem similarly enthused. Pedanekar - who has so far written 16-odd Marathi plays and directed half of them - felt he had to present it and see its impact. "I wanted to experience the sense of responsibility towards someone else' work of art, especially because it is not about the Gulf war or about one single nation. It is about all of us who build nations, states, parties, and all sorts of divisive boundaries to preserve our identity, without knowing what that signifies." The play resonated with the existential crises spelt out in the Mahabharata; also the absurdity and underlying humour would be of interest to anyone - the lover of Hollywood or practitioner of experimental theatre. "It had many things for many people and I had to stage it in Maharashtra to prove that!"
The last three years have been particularly 'theatrical' for Pedanekar. His play Upashya, which he based on Franz Kafka's A Hunger Artist, was staged at the prestigious Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2016 at the National School of Drama. He won the 2016 Directorial Fellowship at Natyasattak Festival. In 2017, he made waves with his participation in Jashn-e-Sukhan - a musical showcase of Urdu ghazals, poetry and personal letters. Sukhan offered the backdrop for his decision to lend a part-Hindi and Urdu dimension to Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo which had caught his fancy by then. Some of his earlier plays had already revelled in Urdu lyrics, particularly pieces premised on Mahmoud Darwish's works. In 2018, Pedanekar received the prestigious Tendulkar-Dubey fellowship awarded annually to five theatre artists chosen from all over the country.
While he has put part of the award money in the production of Bengal Tiger, especially for the next wave of shows outside Pune, the economics and logistics of future shows is not the prime concern for Pedanekar. He is the director who doesn't believe in "travelling" with the play. "Doing more shows is important, because it is rare for experimental theatre groups to get the rights of a contemporary overseas play. But I am more into offering unique experiences and fresh perspectives to the current circuit, not just the addition of a script." In what sounds a bit of an ambitious plan for someone doing theatre since 2009, he adds, "My dream is to make an original contribution to the field which would be as significant as that made by the likes of Konstantin Stanislavsky. He made a fundamental contribution to the art of theatre, to the approach of theatre as a simulation of what goes on in real life; I would like to contribute something that changes the way in which theatre is made and is seen." Planning to use Artificial Intelligence techniques such as Computer Vision and Natural Language Processing, Pedanekar wants to enhance the theatre experience in coming years. He wants to devise ways to predict what effect might a piece of media have on a human being.
Bengal Tiger... stands on the shoulders of young artistes, mostly Pune's collegians who have worked with Pedanekar and identify with his idea of theatre. Initially, around 130-odd actors, some based as far as Chennai, had reached out to him on Facebook, following a casting call, following which they were auditioned for the 14 characters. As Nath Purandare, best actor awardee in state-level Purushottam Karandak theatre competition, sums it up, "We benefitted from the 'unlearn' workshops which helped us to loosen up and come out of the set acting modes which actors conform to." The idea was to leave their baggage and take on the Bengal Tiger... with the rawness it requires. For instance, an actor playing a not-so-smart soldier had to think slow by concentrating on only one word he heard in a given sentence and then try to make meaning out of it. The idea is not to depict slowness in a trite way.
Pedanekar is insistent on "being young" while doing theatre. He feels people are too easily slotted as "young" as per their physical age. "Young people can be also be old, if their work doesn't add a dimension to the experience of watching a play! In my case, the Bengal Tiger will hold the clue..."
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org