By Shoma A. Chatterji
Women in Indian theatre have occupied considerable space since its inception. However, their contribution to the jatra format and opera performances, including folk theatre like tamasha and khemta have never received much attention. Sohini Dasgupta’s new documentary Drama Queens pays tribute to three doyens of theatre in India.
Sohini Dasgupta’s Drama Queens traces the journeys of three internationally renowned women theatre personalities of India who have made their presence felt in the past few decades.
Dasgupta shot into prominence for her earlier documentary I Could Not Be Your Son, Mom, the first ever film on a transgender more than a decade ago about a boy who decides to go through reconstruction surgery to become a woman.
The three personalities who have devoted their lives to theatre in the new documentary are B. Jayashree, Moloyshree Hashmi and Sabitri Heisnam.
B. Jayashree is the creative director of Spandana Theatre, an amateur theatre company based in Bengaluru established in 1976. Her grandfather was noted theatre director Gubbi Veeranna, who founded the Gubbi Veeranna Nataka Company. She graduated from the National School of Drama, Delhi, in 1973 where she trained under noted theatre director and teacher Ebrahim Alkazi. Jayashree has also acted in films, worked as a much-in-demand dubbing artiste and is a gifted playback singer.
However, Dasgupta focuses more on her struggle as a woman wanting to venture into theatre and make it her way of life. Jayshree performs and directs mainly in Kannada, her native language.
Moloyashree Hashmi is the widow of renowned theatre personality Safdar Hashmi who was killed by Hindu Right wing goons in January, 1989, while his group was performing a street play.
Moloyashree took up the mantle he left behind and has been carrying on the flag of the group he founded, Janam (Jana Natya Mancha) from the day after his demise till this day. Her mode of expression is street theatre that explores topical themes presented from a Leftist perspective attacking capitalist, feudal and exploitative forces in the country.
Sabitri Heisnam is from Manipur. She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991 and is also a Padmashri awardee in recognition of her contribution to Manipuri theatre.
She is a legend in her lifetime. Those who have watched her perform on stage will never forget the mesmerising effect she can create for her audience. After the demise of her husband, mentor and teacher Kanhaiyalal not very long ago, she has helmed his theatre group Kalakshetra. Her plays are often based on great literary works of Tagore (Dak Ghar) and Mahasveta Devi (Draupadi) investing them with her own unique touch. Her theatre combines dance, song and histrionics which has vested her with the prefix ‘Ima’ meaning ‘mother’ in Meitei language.
Moloyashree performs in Hindi and attracts a massive audience with her group’s street theatre in Delhi and across the northern parts of the country, mainly in the Hindi-speaking belts.
Asked if that the film on the three women, legends though they are, just touch the surface of women’s contribution to Indian theatre, Dasgupta says, “I selected my Drama Queens on the basis of their genre of theatre primarily. Their forms are very different from one another – B. Jayashree does proscenium theatre based on music and folk theatre, Moloyoshree Hashmi is into Street Theatre and Sabitri Heisnam is into experimental theatre. That gave my film a nice variety.”
“I intended to explore their lives and their work but mostly their identity as an artiste – the fight they fought as unconventional women in a rather challenging time in society. It makes me happy when I see the film reaching out to a larger audience,” Dasgupta says.
Moreover, she says, in a 52-minute documentary she could not have included more subjects and do justice to their stories. “I am looking forward to a series in three parts focusing on some more pioneering women thespians. The Films Division has produced this one. Perhaps they will be interested in this idea too,” she hopes.
The film, dotted with the three women talking about their long journey is interspersed with a few abstracts from their performances.
What strikes one is the optimism they radiate even as they speak of their personal tragedies.
Drama Queens was screened at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival and at the IFFI in Goa. (TWF)