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From Page to Screen to Stage: Challenges of Directing Three Dozen Actors, Dancers and Narrators

From Page to Screen to Stage: Challenges of Directing Three Dozen Actors, Dancers and Narrators

  • Boston-based Stage Ensemble Theater Unit’s adaptation of Bengali novel ‘Chhaddobeshi’ is a blend of dialogues from iconic films, original book and some original content from director.

One of the iconic scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” is simply stated as “two shot dead in a restaurant.” It’s where Michael Corleone takes out Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey in the Italian restaurant. It is adapted from a poorly written page (page 152) from Mario Puzo’s book of the same name. A banal page of action described using cliches is turned into a historic cinematic sequence that is studied by scriptwriters and film students to this day as an example of how to create tension and release in a scene. An illustration of turning a challenge into an opportunity by an incredibly skillful auteur when transcending media. 

Other great examples abound as well, such as Aaron Sorkin’s recent stage re-adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” where in his writing he revisits Atticus Finch’s inherent flaw of condoning overt and systemic racism by reframing the entire narrative using a racial lens to modernize its context for the 21st century audiences.

This challenge of translating a mere page into a theatrical performance is what confronts Stage Ensemble Theater Unit (SETU, www.setu.us)’s adaptation of the 1940s Bengali novel “Chhaddobeshi” by Upendranath Ganguly. Titled “Hush Hush,” the ensemble has already staged nine shows in the Boston area before packed audiences, with more in the works. 

“For ‘Hush Hush,’ I took content from the dialogues in the Bengali and Hindi films and the original novel, a very progressive one for its time, and then added some of mine,” says Subrata Das, SETU co-founder and director and script editor of the play. ”It’s akin to a recipe for Shukto (a Bengali recipe that is a mélange of vegetables). I then try to make sure the humor is not offensive, and is not targeting a particular community. This SETU production in the comedic genre, slapstick and physical in places, is very different from Dharamvir Bharati’s ‘Andha Yug’ that I directed last year to celebrate our 20th anniversary.” Both plays involved about three dozen actors in a double cast, along with dancers and narrators.

The original story revolves around a hilarious case of mistaken identities and is one of Ganguly’s most famous works. It was first adapted into a Bengali film in 1944 starring Chhabi Biswas and remade in 1971, again in Bengali, this time starring the superstar Uttam Kumar. Then Hrishikesh Mukherjee put his inimitable spin on it in the guise of the 1975 Hindi film, “Chupke Chupke”(which means “very quietly” or “hush-hush”), starring Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan (in the very same year that the pair starred in another diametrically opposite cult film, “Sholay”). “Chupke Chupke” became a Bollywood classic, pioneering the “comedy of manners” genre in Hindi cinema, and was famously followed by others such as “Golmaal” and “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.”

What made it a classic? Chhaddobeshi (also spelled as Chhadmabeshi) is a Bengali word that literally means “disguise” or “masquerade.” On its face, the story is very simple and presents a quintessential comedy of manners — a newly married Botany professor Abanish Sen gets jealous of his wife Sulekha idolizing her brother-in-law, Prasanta. To test, Prasanta’s ability to recognize impostors, Abanish pretends to be a driver named Gaurhari and proceeds to act like he is having an affair with Sulekha right under Prasanta’s nose. Abanish’s friend Subimal also gets involved in the prank by pretending to be a fake Abanish.

The titular masquerade leads to a series of comical misunderstandings and situations where Prasanta is completely fooled. In the end, Prasanta realizes Gaurhari was Abanish all along, but takes it all in good humor when the truth is finally revealed. When you look deeper, the story celebrates open-mindedness, progressiveness, and breaking free from regressive societal norms, all while delivering an entertaining and timeless comedy. Beyond the literal meaning, the “masquerade” symbolizes the subtle and understated way in which the novel and film challenge societal norms and advocate for progressive thinking. The pranks and deceptions happen “hush hush,” without being overtly preachy or confrontational.

The story gently mocks regressive mindsets like the obsession with English, gender stereotypes, and the colonial hangover, all while maintaining an entertaining and lighthearted narrative. It presents subversive possibilities like a married woman running away with a chauffeur, and her husband starting a new relationship and engaging in bigamy. Illustrating what could happen when societal foundations are shaken, making a statement about the impracticalities of being too rigid or hung up on tradition.

There were two big challenges for SETU in adapting Ganguly’s story to the stage. The first has to do with the traditional way of adapting a story for the stage which starts with picking a good story. The ideal source material for adaptation to the stage has a focused plot, strong dialogue, a manageable scale, resonant themes, and enough dramatic potential to engage audiences in a live theatrical experience. However, determining which elements to retain and which to omit or streamline is a daunting task. Stage productions have inherent limitations in terms of set design, lighting, and special effects compared to film or television adaptations. Overcoming these constraints while maintaining the novel’s scope and impact is a formidable task for the creative team.

“I edit every play to make sure the length and content is appropriate,” states Das. To pick the right story to adapt, he reads plays and watches movies daily, and “if something resonates with me then I explore it further,” he adds. “There are a few things that need to happen though — the play must have enough relevant social messages and a gripping story with enough dramatic elements to keep the audience engaged. Then I work out any copyright hurdles and start editing. Sometimes, we do go by the theme first, like ‘evils of casteism’ and ‘love in India.’ In all these, art is our priority, and any messaging is subtle.” 

A big reason behind picking Chhadobeshi as source material was that after years of doing serious plays heavy on social commentary, SETU wanted to try its hand at comedy. “I thought the story would appeal to audiences across all ages and there are enough comedic elements. I gave it a catchy name — “Hush Hush.” 

Comedy is tough and an individual’s sense of humor can be very culture-specific. Gratifyingly, Ganguly’s Chhadobeshi is very deep in content, dealing with fundamental human emotions and thought processes, unlike its cinematic counterparts in both Bengali and Hindi that for obvious reasons must appeal to the masses,” says Das. This presents a different challenge than Coppola’s work with adapting Puzo’s potboiler to the big screen.

SETU co-founder Jayanti Bandyopadhyay’s costume design from the ‘70s and Priyanka Banerjee’s fantastic mural art as the stage backdrop were a big hit.” Bandyopadhyay says that “every costume is an integral part of acting, especially for region- and period-specific plays. The most important thing is to be in sync with the director’s vision,” he said. “We wanted to take the audience to an India in the ‘70s featuring a middle-class educated Bengali family from Kolkata. That description fit me to a ‘T’ growing up in Kolkata in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — the vibrant colors and flowery prints in chiffons and tints, the fish-motif Dhonekhalis, the quintessential Balucharis, just to name a few, were right in front of me hanging or neatly folded on the shelves” 

She continues. “I filled my costume chart with bell-bottom trousers, the thick side burns, wide colorful ties, checkered pants and shirts, and those ‘guru’ kurtas only up to the knees for the men.  The girls were to adorn themselves in fitted kurtas with polka dots, large prints, and churidars.”

The actors themselves were pumped up for the challenge of pulling off SETU’s first comedy production. “Hush Hush” cast member Gautam Prabhugaonkar says that “pulling off a comedy in one’s mother tongue is easier than pulling it off when translated into English. The challenge is the delicate balance between timing and delivery.” 

Sridhar Pola, who played the brother-in-law, said the “timing, delivery and chemistry with co-actors (are crucial); without any of these, it is bound to fall flat.” 

Anothercast member Ketan Dave thinks that “comedy needs several nuances, action/reaction, timing, and punches to be perfectly delivered by everyone in the scene with the energy to be maintained throughout. I think that’s the biggest challenge when it comes to comedy.”

 Swapneel Batra echoes this, asserting that “the timing of things is the hardest part to pull off in comedy and timing is something that can’t be taught, as actors we must find it out ourselves. And how to draw that fine line to not overact and force the comedy. “ 

SETU’s next challenge was to adapt a story from a different time and era, with social, cultural, and technological contexts rooted in yesteryear. Besides costume design, one way the team addressed this was to introduce two television screens flashing visual, textual, and social cues to the audience that were apropos and timed to appear and enrich relevant scenes. This was hugely helpful to the sections of the audience that had no Indian context.

This goes to the heart of SETU’s mission of portraying India’s social, political, and economic circumstances from the past and the present, highlighting both its rich cultural heritage and social maladies. According to Das, “SETU is bridging the cultural gap between India and Western society, and this is important as the Indian diaspora burgeons in the USA.” 

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Another way the team addressed this was through meticulous preparation which is key to delivering great performances. Commenting on the preparation work for the actors, Dave explained that “Specific preparation for this role was focused on the time period of the play, the looks, costumes and bring out the comedy without being slapstick or trying too hard to make people laugh.” Yogita Miharia added “This one was easier than many other roles I have played. For starters, I had to go back to analyzing my mother, aunts, and women from the ‘70s. Once I had that clear in my mind, I moved on to the next steps.” 

For Mukta Munjal who played the brother-in-law’s wife, the role preparation differed from the usual. She says, “Although Sumitra’s character that I play is on stage for long, the dialogues were short, similar, and reactive – I needed to practice a lot with my co-actors for this one. No matter how many times I went through the script, I couldn’t retain my lines until I practiced with my co-actors. This led to many virtual reading sessions and rehearsals before we went for in-person rehearsals which helped immensely. Once I had a grasp on dialogues, I could work on my timing and my reactions.”   

Doesn’t this require a lot of time from the players who are weekend warriors with regular day jobs? Miharia says that she can sustain her day job because she has this creative pursuit outside of work. “I set boundaries for both — work and SETU. As good as I am at multi-tasking, I cannot mix my time between the two because both will suffer in the end.” Munjal asserts she has willingly let go of significant roles when she couldn’t fully commit to the preparation. Pola adds “When cast in a role, one is constantly thinking about it and therefore even when not physically practicing with the cast and the director, one is still rehearsing in one’s mind.”

Another cast member Gitanjali Srivastava, who plays the central role of Sulekha, mentioned “how we are never done preparing — there’s always something to improve, some nuance to add in, a change in modulation, a pregnant pause. Key for me is to keep preparing – right till the very last second that we are up on stage.” 

Das added that “about 8-10 practices are just enough to work on blocking, emotions, delivery, etc., syncing with selected music and lights. For Hush Hush, props were minimal as there were many scenes and fast transitions were required and there was not enough time to change between two scenes.” 

Given the time and effort required, this is a passion project for all involved. Prabhugaonkar says that “pursuing your passion for theater is a rewarding journey. The joy of performing on stage, connecting with an audience, and receiving their applause and praise is incredibly fulfilling and makes all the hard work and dedication worth it.” And Pola adds “It is the most giving kind of activity and allows one to interact with the community in a meaningful way with a sense of fulfillment and when one builds and creates something together with others, one builds bonds with other co-creators like no other social gathering would allow one to.”

So, what’s next on the horizon for SETU and all the passionate folk connected with the ensemble? Das says “It’s important how we train actors and arrange educational workshops. Many of our actors have been transitioning regularly to movies and professional theaters.” He adds “We have been planning towards a month-long production here in the Boston area. Then we want to take one of our productions to NY off-Broadway.” So, which one would it be? That topic is “hush-hush” for now.

SETU is a 501(c)(3) fully non-profit English theater group in the Boston area founded in 2003. SETU means “bridge” in several Indian languages and its mission is to build bridges between Indian and Western cultures through the medium of theater. SETU selectively produces plays in English to project the ways of life in India in a global context. SETU is a resident theater company at Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA. SETU’s facility partner is the Academy of Creative Arts, Burlington, MA. Further details are available at https://www.setu.us/


Rahul Nair is a Massachusetts-based writer, as well as an adman, a journalist, a technologist, a technocrat, an IT Manager, a Strategic Planner, a Mumbaikar, a New Yorker, a Virginian, and a Bostonian. But deep at heart, he remains a disgruntled ex-cricket journalist who still dreams of following the gentleman’s game around the globe as a roving reporter. Nair is a part of the SETU cast of “Hush Hush,” with insider access to the production.

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