Straight off the street

These road-side dwellers who use street theatre to moot their issues have taken method acting to a new level, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Street dwellers perform a skit at Mahim beach

“Tapori log! Shehar ko ganda kar diya!” yells a Hindu pandit, crinkling his nose while hopscotch-ing past a maze of homeless bodies sleeping on the pavement. Then a policeman enters with a bamboo stick, whacking the sleepers at random and hollering, “Pakad ke andar karo. ‘Quota’ poora karna hai.” Next is the driver of a make-believe vehicle running a pavement dweller over. Once at the hospital, the compounder asks the victim scathingly, “Nahaate dhote nahin?”, while the doctor refuses to examine them, choosing to prescribe medicines from afar. Other incidents like a job refusal for want of proper address, non-payment of wages after a hard day’s work, and beatings by goons, policemen and employers follow. All enacted minus costume, on Mahim Beach by a bunch of above-20 street dwellers.
The policeman and compounder, alias Deepak Bahadur Thapa, is a stout Nepali who came to the city 10 years ago and works in the catering business. Mukesh Das, from Tripura, who plays the pandit and the doctor, has after endless catering and clerical call centre jobs, moved up to becoming a helper for the Miss India Competition trials. Ajay from Bihar, who alternates between catering and banner hoisting, plays the quintessential homeless victim—of arrests, beatings and accidents. His prototype homeless helper, who takes him to the hospital or police station, is rendered by Santosh Yadav, from UP, who’s quit washing dishes at a roadside restaurant and is looking for a better option.
“The purpose was to give them a creative vent during spare time, so that they avoid bad habits, get a group identity, build individual confidence and generate awareness of their condition amongst the public,” claims Abhishek Bhardwaj, a fellow of Action Aid, who’s been working with Mumbai’s homeless for four years (he adds in the passing, that 50 per cent of the homeless in the city are from other parts of Maharashtra).
The idea of a street theatre group emerged from the animated way in which the boys told stories; Bhardwaj held summary acting and scriptwriting workshops, enabling them to develop a 10-minute play talking about their travails. This stretched to 20 minutes and a hundred street performances around the city. “So we developed plays on other themes like AIDS as well,” Bhardwaj remembers. “They’ve performed for names like the Rotary Club, Hindalco, TISS — where they won a medal, and even in the Kala Ghoda festival.” Performing only when their seasonal jobs allow time, the group members sometimes earn, besides conveyance and lunch, Rs 100 to 300 per person for a show.

“Madhur Bhandarkar took Traffic Signal’s stories from us! Did you sell it?” Thapa questions Bhardwaj grinning. “Yeah! Now give us our cut!” Das takes on as the others laugh. More than connecting to an audience or their ‘true selves’ – both of which theatre motivates – the roughly hewn skits, caricaturing themselves and their oppressors, act as a medium for these migrants, sans any family, to connect to each other. Post their dai
ly dose of exploitation, they pause mid-rehearsal, while depicting that exploitation, to giggle and share in local slang the experience of a happy movie ending they would never realise, or a crush they will never attain. “I’ve saved up and taken a room recently,” says Das proudly. Yet today, he’s given up a night shift which would contribute to the room’s rent, to saunter into spotlight… generated by a Mahim beach street lamp.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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