Let us be clear at the outset. This is not a review, but a protest. It is a protest against the destruction of a text that Naihati Bratyajan’s play Ekush Gram(21 Gram) has achieved in the name of adapting the film 21 Grams, written by Guiellermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro Inarritu. It is also important to clarify that those who have not watched the film might not be able to grasp the entire argument of this piece. This inconvenience is regretted.
Ujjwal Chattopadhyay has written the play and Bratya Basu has directed it. This ‘review’ will not take into account the various aspects of the stage production such as direction, acting, set design and execution, lights and music. This is owing to the fact that, in my opinion, the damage done at the stage of adaptation, that is while writing the script, is so severe that staging cannot salvage the play and that is what has indeed happened. This piece will simply try to throw some light on the strategy of adaptation and the motivation (as I have come to understand it) behind choosing such an adaptive strategy.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) April 8, 2017
In brief, 21 Grams constructs a non-linear narrative at the center of which is an accident that suddenly entwines the lives of some disconnected people. An atmosphere of claustrophobic tragedy is created, though at the end of the film a faint ray of hope is suggested. The cardinal point is that more than technical skill (in terms of working the camera, editing, framing etc.), more than this that the non-chronological narrative generates a certain consciousness about time itself, more than the unforgettable acting performances (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro and all others), what the film gives us is a whole lot of food for deep, intense thought about our lives, our existence. 21 Grams is a philosophical discourse in image and sound. Those interested might wish to read this essay by Robert Hahn in which he posits the film, for its philosophical content, alongside Oedipus Rex and King Lear.
Ujjwal Chattopadhyay set about working with a text such as this with an aim to reduce it, dilute it, trivialize it. There is in the film the important issue of a heart transplant; in the play an aspect of the cost of such a procedure is introduced. Is it because people are now talking about the exorbitant prices private hospitals charge? Low sentimentality is injected by having two children, killed in the accident, repeatedly appear in birthday-party-costume. The audience crave sentimental tickling, it is assumed. In the film a character desperately clutches at Jesus to be rid of his criminal past, to give to his life some sort of spiritual meaning. What was in the film an idea of sincere and deep religious faith becomes in the play crass superstition; thus the committed priest becomes in the play a fraudulent, clownish astrologer. There is an allusion in the film to a poem written by Eugenio Montejo that evokes the timeless strain of uncertainty marking human life. Whatever else it might suggest, Jibanananda’s poem Akshlina does not carry the same connotation. The adaptation as a whole seeks to make the subtle, gross and the complex, simple.
There are probably two reasons for choosing to adapt reductively, for destroying the depth of thought in favour of a gimmicky spectacle. First, it will be assumed that ninety percent of the audience will not have watched the film and cheating them will not be that difficult. It will be further assumed that the audience only crave uproarious entertainment, neither wishing to nor being able to think. Secondly, we Bengalis have diminished ourselves to such an extent when it comes to intellectual and cultural practices that upon encountering a text with depth and width, the only thing we can do is slash, prune, dilute and reduce the text so that it matches our smallness.
I have an earnest request to make to you, the reader of this piece, and it is not to not watch the play. That is up to you. But do watch the film 21 Grams. Let two hours of your life be spent in close proximity with great art. You will find that the film will give you a lot of material with which you can think about many things – your life included – anew. And if you have still have some more time and enthusiasm to spare, please go through these articles which prove that discourse of an elevated nature is generated by great art. Practice of culture demands this exertion from you.