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Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Father And The Assassin: Theatrical Mishmash Of India’s Brutal Colonial History

The Father And The Assassin is divided between two ideologies. Mahatma Gandhi (Paul Bazely): lawyer, champion of non-violence, and beloved leader. Nathuram Godse (Shubham Saraf): journalist and the man who murdered him.

This new play at National Theatre traces Godse’s life over thirty years during India’s fight for independence. From a devout follower of Gandhi, through to his distaste and their tragic final encounter in Delhi in 1948.

Director Indhu Rubasingham (The Great Wave) reunites with Anupama Chandrasekhar, one of India’s renowned playwrights, for this exploration of oppression and extremism. Actors Sagar Arya, Ayesha Dharker, Marc Elliot and Peter Singh, Ankur Bahl and Irvine Iqbal (to name a few) also star.

The production has set and costume design by Rajha Shakiry, lighting design by Oliver Fenwick and sound design by Alex Caplen. Music is composed by Siddhartha Khosla, with fight direction by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of Rc-Annie Ltd.

With such splendid creatives, the production delivers a marvellous visual appeal. From the costumes to set designs, these tropes endeavour to provide a 1940s feel. The stage has a moving wheel, which assists in transitioning the scenes. This also foreshadows how time passes slowly during India’s colonial role. Props of white veils falling to the ground, highlights partition brutalities are shown are powerful and heart-breaking.

I find it interesting how historical leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah present the consciousness of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In a way, they all come across as bystanders who watch a united nation get torn apart by tyrants. The play works well visually and credits go to the creative team for the effort put in.

The play is narrated through Godse’s lens. With the character breaking the fourth wall, it makes the production engaging and present. At times it reminded me of Vishal Jethwa in Mardaani 2, of how a villain expresses his actions whilst addressing the audience. Here though, it’s pantomime-like, which should not have been the case. In addition, I found the accents stereotypically Indian. Given that Godse and his alliances were Maharashtrian, I would’ve preferred it if the accents carried a Marathi flavour. There is a lack of authenticity in the accents, with the exception of two or three cast members.

However, my issue is with the comical approach of the story, when partition nor colonial brutality was certainly no laughing matter. This stage show is supposed to be an intense presentation of two conflicting personalities between Godse and Gandhi but ends up showing the bleak historical chapter into a comedy show. I had read (or heard) that the director did some research but then took some creative liberties. I wish a viewer’s discretion was made more clearly.

Saraf is a natural performer as are the entire cast members here. In fact, they are brilliant to watch (barring the accents). But I feel the play tries too hard to mix real and reel events, for instance, the portrayal of a prominent leader like Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar. Godse is presented as a comical almost Joker-like character. The show fudges the line between fact and fiction.

What Hindi films like Hey Ram get right is being clear from the onset of creating an alternate history narrative and comparatively, such titles were balanced. Consequently, one questions what was the real objective of displaying such a show? Furthermore, by flinging words like “Proud Hindu” or “Nationalist”, the play appeases to the pseudo-woke agendas on India. Would National Theatre have approved putting up a production where a non-Hindu ‘patriotic’ figure is presented in an antagonistic manner?

The Father And The Assassin is playing at the National Theatre

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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