Book review: Black Tulip, a collection of two dramatic scripts

  • Vrinda Nabar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 30, 2015 14:58 IST

Black Tulip/Bedtime Story
Kiran Nagarkar,
HarperCollins Publishers
Rs 650

Nagarkar's latest book is a collection of two dramatic scripts. The older of these (Bedtime Story) is a take on The Mahabharat while Black Tulip, a screenplay set in a Mumbai marked by repeated violence, depicts the cat and mouse capers of a top cop and an accomplished thief, both women.

Bedtime Story, published for the first time in this volume, was completed in 1977 against the backdrop of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Repeated run-ins with censors, fundamentalist threats, and the consequent exodus of actors from rehearsals meant it was eventually staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis's theatre group Abhivyakti (Shreeram Lagoo had unsuccessfully tried to do so in 1978).

Nagarkar's Introduction (December 2014) says that Bedtime Story was an attempt, among other things, to "drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy." Its immediate trigger was the Emergency and its erosion of democratic rights and institutions but its larger significance relates to global violence as a whole.

Since the original Mahabharat had been a record of how a war between two branches of a family had destroyed not merely the kingdom they were squabbling over but virtually every semblance of human decency, Bedtime Story seems an appropriate enough peg for such a project. Several characters are interchangeable (Ekalavya becomes Karna, the "Grandmother", new to this version, is also Draupadi and Gandhari), perhaps hinting at universal similarities. Since no one would want to name their sons Duryodhan or Dushasan (something Nagarkar said in an interview), they are renamed Suyodhan and Sushyasan.

A scene from BR Chopra's Mahabharat that ran from October 22, 1988 to June 24, 1990

As with The Lion in Winter where an ageing Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine sparred in a contemporary idiom, Bedtime Story uses the present to highlight unchanging manifestations of social injustice. This allows Nagarkar an irreverence which strips the customary aura enshrouding, say, Gandhari and Draupadi. In an unusual early scene where Arjun and Ekalavya are on the run, Ekalavya tells Arjun he cannot be caught because without him "your people will remain Draupadi's father and brother, and without me, my people will remain Mahars. Someone has to start a new generation, start being human, decent, just."

It is doubtful however if Nagarkar's thesis about his intent is really as unusual as he suggests. The "real" Mahabharat has always been intangible, its multiple possibilities its continuing strength, its darker sub-text explicit enough since it was first composed. It has been severally interpreted with regard to its take on caste, gender, and dharma, but Nagarkar goes the extra mile, bringing in the horrors of contemporary life to reiterate the universality of the basic narrative.

Like Bertrand Russell in another era, Nagarkar's Introduction hopes Bedtime Story would "force people to wake up and think", but the choric passages that should do this are less than satisfactory. This may be because they mirror what he calls his "extraordinary and seemingly self-aggrandizing claim" that Bedtime Story is "even more pressing and relevant" in the present global scenario with its "legacy of military adventurism of the two feuding giants, the US and Russia"; the "unintended offshoots of these temporary occupations" - the most dangerous forms of global terrorism; and the ongoing plunder of the earth's natural resources by "fossil fuel economies and unbridled consumerism".

The truth is that Nagarkar's observation of global relevance is hardly extraordinary and makes his choric stridency over-stated, undermining the impact of an otherwise vigorous script.

Black Tulip was first written between 2000 and 2001, its title the code name for Rani, an attractive young con-artist who impersonates various roles (yoga teacher, royal princess, make-over expert of aristocratic lineage) to rob people. Strangely enough, Rani idolizes feisty top cop ACP Regina Fielding and their paths cross in several unlikely ways. In his Afterword (December 2014), Nagarkar slots Black Tulip in the "heist-film genre", carving "out its own unique space because Rani… operates entirely on her own… without any mechanical, digital or electronic gadgetry."

A woman who sends her yoga pupils into shavasan and ransack their safes, repeatedly manipulates her computer whiz boyfriend Anzar, and finally risks being caught to save his life, Rani makes it easy to overlook the fact that she is without scruples in the pursuit of her trade, someone who "likes money but… likes the excitement more". The provision of two alternate endings (a dramatic strategy used by, among others, Satyajit Ray in Devi and John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman) suggests interesting possibilities while Regina's humane and practical handling of the two crooks Rani and Anzar is reminiscent of, for instance, the final solution in Catch Me If You Can.

Willing suspension of disbelief is aided by moments of slapstick extravaganza, especially when Rani and Regina accidentally travel together. The phrase it takes a thief to catch a thief gets a hilarious spin when Rani's purse is stolen in Udaipur, while the two women manage an uproarious and unexpected victory over Anzar's ruthless boss.

Black Tulip has the makings of a successful movie, not least because it packs in fast-moving action, swift scene changes and a connection (albeit exaggerated) to life in Mumbai - the chase of mobster Salehbhai's yacht and foiling a plan to use piped gas connections to blow up a million homes in Mumbai. Some of this comes across as stereotypical and melodramatic, but could be camouflaged into a convincing story-line.

In the final analysis, Black Tulip scores over Bedtime Story, simply because it doesn't overreach itself. Nagarkar's Afterword works well in its analysis of Rani and her boyfriend Anzar, "the 'now' generation unsullied by any fellow-feeling", though it could have been less self-referential in other places as when he harps upon his misadventures with sundry movie makers. Nagarkar tells us that his characters took over and directed where the story and the film should go, which is perhaps just as well. One can only hope, with him, that we eventually "get to watch a terrific movie version of it."

Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former Chair of English, Mumbai University

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