Around 30 of Assam’s mobile theatre groups do a lot of good work that has nothing to do with the entertainment they put up.
They have been playing the Good Samaritan while entertaining people in rural and semi-urban Assam for nearly five decades now.
So much so that they haven’t escaped the attention of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which warned them just last week against imitating Bollywood and “facilitating cultural imposition on behalf of the Hindi film industry”.
Assam’s mobile theatre comprising groups like Kohinoor, Abahan, Bhagyadevi and Sankardev is arguably the biggest entertainment industry in the Northeast, with an annual turnover of Rs 12-15 crore.
It puts up a variety of shows, ranging from mythology to original scripts by Assamese writers to adaptations of bestselling authors. It is also inspired by Hollywood and Bollywood.
Over the last few years, the industry has handled contemporary issues from across the world.
Consequence: it has sunk the Titanic and made the Anaconda crawl on stage with indigenous special effects.
It has moved the romantic at heart with their take on the life of Princess Diana while making a strong statement on terrorism.
Ironically, the theatre also took a lenient view on militancy in Assam with ‘Samiran Barua ahi asey,’ a play loosely based on Ulfa commander-in-chief Paresh Barua.
“Theatre is not drug trade that can be done clandestinely,” says Ratan Lahkar of Kohinoor Theatre. “We have been in the business for over 30 years and people would have rejected us had we imported cultural degeneration from Bollywood.”
But more than the productions, what matters most to the villagers is that the theatre groups patronize rural schools, colleges and village clubs.
The mobile theatre had its genesis in 16th century social reformer Sankardeva’s Ankiya Bhaona, a play highlighting social issues and preaching Vaishnavite philosophy.
It acquired its modern form in 1963. From folklore and mythology in those days to anti-AIDS campaigns, the mobile theatre has come a long way.