Wings, with Strings Attached
by Amrit Paul and Srijon Mukherjee
It was 6:30 when we reached Gyan Manch. The play was supposed to start at 6. And as the dog-ate-my-homework excuse goes, the-Uber-got-us-late. More specifically, the-driver-got-us-late. It wasn’t his fault either. This was Amit’s first day, and we, his 18th ride.
His average rating was 2.8 stars.
We helped him navigate. He was a Catholic school’s dream - well dressed, well behaved, listened intently without questioning. He almost drove into a petrol pump to our left, instead of the road to our left, just because we said ‘left.’ (Jesus take the wheel, amirite?) We wondered what other orders he would follow without questioning.
“Amit, drive backwards”,
“Amit, go past 120kmph”,
“Amit, end my suffering”. But it was his first day, so that would’ve been too much to ask.
When it came to us to rate him, we fell into a dilemma. We were no doubt, unsatisfied with the ride. It was almost a burden to us to have to be aware of the fact that he was new and could be cut some slack. (“Amit go back in time and don’t tell us you’re new this time” was not an available option either.)
After guiding Amit to his next destination (Amit only takes orders from humans, technology inspires nothing in him) we rushed to the auditorium and took our front row seats.
We were a scene late, and in the middle of a flashback. The younger self of Nandini, screaming, calling for her mother, still coming to terms with what his father’s colleague had done to her - narrating, to her mother, in disjoint words: "uncle", "here", "pain"
Her mother, half consoling, half dismissive, pretends nothing has happened, and distracts her the way children can be distracted: oil pastels and a drawing notebook. And it works, because this Nandini is a child. She’s distracted, but doesn’t forget.
Her entire story, her career, and her convictions are shaped by this event - as we realize that her present self is working for Chatterjee, the man who molested her. He might see as stockholm syndrome but to her, it’s her path to retribution. Working within the system to dismantle it.
Her conversation with her teen self - used as a device to revisit her past - has the dynamics of two sisters, especially in the way they talk about their (her?) parents. The use of stage space in this regard was noteworthy. The background (an assembly of black hand cutouts) pervades both her past and present, while Older Nandini Sitting at a Table and Chair explains why no one else could solve anything, to a Child Nandini Cross-legged on the Floor. Her present self has come to terms with everyone else’s inability.
And as for what she couldn’t do back then and is doing now - seeking justice - gets more wrapped up in the action itself. Her retribution becomes a performance, the orchestrator being a certain Aich who took Nandini under his wing (and later, his scissors and knives) not out of sympathy, but out of spite for Chatterjee. Nothing personal, though. It’s strictly professional. And so, Nandini, with all her trauma and vengeance and passion, merely becomes a device in one man’s quest to bring another man down.
The way Aich brings out the best (and by best we mean the active-est) in Nandini is at parts pointlessly gruesome. Like a Heath Ledger monologue that overstayed its welcome, after the first few moments, it did next to nothing to take the plot forward or reveal anything new about the two characters.
That he is more interested in the performative aspect of Nandini’s struggle is evident from how he says,
All of this is a ritual. I just want to see how much you’re capable of.
By capable he doesn’t mean potential. He means the extremes of his instructions (strip, sit, tie your hands) and pain she can tolerate. A show, of her usefulness in his quest. It all hinges on her tolerance - whether she’d become a pawn, or his next victim.
His plucking a victim’s nails, symbolically declawing her fierceness, was a strong image, but pointless. One could say he’s a complex character, but it’s convenient to write off inconsistency as eccentricity. In a play that talks about trial by media and social networks as a way to cut through justice red-tape, inconsistency is a dangerous pitfall. It puts holes in the message, making leeways to fantasize extended torture scenes. The violation of one’s propriety, the undoing of her self-worth, the forced revisiting of her trauma, no matter what the end goal, ends up male-fetishizing her symbolic striptease into “a million filaments/ The peanut crunching crowd shoves in to see”.
While Heath Ledger drew smiles on his victim’s faces, Aich draws butterflies on their chests, manically urging them to spread their wings. Though, of course - as is usual in every case where men urge female liberation - Aich is more interested in these wings bringing about a change in his climate, while he stays firmly rooted to the ground, tasting the air every odd second. Laughing in Chaotic Evil and scratching his Ledger-smile-like goatee, he assures her that he’ll keep in touch. But not before she tries to shoot him and he calls her bluff, gleefully gesturing to his tiffin box full of torture tools (we were more annoyed than intimidated or fazed by our Bengali sadist Hemanta Laha’s feature, and we won’t let slip any opportunities to establish that) and warning that she make sure he doesn’t need to visit her again. And thus ends an excessively lengthy torture scene, not helped by its use of a heavy, anxiety ridden dronish soundtrack - reflective of a certain movie featuring an abundance of ledges, chaos and evil - that attacks the viewer’s ears more than it does the point.
However, Aich’s use of paint as an instrument of torture is poignant in her case, seeing how Child Nandini once used to draw to repress her trauma. Even her coping mechanism wasn’t immune from the clearly masochistic liberator.
In the third and final act, after Aich’s ever-so-charming demonstration, Nandini visits Chatterjee - the nemesis of her current flight stimulant. The two share an uncomfortable exchange where Nandini sits through blatant objectification, sexism, and inappropriate requests to seduce clients, in order to live stream his self indulgent confessions. When she’s certain she has enough to ruin his career, she playfully informs him so and takes her exit, and the curtains follow. The auditorium is filled with applause - applause for Nandini, and against her now former superior.
It seemed like it ended rather abruptly, felt like it didn’t end-end. But on a second look (and believe us when we say “second” - we’re finishing this three weeks after the play) the ending made sense. Not on a downward slope that is characteristic of three act plays, but at a certain sense of rising in action. This was the beginning of Nandini reclaiming her story in the most out-there way she has been so far, a sort of setting the wheels in motion. Still, one cannot unfeel the looming irony in the fact that her journey off-stage and off-story will be fuelled by two men using her in their fight for a promotion. She is an impersonal cog. Her victories are not her own, her function is replaceable.
One could even imagine Aich at the back of the room, clapping the loudest, all smiles, as he sees the wings he drew take flight in the direction he intended. His orchestration comes to the crescendo, at the cost of female agency - which was expendable anyway.
At that very moment, I got to thinking what Amit, the quick-to-learn, eager-to-listen Uber driver who almost crashed into a petrol pump, was upto. He was probably on his twentieth ride now. I wondered whether he’d still be following orders blindly after his two hundredth ride, and how he would go about defying, if he chose to. And in case he did, what would we have to tell him to get him to almost-crash a petrol pump again?
How would we fool him into thinking he has agency?
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