In conversation with Sumit Lai Roy, Founder Member, The Red Curtain

By FilmySphere on 5th May 2016

The Red Curtain was founded in 1969. That makes it the oldest performing English theatre group in Kolkata. How did it all start?

Credit for starting "The Red Curtain" has to go to Arjun Chaudhuri, a St. Xavier's School classmate. The school leaving batch of 1969, that had sat for "Senior Cambridge", had six months to kill before joining college. Arjun came up with the idea of getting in touch with the school leavers of Loreto, of the same batch, and putting together a play. We asked Godrej Engineer, a teacher at St. Xavier's, to direct it. The production was done under the banner of "School Leavers of St. Xavier's and Loreto" and the proceeds were given to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. We were taken by surprise by the popularity of the play and almost all of us, in that first production, were smitten by the theatre bug. Arjun then proposed the name The Red Curtain. We opened a bank account and kept on doing plays through our college life and beyond.

"A Little Bit of Fluff", your first play, was a bedroom farce. But you don't seem to be doing theatre like that anymore. Why?

You are quite right. The play was "a little bit of fluff". A situational comedy of mixed identities. A genre of bedroom comedy that we now, as The Red Curtain, tend to look down on. But it was our first exposure to theatre. We started reading plays and initially played it safe, sticking to comedy but graduating to Hart & Kaufmann. (We've produced You Can't Take It With You as well as The Man Who Came To Dinner.) In 1970 Arjun took the big jump of doing a 'serious play', this time a murder mystery called Someone Waiting but no longer in the safe cocoon of the St. Xavier's auditorium. (The Founder Members all have the Xavier's auditorium to thank for training us to project our voices!) Someone Waiting was presented in the Kala Mandir Basement (now known as Kala Kunj). It was produced by Paul Lopez (another founder member) and directed by Arjun Chaudhuri. By this time Katy Lai (also a founder member) had become an accomplished set designer and created a 'thrust stage' since the Kala Mandir Basement did not have fixed seats at the time. Many wonderful sets have followed since, from Katy's theatre brain. I guess it's our experimenting with theatre forms and giving importance to backstage skills that allowed us to put on a stream of productions that attracted a cosmopolitan theatre audience in what was then still called Calcutta.By 1972, we were confident enough to take on Shakespeare. I would say that the Katy Lai directed Hamlet was a significant milestone for the group.Over the years, The Red Curtain has covered a wide variety of theatre genres. Even now, we are experimenting with new forms.

The Red Curtain believes in "Good theatre for good causes" - how do you justify this statement ?

Credit for this phrase, that neatly sums up the kind of theatre that we now do, in the 21st Century, goes to a long term supporter, and now a performance member of The Red Curtain, Swaran Chaudhury. It's actually very easy to become a member of The Red Curtain. There are no membership fees, as such. Anyone who has been listed in the cast or crew credits of any of our productions becomes a performance member. (This now includes people like Utpal Dutt, Meera Nair, Shashi Tharoor...) And anyone who has donated towards the cause that our plays support automatically becomes an audience member. Swaran Chaudhury has been both. The Red Curtain was quite prolific in the 70's and the 80's. But with the flight of capital from Kolkata, many of us went outside Kolkata to further our careers. Many of the Founder / Early Members are now spread across USA and Canada. Proceeds of all our productions now go to a social cause, chosen by the director or the producer of the production, announced before the production is staged. Thus, entry is free. If the production meets with the audience's expectations, they contribute as donor members to the cause.

"Othello" at the Utpal Dutt Festival created quite a buzz for a long time. How has the experience been?

The organisers of the Utpal Dutt Festival clearly knew of his connection with The Red Curtain and his love of performing Shakespeare in English. In our 1982 production of Immortal Couples, Utpal Dutt and Zarin Chaudhuri had done the deathbed scene from Othello. At the request of the Festival Organisers, The West Bengal Government, Katy (Lai Roy) created an under one hour adaptation that featured many of the younger members of The Red Curtain. The production featured Tathagatha Singha (as Othello), Bithika Basu (as Desdemona), Ronaan Roy as (Iago) Soumya Kanti Dey (as Cassio), Tanaji Dasgupta (as The Duke), Sumit Thakur, Bornila Chatterjee, Dana Roy all of whom have made names for themselves in the performing arts. Many of these actors got together to form a legendary Kolkata theatre group, TIN CAN. They've taken theatre to places other groups have not dared go.

What was Ma Boleche Korishna all about?

The full title of our production was My Mother Said I Never Should/ Ma Boleche Korishna. Shuktara Lal, who had earlier directed Rhinoceros for us, came up with a wonderful adaptation of Charlotte Keatley's play, called My Mother Said I Never Should, set in England over the two World Wars. There are four women in the cast. Three generations of mothers and daughters. Shuktara set it in Bengal and the canvas covered the Independence struggle and the creation of Bangladesh, as the two 'wars'. The most interesting part of Shuktara's adaptation was that the Great-Grand-Mother, though she knew English, chose to speak in Bengali, though with each next generation, there was an increasingly greater use of English by each daughter, so much so that the great-grand-daughter could hardly speak any Bengali. Yet, the bond between the great-grand-mother and the great-grand-daughter was the strongest, and the generation gap between mothers and daughters were very pronounced.

This was the first play that The Red Curtain did with a fairly high amount of Bengali being spoken by the characters. We made sure that the Bengali spoken was easy enough for our cosmopolitan audience members, who live in Kolkata, to follow.

Would you like to tell us about your upcoming venture?

The venture that's front and centre for us now is The Bigger Piece of Fish. This unusual production is in a genre we call jazz theatre and uses a form of audience intervention that helps achieve the purpose of the play: to sensitise people to the gender injustice inherent in the insidious patriarchy we accept in our lives, every day.

While the characters have very carefully thought out backstories, there is no script. The actors improvise around a situation that showcases examples of 'insidious patriarchy'. The audience members then become assistant directors and get the actors to re-enact the scene in a way that would be fair to both genders.

We are now planning to take this production, in a workshop format, to teenagers in schools and colleges. So that as they grow up, they no longer mindlessly accept customs and rituals that are gender unjust.

The Red Curtain is an "amateur theatre group". We understand none of the actors are paid. How do you manage to make a living and find time for theatre?

All of us who are in The Red Curtain are here because we love theatre. Each of us have worked out our own way to earn a living, but it's theatre that enriches our lives far more than money can.

What message would you like to give your audience of many years?

Thank you for being part of us.