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A Man of Many Parts

Dramatist, actor and lyricist Hemanta Dutta, who transposed the unforgettable Titanic on stage. is now trying his hand at novel writing

A Man of Many Parts

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 Jan 2023 1:38 PM GMT

The tastes of the new generation are completely different from ours. I do not watch plays now. The plays these days have become more like entertainment shows. With songs and dances thrown in, the whole thing has become very loud. We do not get the original elements of a play if we study the plot or script. The manner of writing plays now is a complete departure from the practice in our times.

Hemanta Dutta is a dramatist, director, actor and lyricist – all rolled into one. One of his ambitious works was adaptation of Titanic (James Cameron's epic film) for staging in the mobile theatre format for audiences in Assam. Dutta has written 100 plays so far and he has more than 500 songs to his credit as well. He received the title of 'Natyasindhu' at the Bhaben Baruah Awards ceremony in 2017. Excerpts from an interview:

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I was born at Kharupetia in Darrang district. Our family later shifted to Mangaldai, where I grew up. When my elder brother Dr Munin Dutta went to the US for higher studies, I had to shift to Dibrugarh where I pursued my studies.

What inspired you the most when you chose to become a dramatist and lyricist?

I am an actor first. In fact I had started acting since I was in Class III. I won the best child actor award in a play that was staged at that time. I started writing drama from Class VIII. We had a drama competition in school, where I got awards for the best script, the best director and the best actor. This motivated me a lot and I got addicted to acting as well as writing.

What do you love the most – acting or writing?

My first love is acting. Though I got involved in writing for the mobile theatre, I still love acting the most. Till now, I have written more than 100 plays.

Did your family approve of your career choice?

I am a very family-loving person. And as such, my family supports me in whatever I do. I did not face any opposition from my family when I started out as a drama artiste and playwright. In fact all my family members encouraged me in my ventures.

Which one among your myriad plays do you consider the best?

I cannot really pinpoint one. All my works are very dear to me, they are like my children. Only the viewers can tell which one of my works they find the best.

You enacted Hollywood blockbuster Titanic on the mobile theatre stage. Will you share your experience about that?

Titanic happened all of a sudden. I never thought that I would adapt it for the stage in mobile theatre. In fact when I was writing Titanic for the mobile theatre audiences, the Hollywood movie had not been screened in India, though it had already released abroad.

I have been an avid reader since childhood. Due to dearth of good Assamese magazines, I used to read Bengali magazines a lot. I read about the tragedy of Titanic, the ship, in a magazine, how it had set sail and met with the disaster. When I asked my mother and a few other people if they knew what the Titanic was, they pleaded ignorance. I realised then that many people in Assam did not know about the Titanic incident. So, I visualised the story and started writing a script. Ratan Lahkar, who was the producer of the mobile theatre I was associated with at that time, approved my concept. That is how we gave life to Titanic in Assamese mobile theatre.

You have also acted in and directed films. Can you tell us about your experience as a director? How did you get into the field?

My first directorial venture was Upapath. I wrote the script for it between the busy schedules of mobile theatre. The film is based on Prafulla Dowarah's play of the same name. Pramod Baruah, who produced the film, brought the subject to me. I contacted the original writer and frankly told him that I might amend his play for the film. He allowed me to go ahead.

As for my directorial experience in films, I have had some good experiences and some bad. But whenever I start fresh work, I forget all of my bad experiences.

How is writing for cinema different from writing for theatre?

There is a huge difference. Theatre is mainly based on script and narration. In a movie, there are so many things which can be expressed without saying anything. We can show the actions and emotions with ease. For example, if a lover winks at his beloved in a movie, the audience can see it. But in a play, we have to write that into the script. We have to express the emotions and actions in the script through narration.

We know you as a lyricist too. Can you tell us who inspired you to write songs?

When I was a student at Kanoi College (DHSK College) in Dibrugarh, I had a group of friends who were deeply into music. So we formed a group called Quivers. Once the famous singer, Subir Sen, had come for a programme in Dibrugarh. When Sen expressed his desire to sing an Assamese song, our group members, who were present in the programme, told him that they would teach him the songs of Dr Bhupen Hazarika. But Sen wanted to sing a fresh song, so my friends asked me to pen a song. Writing lyrics was not my forte then. I told my friends that if anybody could hum a little tune, I might be able to fit in the words. One of my friends obliged, and thus I wrote my first song which the great Subir Sen sang in the function.

Who is your Muse when writing songs? What is your most memorable song?

No such thing for me. Melody is important while writing lyrics, but I have penned songs without melody as well. If I write the lyrics thinking about a particular melody, the same emotions may not be clearly expressed. So, I write according to the melody provided by the music director.

As I said before, the audience alone can tell which one of my works they consider their favourite.

Which medium do you find more comfortable to work in – theatre or cinema? What do you love the most about writing plays?

Cinema and theatre are separate mediums. Mobile theatre is mainly based on plays, while cinema is all about acting. In cinema, things can be expressed through acting, but in mobile theatre, the actions and emotions are expressed through narration.

I get utter satisfaction when I write plays. When they are staged, I really feel very happy deep in my heart. My plays are like my children. If they are admired by people, I naturally get elated.

You said that you love acting the most. Can you tell us about your journey as an actor?

In school, just before the summer holidays, we had morning classes where the vacation dates were announced. After the morning school, we used to have cultural shows in the evening. The teachers would assign us plays for performance on stage. When I was in Class III, we were asked to stage a play on Lachit Barphukan. I played the character of the great Ahom general and won the first prize. That was practically the beginning of my career as an actor.

Do you think of any of your roles as the most memorable one?

I will repeat the same thing: I just cannot say. But I liked my performance in the role of Captain Smith in Titanic. It was not a big role, but I really loved it. I think I also gave my best to playing the Shakespearean villain, Iago. In one of the shows, my mother, brothers and sister-in-law were watching the play from the front row. Iago's is mostly a solo performance. In one of the scenes, there was pin-drop silence as I was 'emoting' on the stage. A viewer, who was seated in the 'gallery' section, hurled an abuse at my character. I got distracted and looked at my mother. The curtains were drawn immediately. I felt very angry and bad because my mother was in the audience. But looking back, I think it was one of my best performances. I feel I never got this kind of praise elsewhere.

Tell us about your achievements and the awards that you have won as an artiste. What are the projects that you are currently working on?

Recognition and awards have come in plenty, both in the state and the national level.

I am working on a novel right now. The novel is about the place I have lived in – the place where I was born, the place where I grew up, the place where I spent my teenage years, and the place where I married and became a father. I am seeing the place right in front of my eyes and how it has changed over the years. Since my birth, my native place has undergone a complete metamorphosis. This is the subject matter of my novel. It is not complete yet; I am still working on it.

Are you working on any other projects?

No, apart from my novel, I am not working on anything. If people come and seek my services, I write one or two songs. I am busy with my novel right now. Writing a novel is a completely new thing for me. Once, after watching my play, late Homen Borgohain advised me to write short stories and novels. "You have written so many plays, you must write a novel now. Why don't you give the stories you have written for your plays a new life in the form of a novel?" he said to me. Inspired by his words, I have started working on my novel. Sadly, Borgohain Sir is no more and it really saddens my heart.

What do you think about the present-day plays in mobile theatre?

There is a huge difference between the plays of today and the plays staged during my time. My children may not love what I love. When we were growing up, there were no private vehicles; we had to walk a long distance to go anywhere. But now things have changed and in a positive way. The environment in which a person grows up, also matters a lot. The tastes of the new generation are completely different from ours. I do not watch plays now. The plays these days have become more like entertainment shows. With songs and dances thrown in, the whole thing has become very loud. We do not get the original elements of a play if we study the plot or script. The manner of writing plays now is a complete departure from the practice in our times. Maybe people of my age have not able to match steps with the present generation. But the fact is that I do not go to watch mobile theatre plays nowadays.

What do you think of the lyrics of Assamese songs these days?

I love listening to songs. In our time, we used to listen to songs on All India Radio. When we listened to the songs on the radio, we could identify the singers. And if we loved the singers, we would listen to more of their songs. But nowadays, we cannot identify the singers unless we see them 'perform' their songs. All the songs sound the same. The songs, the music, the lyrics all sound similar. The songs of yesteryears had variation in terms of music. There was also difference in terms of voice. Singers like Jayanta Hazarika were in a league of their own. But I will not say that all present-day singers are bad. Zubeen Garg is doing great work. He also writes great songs. Diganta Bharati is also doing well. There are two or three more people who are doing worthy work.

In the earlier days, the lyricist was also given credit for the song. But now if you ask a youngster about the songs of Hemanta Dutta, he may not be able to tell anything. Nowadays, the name of the singer comes first. The song is identified by the name of the singer.

What do you have to say to our readers?

I will tell just one thing. In the market, you get a variety of things to eat but not everything is good for your health. We should eat only those things which are good for our health. This analogy extends to the field of drama as well. I want to say that people should go to watch a play as a play, and not as a 'variety show'. I love drama. I want that drama tradition continues to flourish in our state. Similarly, there is good cinema too. But it saddens me to watch the commercial movies these days as the reality is not portrayed in them. If people make good movies, our film industry will grow from strength to strength. The government is also providing finances for making films. Lastly, I think the theatre audience should reciprocate the love and respect that an actor performing in a play, holds for the audience.

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