Acting and the Actor (‘Obhinoy o Obhineta’)

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Issue No: 92May 1, 2014


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Acting and the Actor (‘Obhinoy o Obhineta’)

An essay by Girishchandra Ghosh in Girish Rachnabali, Part Three Excerpts from a translation from Bengali to English by Joyoti Roy

The learned often say about acting: actors are born, like poets- you cannot tutor somebody into becoming an actor.

Both the poet and the actor must have an advanced education, but it is not possible to become a poet or an actor just by being highly educated. Nature endows the actor with a body that is capable of acting. In the description of the ‘hero’ in novels, he is possessed of a unique physique. He is often described as tall, with a wide forehead, bright eyes, lips that bespeak determination, long arms, wide chest etc. In the novel, the hero needs to possess a light tenor voice; but once this hero makes his appearance in theatre, it is absolutely imperative that his voice must have a high tenor quality. The hero in the theatre must reach his voice to the audience seated at a distance even as he confers in a low voice. The audiences are eager in an equal measure to listen to him giving a rousing speech to his soldiers, as they are to savour him giving tender love to his heroine. Though the actor gets ample aid and support of make-up, wigs etc. but unless he possesses a physique that is somewhat well proportioned, it is unlikely that he would ever get his rightful place as hero in the art of the perfect bahurupee. It would just not do if Nature does not fashion him like an actor. I however do not mean that there can be no ugly heroes; Victor Hugo’s Black Dwarf of Notre Dame is an example. It is described in that novel how this hero, by virtue of being of the most grotesque physiognomy was taken out in a grand procession along the streets by the fun-loving youth of the city. But such instances are rare.

The ‘structure of the actor’s body’ is an essential tool for theatre-in serious scenes of a play or even in parts evoking laughter. Of course in the latter, one can hope to draw much on the costume and make up. However it is always desirable if the facial expressions are gifted by Nature. Protrusion of Teeth is of particular usefulness in invoking humour.

As certain qualities like the proper body, voice etc are imperative for the stage, many who apply for an entry into theatre are turned away by managers as they do not look good. Those that appear in person to apply for a position in theatre, often give an account of their learning and education to gain favour. Little do they realise that it is not enough to be well educated alone. Any fault in the voice, or the body can be severely detrimental to the actor. It is for the same reason that the intonation and pronunciation of the people of East Bengal is often a hurdle to any aspirant for the stage.

I of course do not mean that the education of an actor should be belittled. It is the duty of the actor to give airy nothings a local habitation and character. An actor can never hope to be well established if he fails to empathize with imaginary and familial characters. An actor cannot hope to have this deed fully accomplished without keen insight, a quality without which an actor cannot quite grasp the character he is to portray. An actor becomes completely immersed in trying to understand the true nature of the character as painted by the playwright. Even if the playwright explains the character to him, he cannot be rid of his thoughts. The disposition of the playwright at the time of the writing of the play is not the disposition at the time of understanding the characters of the play; but the actor must acquire that specific disposition by means of his thoughts. Many a time the playwright has been astounded by the manner in which an actor has conceived a particular character written by him.

Let me put forth an example: Victor Hugo wrote a play. The lead actress of the theatre company that did the play did not particularly like the play. However rehearsals continued. All the characters, except the lead actress had their parts well shaped. The actress then thought; none would say that the play was bad: it is me they would seek deride. The actress delved deep into her role. Victor Hugo was amazed at her acting. He realized that her conception of the role was such, as he himself had not imagined! A similar incident occurred when, at a show of the play Sadhabar Ekadakshi, the talented playwright Dinabandhu Mitra showered praises on Ardhendhu (Ardhendushekhar Mustafi) in the role of Jeeban Chandra saying,’ Your kicking Atal as you move away is an improvement on the author’.

Michael Madhusudhan Dutt has often talked about the legendary actor Keshabchandra Gangopadhyay in the role of Krishnakumari. It was clear and evident that Madhusudhan was testing his composition with the said actor. The fact that the perception of the actor is not to be belittled can be indeed proved by several instances. The job of an actor does not cease merely with thinking or pondering over his role, he should decide by looking into the mirror which costume would best represent the role, and what kind of make-up would further make him look more believable. While acting, his face must suitably change with his thoughts. Acting is a full time engagement by the actor, he should think in a well rounded manner about his role.

Some say that the world renowned actor Sir Henry Irving while acting as the French Minister Richelieu used to feign imminent death before the king, yet his feet stood up straight, with fearsome and ruthless countenance, charged with the single-minded object of killing the enemy. On reading newspaper reports we come to know that Irving had observed how in a battle at the Indian frontier vigorous young soldiers were falling dead when struck by bullets. But his learning did not suffice merely by watching this. He had to practice how a full blooded face, heady with the power of heroism suddenly becomes ale as death’s shadow looms upon it. It is no mean task to gain such control over one’s body. It is indeed a rigid penance that the actor undergoes in order to become one with the imaginary character, in his manner of speaking, and even his mannerisms.

Mannerisms do not consist of merely moving one’s head or limbs in a particular way. The ‘soldier’, even while talking, unconsciously charts out a battle with his scimitar; the ‘flower maiden’ moves her fingers as if to wreathe a garland even as she talks; the ‘clerk’ unconsciously keeps writing with his fingers; the ‘lover’ sighs deeply, and becomes all too unmindful on seeing a beautiful object; the ‘snake-charmers’ turn cartwheels even while walking; the ‘singer’ whistles; the ‘accompanist’ drums beat on his body and so on. An actor must observe all these actions with a keen eye, and make it seem to the audience that these actions come naturally to him while acting on stage.

I would like to cite a few instances from the theatre in Bengal. The sensitive audience of the National Theatre applauded with great enthusiasm for late Nagendranath Bandopadhyay, who was assaying the role of Birendra Singha in the play Krishnakumari, and while doing so used the long sheath of his sword to chalk out battle plans and the king’s messenger was engaged in an altercation with Dhanandas. Another instance is that of Bell –Babu (who is otherwise known as Bell, the Fop) in the role of the fisherman in the play Dhibor o Daitya (The Fisherman and the Ogre). The fisherman tactfully made the Ogre enter the drum and then sat on it so that the Ogre could not escape. The fisherman kept the Ogre inside by nodding his head and saying Kabhi Nahi (never). Dibhor, the fisherman kept checking his fishing net to see if it had been torn lest the Ogre escaped. Had he not been a real fisherman, it would never occur to him that he must keep a vigil on the Ogre. The audience praised this attention to detail of the actor greatly.

Let us look at another example- that of the play Prafulla of Kashem Bazaar. I played Jogesh, a character in the play who loses everything and ends up begging to make ends meet, looks for money to pay for his drinking habits and has seen his wife die in misery on the street. Jogesh sighs and says, “Oh God my Garden has dried up”. Later when I went out the actor who played the King of Kashem Bazaar, Narendrachandra asked me if I had seen a similar man in the vicinity who had been in the same condition, I replied, “No!” He praised my acting. I was thrilled and overjoyed with his appreciation and also felt satisfied that I could achieve a near real situation on stage that made my character so believable.

Adoration in acting and becoming successful is not an easy job. A person who does not have imagination, proper recollection or meditation finds it difficult to perform well in theatre. If someone is well read, has good pronunciation and excellent diction, he may be successful in reading to an audience but this cannot be considered good acting. The path for an actor is far from a flower bed, it involves good voice but more importantly, its modulation. If one is not audible or lacks clear voice and good tonal quality, it may be very difficult to bear his performance as an actor on stage. He should also understand the subject of his speech, if that is overlooked, great blunders can happen.

Interestingly, there are many similarities between what psychologists do with their patients and what a director does with his actor. A director can discuss with the actor what he wants. This can be followed by trials or improvisations to see if the actor is able to render what the director wants. For example, when the famous actor Michael Madhusudhan Dutt portrayed Rama as a timid person in the play Meghnad Vadh (an epic poem), there was a lot of criticism from Hindu audiences. He had to modify his presentation later and remove signs of timidity from the character of Rama, particularly in the scene where he has a fist fight with the character of Nrimundamalini. This was in-spite the fact that in the poem itself there are many instances where Rama has been depicted as a timid person. One must understand that a one time change in depicting Rama as a brave person through acting would never be able to do away with the way the writer has imagined Rama but it can win the support of audiences.

The full version of this translation was first published in the book _Act of Becoming – Actors Talk, a collection that seeks to tell the story of theatre from the perspective of the actor. The book, a collaborative publication by Niyogi Books and NSD, has been edited and compiled by Dr. Amal Allana. _

Girish Chandra Ghosh (February 28, 1844 –February 8, 1912) was a Bengali musician, poet, playwright, novelist, theatre director and actor. He was largely responsible for the golden age of Bengali theatre. He was often referred to as the Father of Bengali Theatre. He was a versatile genius, a scholar without having any formal educational background, an actor of repute and a mentor who brought up many actors and actresses, including Binodini Dasi.

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