Even as he wrote it, actor Avijit Dutt suspected his play would be hard to stomach. He prefixed the narrative with a message to the audience. “The uncomfortable, the objectionable, the unmentionable are but punctuations of truth. To counter it, you need to understand it, discuss it. If you find it reprehensible, leave. Please don’t rush, there will be a full refund of your ticket,” he says.
The production, titled The Unspeakable, contains references to real-life situations in which food is used as the denominator of power between the privileged and the deprived. One of these is the raging debate over beef in India. Dutt will open the play at Delhi’s Oddbird Theatre on Saturday and Sunday.
“I have never done a solo but here I am with The Unspeakable, and you are seeing me with all my vulnerabilities. I am terrified. When Sir Lawrence Olivier celebrated his 70th birthday, he said, ‘When I was young, there would be butterflies in my stomach and I would think, oh well, once you grow up, it’s going to stop. Now, it’s a herd of elephants running’. About 14 days after that, he passed away,’” says Dutt before the furniture is pushed around in his quiet office on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road and Dutt gets ready to rehearse.
The actor, 62, has been on stage for 45 years and its manners have seeped into his gait and movements. His conversations are peppered with dialogues with people he has known and imitates, and the punchlines are spot on. Dutt has been Ghalib, Banquo, Rabindranath Tagore and enough characters from Bertolt Brecht and Dario Fo in theatre. He has performed with Utpal Dutt and Badal Sircar, among others. Bollywood has cast him as an R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) officer in Madras Café, a corrupt cop in Jolly LLB2 and a defence lawyer in No One Killed Jessica. He did The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the joy of acting with who else was a part of it, especially Judi Dench. Along the way, he has collected a thespian’s stock of anecdotes for every occasion.
“Ektu golpo kori? (Should we chat)?” he asks, because he cannot speak about the play — and little else — without turning it into a tale. The Unspeakable was born once upon a time when Dutt “would not have been too much more than nine or 10 years old” and Zakir Husain, then President of India, wanted a Mog cook. The Mog cooks were culinary wizards and pirates in undivided Bengal, who stole recipes with a clear conscience from the British and the boatmen of the Brahmaputra and the Padma rivers. “They became a bit of a romantic character in my mind,” says Dutt. Some of Mog recipes, staples at a few clubs and hole-in-the-wall outlets in Kolkata, have names such as Captain Skinner’s Chutney, Scotched Eggs, Dim er Devil, Braised Chicken and Puff pastries.
“Why aren’t you admitting, you are just thieves, aren’t you?” shouts a saheb at the Mog protagonist. “That’s rich,” retorts the latter, “The pot calling the kettle, you know what. From all that they took from here, the industrial revolution was financed. In the First World War, we contributed a billion pounds and a hundred thousand Indians lost their lives and yet there is no mention of it. There is a tower set up for the animals, who lost their lives, possibly we are a part of that, who knows?”
The protagonist is unnamed and, like all Mog cooks, originally a Muslim. He weighs in on the debate around gau rakshak and “the people who did not join the freedom struggle” but he speaks also as a 60-year-old who has a wider rear-view mirror and knowledge as well as anger.
He makes Smoked Hilsa with erotic fascination — “Massage the fish, sprinkle vinegar, massage it in” — and sings an odd river song — Ore majhi re — but the monologue becomes progressively darker until it ends with a chapter that the British have sought to erase. The last searing line, in Bengali, is taken from the hungry heart of the Bengal famine.
“Stories are important. For me, it enables a search for a better way of living. Why is it that man is so brutal with man? Isn’t there a better way of living?” asks Dutt. He is, perhaps, the only actor to have two patents, including for a toilet. His organisation, Enable, of which Dutt is Chief Motivator and Director, has built toilets across north India, though not the one he had patented. “Today, 45000 girls use our toilets,” he adds. The second patent is for a process of collecting, testing and documenting blood tests for rural areas.
In a TedTalk, he held forth on the importance of “following your bliss”. That’s what brought him to the Mog cook. “This guy is 60. Most professions would have retired someone of his age, but not the cook, who gets better with age,” he says. It’s the same way for an actor.