In a scene from the play Bhima, the second Pandava brother is told that Yudhistira is alive in the war. Actor Vivek Vijayakumaran’s face begins to register relief when Krishna adds, “The arrow meant for him found Ghatotkachha instead.” Vijayakumaran’s Bhima is suspended in the contradiction — does he mourn for his son or rejoice for his brother? Bhima has been shortlisted for the Best Production at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2017 (META), and Bangalore-based Vijayakumaran, who plays the protagonist, is in the running for Best Actor and Anitha Santhanam could take home the award for Best Director.
In recent years, theatre has looked at Ravana differently, from Maya Krishna Rao’s Ravanama, to Adishakti’s The Tenth Head to the commercial production Raavan Ki Ramayana. Bhima represents one of the few works that present a hero from an alternate perspective. Bhima unfolds as sequences from Bhima’s life, from his love for the demon Hidimba to attraction for Draupadi. He wanders the battlefield in search of Ghatotkachha’s dead body and lifts it on his shoulders. When he cries out to the god of wind, Bhima is reminded that a hero with the strength of a thousand elephants does not call upon his father to help. Finally, all Bhima would like is to tell his story in a different way. The play settles into the current gender discourse that is reinterpreting “boys don’t cry” ideas of masculinity.
Vijayakumaran began thinking about the vulnerable side to Bhima when he read the book, Child Man: The Selfless Narcissist by Ashok Malhotra, which deals with the themes of ego, narcissism and machismo through the characters of Bhima, Balaram and Duryodhana. “How I identified with Bhima was that he was not me in personality. I am not impulsive or somebody who shares emotion with abandon. I loved him for being honest with what he was feeling,” says the 32-year-old actor. While working on his body and breath in Hampi, Vijayakumaran read MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (Second Turn), which looks at the Mahabharata from Bhima’s point of view. For Vijaykumaran, Bhima was an opportunity to become somebody who lived out his emotions in a primal way, without the filters of civilisation.
The actor, who was an engineer before he quit to teach and to learn theatre, trained in Kutiyattam as part of an Inlaks theatre award. “Kutiyattam has allowed him to engage with a range of emotions in the heroic scale,” says Santhanam, a dancer who trained in physical theatre at the London International School of Performing Arts. Vijayakumaran was directing, acting in and producing Bhima until Santhanam came on board in April 2016, and gave the play its present complex structure. “One of the challenges was the vastra haran scene. Everybody knows about it. We gradually tightened it. Instead of showing the progress of the game of dice, we used beats of the drum as the different brothers are lost,” she says. With every beat, Bhima’s expression crystallises his helplessness, anger and frustration.
The performance shifts from the epic story to modern comment and exchanges between Vijayakumaran and Sachin Gurjale, who plays a djembe and didgeridoo (made with a PVC pipe), among others, as the live musician of the piece. Vijayakumaran wears no costume apart from a regal dhoti, so that he appears, at once, a modern man as well as his character. “The reason is that I see Bhima as stuck in the middle. Below the waist, he is king-like and wears a dhoti that belongs to the palace but, above his waist, he wears nothing because he belongs to the jungle in terms of his emotions,” says Vijayakumaran.
The play revolves around Bhima being manipulated by the people he loved, including Kunti. His hunger becomes a metaphor and Bhima’s mother stuffs him from a buffet of emotions, from anger to revenge to duty. “I feel that in the whole Mahabharata, Kunti was the biggest strategist but she got hidden behind the role of a mother. She played a major role in the war, sometimes by saying things, sometimes by not saying things and sometimes by saying things in the guise of law,” says Vijaykumaran, who has trained with veterans in theatre, from Adil Hussain to Abhishek Majumdar. Mahesh Dattani cast him as a transgender in Seven Steps Around the Fire. “For two months, I wore saris, shaved my chest and plucked my eyebrows. I travelled with hijras and they came over for rehearsals,” says Vijayakumaran. From the late Manipuri director Heisnam Kanhailal, he learnt the synergy between body, breath and voice. “I subconsciously change my breathing and relax when I come out of Bhima and play a modern man. Bhima is more agitated,” he says.
The play also makes the audience complicit in the creation of the unidimensional hero. In a sequence, the actor shifts to the modern day by narrating how his neighbour is a big fan of cricketer MS Dhoni — except when he gets out for duck. “We cannot accept that our heroes can be weak,” says Vijayakumaran.