The 1920 silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, has a historical background of opposing authority. It was story written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who were disillusioned after their experiences with the army during World War I. The film has a dark and twisted storyline, from its graphics landscapes to the protagonists — a hypnotist called Dr Caligari, who uses Cesare, a somnambulist, to kill people, and Francis, who has undergone a trauma and tells the story that makes up the film. Last year, Delhi-based director Deepan Sivaraman turned the iconic film into a play. He showed it in a warehouse and topped the story of insanity, illusion and murder through taps on stage gushing with blood (fake) and having people (real) hanging by a rope from the rafters.
Of course, there were eerie sounds of footsteps on the roof. The director, whose Legends of Khasak, is one of the biggest productions of recent years, has tweaked The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to make a political statement about present-day politics. It was presented at Bharat Murali Theatre, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Thrissur on October 13 and October 14. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Caligari Teaser from Prakash Bare on Vimeo.
What changes did you bring about to your play, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari?
The cabinet of Dr Caligari has been known as an anti-fascist film but when we initially performed it in 2015 this political dimension has not been explored the way we explored it in 2017. Considering the change in the political atmosphere and growing unrest in the country revealing the anti-fascist dimension of the film in the present version of the play had become a central concern. What makes this play politically relevant in present India is its critical take on fascism a phenomenon that is increasingly becoming a reality in our society threatening all kinds of rational propositions in the country. Caligari and his sinister companion the somnambulist can be read as the allegorical representation of India’s powerful right wing fascist mechanism and its lynching gangs and shooters which have become a threat to the life of rational thinkers and also the common man. In the end when the rational thinking protagonist Francis has been forced into the mental asylum, the fascist propaganda of branding dissent as the threat to the system becoming so analogous of present India. When entire country turn into a mad house the rational and sane minds become useless to remain in the system.
In the present version of the play in the last sequence, Francis withdraws into the audience and he is questioning from the audience, representing the public. He says, “You cannot put everybody into the madhouse. You cannot kill my thoughts.” This is a political stand we take through Francis.
Francis is dragged to the madhouse and has been given electric shocks stopping his speech half way and Dr. Caligari posits a question to the audience: “Why do you need control over your thought? Do you think that to have a free mind will make you free men? Freedom is not absolute”. Sounds familiar?
Why did you make this change?
When society’s political situation has changed, you cannot stand still especially when you are a theatre maker. In a field such as ours, ie theatre, or even in cinema or art, I don’t think we are doing enough. Artists have given back their awards which I think was a powerful protest action of our recent time but in the art-making itself, we do not deal with the political problems often enough. That is the reason why we theatre and film makers are all very safe. We are not at all a challenge to the system. We make our tradition coated art of ananda and make the system very happy, and that will make you qualified to get state honours. The problems happen when artists start to question, and put questions in the people’s minds. That is the reason Gauri Lankesh was killed, or a rationalist like Kalburgi was brutally murdered. Perumal Murugam has to stop writing, until the court steps in. My point is that it’s rather dangerous to have a society that is filled with apolitical artists. The time has come for the Indian artists to face the reality of the present time: a reality that is your fellow citizen can be lynched to death on the street for the choice of their food. It’s the responsibility of Indian artists to problematise the madness of contemporary India and we shouldn’t shy away from our responsibilities if we do, then the history won’t forgive us.
You also focus on problematising the act of watching a play, for instance, by putting audiences on stage surrounding the action. What is your plan for the next production at Thrissur?
Problematising the spectatorship has been my central artistic concern for many years now. For the new version of Caligari 70 per cent of the features have been built for this play. For instance, we have built a wall. It is a semi-open air theatre. On one side is a stage and on the opposite side is the gallery. What I did was to extend the existing stage towards the gallery so that it almost comes and hits the first audience seats. There is an interesting dynamics, that the audience is actually watching Dr Caligari’s show at the carnival. Alan is already sitting in the gallery with the audience. This makes people feel that they are already a part of the play. Incidentally, Alan is the first to be killed.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari had three consecutive shows in Thrissur during the last week and now we are preparing a series of shows in Bangalore during early December.
As my new production I am working on Bretolt Brecht’s play ‘’The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’’. The play is a satirical allegory of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany prior to World War II. It will be a political play exposing the sinister world of fascist mafia and its killing mechanism.