An enduring classic radiantly retold

Soumitra Chatterjee’s brilliant translation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts coupled with astute direction from Kaushik Sen and heart-felt performances from a great cast made Bidehi delightful on almost every front.

An enduring classic radiantly retold

Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright often celebrated as
probably the greatest since William Shakespeare, has been as popular worldwide
as to Indian theatre and cinema, particularly in Bengal. One may recall
Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru which was adapted from Ibsen’s Enemy of the People
and the doyen of Bengali theatre, Sambhu Mitra’s Putulkhela from A Doll’s

To these was recently added Bidehi, adapted from Ghosts – a
play that has been translated to Bengali by Soumitra Chatterjee and directed by
Kaushik Sen. Chatterjee has been active in theatre for the last four decades
apart from being Bengali cinema’s most internationally recognised actor. He had
translated the same play in 1972, which was staged on behalf of Abhinetri
Sangha (The Actors’ Association) for fund raising purposes. At that time
Abhinetri Sangha was performing Andhayug directed by Ajitesh Bandopadhyay in
which Chatterjee acted.

There was a call show request from Bombay for two plays to
be staged at the Shanmukhanand Hall when the requirement for a second one arose
and therefore, Chatterjee translated Ghosts. Bidehi became an instant hit then
with over 50 call shows and critical acclaim.


Chatterjee acted in the play as the lead character of Oswald
Alving with Nilima Das playing his mother, Mrs Alving. Chatterjee soon started
his own productions in Bengali mainstream theatre when he was still a movie
star and didn’t get much chance to stage Bidehi again independently.

He took up the play again in 2012, precisely 40 years after
the first show and re-translated it.

The audience of Chatterjee’s theatre is already familiar
with his adaptations of foreign plays, which he literally trans-creates into a
Bengali one with little or no resemblance with the original apart from the
basic plot.

Why then an almost literal translation of Ghosts? Chatterjee
said, “I have always adapted foreign plays and made them suit the Bengali
language and culture quite successfully. But for this play I somehow felt that
an adaptation would be difficult because the social and cultural differences
are too vivid. 

I felt that adaptation will not be convincing. There is no
place in India where a six month-long winter will put people into complete
isolation. The psychology of the characters stems from that and I would never
able to bring that out in a Bengali context. If I had to make an adaptation
then I would have had to introduce Captain Alving as a character with less
moral values due to other reasons than those expressed in the original play.

But then again, that Oswald is also a victim of similar
circumstances would have been difficult to establish.

“In addition, the setting has a very fundamental Christian
context. Pastor Manders was a family friend and one with whom Mrs Alving was
involved at a time. In the Indian context where will you find a noble lady
being friends with a priest and also the whole concept of confession isn’t
there in our religion. In essence, for an adaptation, I would have had to
change the profiles of almost all the five characters, which I felt would have
been very impertinent.”

The posters of Bidehi proudly proclaim “Three generations on
stage”. Chatterjee confessed that he thought of the re-translation with a wish
to direct his grandson Ronodeep Bose as Oswald, the hero. Bose is a musician
and has some films in his portfolio like Dutta Vs Dutta, Kshoto, Egaro and
others. His acting talent is unquestionable yet his focus on the same might
have been wavering.

It took four years for the play to be staged — in 2016,
Chatterjee finds himself unable to direct a new play as the physical strain is
too much for an octogenarian. It was decided that the play will be produced by
Shyambajar Mukhomukhi group with whom Chatterjee has been associated for the
last few years.

Poulami Chatterjee, Soumitra’s daughter, is actively involved
with Shyambajar Mukhomukhi as the lead actor and also the director of their
recent production Phera which was a remake of the original play adapted by
Chatterjee three decades back. With Poulami getting heavily tied up with her
directorial ventures, Shyambajar Mukhomukhi had to request an external director
as she was also playing the central character, Mrs Alving. That is how Kaushik
Sen came onboard.

For Sen it was indeed a nostalgic situation and he said as
much after the first show of Bidehi. Sen’s initial theatre association was with
Chatterjee in the latter’s Tiktiki. Though Sen directed the legend later on in
Pratikhya, it is with Bidehi that things came full circle and the director
acknowledged his indebtedness and expressed his pride in having the

The narrative deals with an idea that a father’s sin is
transported to the son. The widely accepted interpretation is that syphilis was
the disease that plagued both Captain Alving and Oswald.

Before the original adaptation in 1972 as part of his
research, Chatterjee found out one analysis that hinted at schizophrenia being
the disease, which dispossessed both the father and son. Chatterjee says,
“Harmony in home-making was slowly becoming absent from Europe at that time and
that was affecting young minds and potentially induced a kind of schizophrenia.
It was not a case of general paralysis of the insane. Hence, I understood that
the point of tragedy was not a physical problem but more due to lack of family
happiness. Thereafter I realised the timelessness and universality of Ghosts. “

The opening show ran to a packed house. Chatterjee’s
Engstrand was brilliant within the short scope — a character with sly humour
and a shade of villainy. Ronodeep as Oswald was like a raw diamond — he has a
power of performance lying latent within him but he has to harness it to thrive
more effectively considering the fact that theatre is a medium whose demands
are a bit different from that of cinema.

The attraction of the version was indeed Poulami Chatterjee’s
stupendous performance, probably her best so far. She submerged in her
performance, portraying the pathos of a battered soul, the revenge mindedness
of a deceived individual and the longing of an abandoned mother.

The final scenes where she pairs up with her real-life son
Ronodeep were the best. The set, which was a mixture of abstract and real, was
kind of static and hence disappointed a bit. The overtly verbose text was heavy
considering the points to be established yet they were harped on multiple times.

In 1881, in a letter to Jagob Hegel, Ibsen wrote, “Ghosts
will probably cause alarm in some circles but that can’t be helped. If it
didn’t, there would have been no necessity for me to have written it.”

The questions of promiscuity, incest and immorality that
seemed taboo in the 19th century have eased over time. What still resonate are
the questions of euthanasia, hypocrisy, the role of women as providers yet
sufferers and most importantly, the degenerating values of family life. The
three generations of Soumitra, Poulami and Ronodeep must be thanked for letting
the audience witness a classic on stage at a time when most of us are still
grappling with many of the issues raised in the play.