Play Review: ‘The Bureaucrat’
Liberalisation was perhaps the most momentous economic and cultural watershed in post-Independence India. After the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh opened the economy by a little more than a crack in 1991, in rushed foreign capital and MTV. Life in the ambling ’80s was about wheezing Ambassadors, IAS aspirations and phone connections that took a year to acquire. Suddenly, the country was thrust into the globalised world of CEOs, dynastic soap operas, VJs and call centres.
Writer Anuvab Pal has made comedy based on the absurd consequences of this transformation his shtick. It’s a theme he has explored in several hilarious plays, columns and stand-up gigs. The Bureaucrat, directed by Rahul da Cunha, is a satirical wrap-up of ideas that have long preoccupied Pal. He does a deft job of weaving together various thematic elements, from Nehruvian socialism and corruption in the government to the bizarreness of pop culture. But like the tyres of Ambassadors in the 1980s, his humour often falls flat. And for those who’ve been following Pal’s work, the jokes are nothing new.
The play hinges on Bugs Bhargava Krishna’s Raghuvir Gupta, a bureaucrat who was once successful but now languishes forgotten in an office basement. Like English August’s Agastya Sen, Gupta is typical of a certain generation of IAS officers who studied at top colleges and possessed an erudition you wouldn’t expect to find today. In a highly implausible moment, he quotes Elliot’s Prufrock to a Sikh fleeing from murderous Hindu mobs.
Gupta is suddenly summoned by his boss, a corrupt minister (played superbly by Jaswinder Singh) who is having an affair with his ditzy secretary (Anu Menon). The minister needs Gupta’s help to diffuse a situation that could become a diplomatic fracas. It involves former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Gupta’s son (Neil Bhoopalam), VJ Dishoom, an MTV presenter about to stage a publicity stunt to revive his flagging career.
Pal’s talent lies in spotting the ridiculous in contemporary Indian society. The President is Coming is a wonderful send-up of talent contests and the Indian obsession with Americana. 1-888-Dial-India tackles the weird world of call centres. But the gags in The Bureaucrat often seem dated. After all MTV has been around for over 20 years. Pop culture and bureaucracy have provided endless fodder for jokes. But Pal has been unable to wring fresh humour from these motifs. There are moments when the play provokes laughter—Pal’s observations on resto-pubs, Twitter and libidinous Jaats, for instance—but those are few and far between.