Prior to its staging on the 6th of February 2016, the people behind Uthraa 2016 had promised quite a few aspects to look forward to. The enhanced use of technology as well as the addition of “more substance to the storyline” were some of them. Were expectations met? Here’s a round-up of what worked and what did not in NTU’s Uthraa 2016.
(1) The Set
It’s no wonder that the audience cheered in unison when the curtains parted for the very first time. Afterall, that crystal clear LED display which featured a backdrop that exuded regality was rather impressive. That, along with the props did well to transport the audience to a different world altogether. Kudos to the props team for having toiled hard to pull off a simple yet majestic set. Enhanced use of technology? Check. But whether or not the shift to a whole new world lasted long is an entirely different matter.
(2) The Fusion of Dance Forms
What do you get when you combine the classical “மின்சார பூவே” from படையப்பா with the funky “பக்கம் வந்து” from கத்தி into a dance sequence? A juxtaposed performance that is memorable for the audience. This segment was such a pleasure to watch and it was my personal favourite in the entire production. Uthraa 2016 had promised juxtaposition and this was the best display of it, in my opinion. From the selection of the pair of songs from varied genres to the costumes for the dancers (especially the classical ones), it was done in a tasteful manner. Thumbs up for the choreographers who had clearly executed each and every step while paying utmost attention to every beat.
(3) The Use of “Pure” Tamil
Okay, so it was not exactly competition for MGR’s Tamil in நாடோடி மன்னன், but hey, the effort to incorporate characters who spoke polished Tamil must be recognised and applauded. The delivery of lines could have been better handled though; some characters appeared to be shouting in the name of voice projection.
(4) The Costumes
One marked difference from Uthraa 2014 made itself visible in the costumes department. They were MUCH improved, perhaps also because of the fact that the plot was set in an ancient era. In particular, it was the costumes of the members of the royal court that stood out to me. From the headgear to the traditional Indian juttis, the complete package did well to convey the sense of majesty to the audience. The threads of the troop of drummers who made an appearance in the first half of the musical were particularly aesthetically pleasing. (the Rajasthani-like turbans were a nice touch)
(1) The Plot
I am sure it is common knowledge that the plot plays a crucial role in a stage production of any scale. As far as I am concerned, it forms the backbone of the performance. Without a strong plot, the production crumbles. The plot was a major setback with regards to Uthraa 2016. From start to end, something just did not fit in terms of the storyline. Simply put, it was an elementary plot that was presented in the most convoluted of manners. I am sure the audience saw it coming – the “little” boy who lost his father in the opening scene would grow up to be a corrupted minister and take revenge on the king whom he considers responsible for his father’s death.
He decides to spread a disease amongst the kingdom, for which the king orders his ministers to seek an antidote for. Is the so-called epidemic resolved? Does the corrupted minister repent for his misdeeds? That is what makes up the rest of the plot, which really could have been condensed into one and a half hours at most – from beginning to end. Why it took an entire three hours is simply beyond me. Also, the plot could have done without the stuffing in of some songs which did not help to boost it in any way.
(2) The Lack of Original Comic Relief
Almost every Tamil production by tertiary institutions these days seems to draw inspiration from popular punch lines from Kollywood films. There is a severe lack of original comic relief. Why? Probably because it is easier to grab something out of a blockbuster Tamil film (because the audience will be able to immediately relate to it and burst into peals of laughter) rather than to painstakingly think of an original joke on one’s own. Comedy is, afterall, a seriously difficult business. Improvements in this area in the next production would be very much welcome. Having said that, only the “கோவக்கார கிளி” (literally translates to: Angry Bird) pun appeared as original to me.
(3) The Flashback
The romantic flashback scene that attempts to shed some light on the corrupted minister’s love life did absolutely nothing for the plot. It would have been better off without it. The powerless dance sequence as well as the changing backgrounds on the LED display did not make up for the poorly coordinated flashback segment either. At certain moments, it just became plain painful to watch. Lesson learnt: flashbacks are not mandatory.
(4) The Concluding Medley
I am rather perplexed as to why every tertiary institution’s Indian wing’s production sees the need to conclude with a “bang” by dancing to a medley of Tamil film songs. Is it an aspect which the production can simply not do without? Or perhaps there exists a notion built up over the years that the audience will not accept anything less? Is it a culture that has already been established for years and cannot afford to be eroded now or anytime soon?
When a musical ends off with an array of upbeat Kollywood tracks which bear no link to the plot itself, it leaves one feeling rather disconnected from what took place on stage prior to the fast paced dancing. It is not exactly a concept which true blue theatre buffs would approve of. Perhaps, the facets of song and dance are being viewed by the crew as an assertion of Indian identity.
All images courtesy of photographer Karnan Balakrishnan.