Swapna Mahal – A Streetcar Named Desire (2013)

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A direct translation of the Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Swapna Mahal (Dream Castle) is the Nepali representation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (1948) drama that comprised an assembled cast of Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Translated in Nepali by Samuna KC, directed by Eelum Dixit, and playing at Mandala Theaters in Annamnagar (Kathmandu, Nepal), Swapna Mahal is set, in what appears to be early to mid-90s, during the era of Bikram tempos, 555 cigarettes, the eternal proximity of Bag Bazar, and the coveted ISD age of phones that only found home in the affluent parts of Nepal. The plot serves the exact emotion as in the original; the tweaks lie in the social context, communal discrimination, and the contextual heart of the story, the romance between the primary character and the rest of the world.

The Characters

  • Bely Basnet ala Blanche DeBois (Samuna KC)
  • Tara Kalwar ala Stella Kowalski (Sarita Giri)
  • Shankar Pratap Kalwar ala Stanley Kowalski (Pramod Agrahari)
  • Jason ala Mitch (Shayad Ashok)
  • Yogita Maharjan ala Eunice (Junu Bista)
  • Sante aka Steve (Sudam CK)
  • Gajju ala Pablo (Mohammed Najir Husain)

Plot summary

Bely—the fashionable, charming, and glamorous resident of Gangtok, Sikkim—arrives to her sister, Tara’s residence in Bag Bazar (Kathmandu) without prior notice of the exact date. The two sisters unite after, what seems a long time. Bely is first acquainted to the house by the landlady Yogita, and subsequently, Bely meets her sister’s husband, Shankar Pratap Kalwar for the first time since their marriage. Shankar is a brute, aggressive, and rash individual, with a love for football, cards, drinks, and his wife. Soon Bely meets Shankar’s gang, the landlord Sante, the young sidekick Gajju, and the man who would become an object of love for Bely, Jason. Bely lies to everybody about the purpose of her actual visit stating that she is an English teacher and is on a holiday to visit her lovely sister.

The relationship between Bely and Shankar is sour right from the onset, with Shankar despising Bely for her glamor and celebrity behavior, while Bely scorning him for his brute, abrasive, sensual, and obnoxious ways. As time moves on, Bely and Tara enjoy the company of each other, but thanks to the investigations carried out by Shankar, everybody around comes to know of her truth and all the lies, she uttered. Shankar reveals that Bely was sacked from her position as a teacher for having an affair with one of her students and he reveals about her sexual indignities and association with various men. Coming to know of this, Jason breaks off all ties with Bely.

During the final act, Shankar’s wife and Bely’s sister Tara enters labor and has to proceed to the hospital, and this leaves Shankar and Bely alone in their house. Here, Bely shows the height of her aggressive tendencies, which results in Shankar raping her and getting her enrolled into a mental asylum. Thus, the curtains drop, with Tara’s snivels and Shankar’s redemption.

The Psychology of the Play

A Streetcar Named Desire is a psychological play—containing subtle elements through which Tennessee Williams throws light on various recurring issues in American Society during the post-World War II era, and America’s subsequent social interests, taboos, issues, and the magnetic topic of a male dominance and the inferiority of women—treating women as primary sexual objects. In the Nepalese adaptation/translation, the translator (Samuna KC) and director (Eelum Dixit) hold honesty on these issues and present a play, with Nepal’s own idiosyncrasies and quirks blended into the characteristics of the major characters as well as using sequences signifying the vulnerability of women and dominance of males in a male-centric society.

For Bely (Blanche), a woman living in her dreams and illusion, the symbols around her signify her withdrawal from society—crawling into her own world, her dreamland, her Castle of Dreams. The Castle of Dreams where she is the Queen, the Superstar, the Enchanter of Hearts, the ageless, timeless beauty who remains eternal in the darkness of the Moon. Bely’s obsession with dim lights, darkness, alcohol, sexuality, physical luminosity, and the desire to remain “fresh,” symbolizes her fear for aging but most ethically, her willingness to live in what should be rather than what is. Having a dreadful past, Bely looks to alcohol as an escape from the pangs her life has offered, and through the need for constant reassurance of her beauty and radiance, she seeks acceptance, appreciation, and reverence through her male counterparts. The most astounding aspect is—despite the sexual exhibition that is Bely Basnet, she is hardly interested in raw sex, as opposed to her sexuality being a catalyzing proof of her charm, beauty, and ability to enchant male suitors and vindicate herself of her status as a bewitching queen.

Through the character of Bely and her obsession with darkness, as later Jason (Mitch) stresses, it also symbolizes her fear of aging. Willing to remain in her sweet 16 forever, Bely uses water as a source of freshness, along with her romantic ventures with men younger to her, as young as 16 if we realize, to keep her young and fresh, in her eyes and in the confused world she finds herself a part of. Also, the cries and moans symbolize her presence in the other world, where she wants herself to be, and not in this world—here and now, for that hardly matters for Bely who is lost in her own definition of life and living.

The character of Shankar (Stanley) represents the signature male-esque traits so common and worshipped during Second World War in America—rough, tough, athletic, and with an undying energy in sexuality, which becomes the main reason for Tara’s (Stella) infatuation towards the brusque man that Shankar is and prides himself in being. In one of the scenes, Shankar and his friends are playing cards, with Shankar drunk. He initiates a rogue behavior, especially towards Bely and when Tara (Stella) tries to calm him down and end the ordeal for the night, he slaps her, during her pregnancy, but later on he breaks down and cries her name. She comes towards him and the two have sex, as implied, which seemed to have solved everything between the two. This scene serves well in explaining the status of women during that era, whilst also relevant to Nepalese context—maybe not directly, but suggestively—as Tara and Shankar’s sexual bursts resolve the impending crisis and take them back to love, lust, and sexuality, with Tara adoring her man’s sexual prowess and that alone being the reason for their togetherness, as it seems.

In the case of Tara, she remains loyal and completely dependent on Shankar—very much in love—with no aspirations of her own and accepting of her duty of a wife, a woman figure in the Kingdom of Shankar. The character of Tara symbolizes the typical woman in our society—our Mothers, Sisters, Wives, and Daughters—remaining content with what life offers and standing as the strongest pillars of society. Her relationship with her husband remains that of respect and obedience; her relationship with her sister of love, fun, sensitivity, and honor. Her relationship with her landlady Yogita (Eunice) the one of friendship and mutual understanding; yet, with all relationships, one term shines in glory, the term of submission. Tara isn’t afraid of submitting to anybody because her nature is that of Nature!

Bely’s love interest, Jason, represents the typified characteristic prevailing, with Jason unable to accept a woman with so much history and corruption, in his eyes. No longer pure, fresh, young, and dignified, if we use the social barometers, Jason is the symbol of that society—unable to accept women in their actuality, and bent on judging them based on their societal excursions. Also, the relationship between Jason and Bely signifies the selfish nature of humans, as Jason looks for a wife material and a girl that he is able to present to his parents, which he doesn’t find in Bely due to her past. Whilst, Bely seeks a man to take refuge in, and despite Jason not being the “type” of her kind, she has no option with her cells dying every day, her years growing every moment, and her beauty evaporating every summer. When later, Jason dumps Bely after hearing about her biography from Shankar, the very famous American slang notion, “Bros before Hoes,” works with full motivation, as one has to remember the context of the original play, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the society where males are the power of Nature and females are mere subordinates.

On the core of this drama lies the inherent selfish nature of both sexes. Men seem interested in the sexuality of women and intend to keep them under their toes, while women seem to be attracted to the power quotient in men, and are willing to accomplish whatever necessary to associate them with the power, with the solitary figure representing power. With great power comes great responsibility, and in the case of Swapna Mahal, with great power came greater benefits and with greater benefits came great power. The inconsistencies of males and females and the relationship built on the base of usage and gratification is the central idea of this grand play, and Tennessee Williams has done an impeccable job in reflecting a social issue in form of a reflective play.

The Execution of Swapna Mahal

The Director of the Play, Eelum Dixit, carries forward this play in a Nepali spirit based on the reality of Nepal and the present-day scenario of social inclusion and diversity. Nonetheless, the time frame of the play leaves a lot to be desired as the play seems to be set in the 90s, and the issue of social inclusion and equity raised through the play caught fire long after the demise of Bikram tempos and Triple 5 cigarettes. There are many positive aspects in the play, with the messages and the ways the messages come out is commendable and worth applauding. The performances rank from good to cheesy, and even at times, very corny. The scenes between Bely and Tara are warm at times, often very stereotypical, and downright embarrassing at others. The same could be said for the scenes between Bely and Jason, where viewers would feel akin to watching an overly romantic Bollywood clichéd movie than feel the spike of attraction between the two aspiring couples. The performance and characterization of Shankar had ample amounts of realism injected into it, which is why—despite overdoing the aggressive ventures—the conflict scenes between Shnakar and his wife come off realistic and common to Nepali society. The exchanges between Bely and Shankar are too much at times, but not entirely unknown to Nepalese living at bay of such inhumane barters. Yet, the romantic wooing of Shankar and his wife, well, how much pragmatism would one expect?

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Analyzing the original play, A Streetcar Named Desire, and reviewing Swapna Mahal, during much of the play, Swapna Mahal seems to be lost in translation. Picking up an American Play, with cent percent contextual originality of America and transforming, or merely translating into Nepali wouldn’t do justice to the original foundation of the play—neither the social circumstances of Nepal, nor the intelligences of informed audiences seeking for much depth in this wonderful play. Somewhere in between, the anthropological and sociological interventions seemed thin in vapor, and the mere translation didn’t reflect the message this play could have attached in the minds of Nepali Drama Lovers. Having said all of that, there are many bright and lively scenes throughout the acts, and as a gesture of appreciation and in support of Nepali Theater Groups and Mandala Theater, the play is worthy of watch—if not for the execution, but the essence of the play, the love of drama, and the artistic superiority of the real drama to the visual one.

Swapna Mahal will find home at Mandala Theaters until August 18, 2013 and is showing at 17:15 every day, except for Mondays. Visit www.mandalatheatre.com.np for more details.

Images not from the Nepali adaptation, Swapna Mahal.

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