"All men contain within them a measure of madness," wrote Yann Martel in his bestseller, Life of Pi. Thomas Mann echoed this too, in his iconic 1920s work, The Magic Mountain. Director-scenographer Deepan Sivaraman sets off down the trail of human insanity in his remake of the 1920 German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which will take the stage in Bengaluru this weekend.
At the time of our conversation, however, which took place on a Monday afternoon, Deepan is busy contending with the absurdities of human society made manifest in Bengaluru traffic. His schedule in leaves him with scarcely a moment to spare and despite his voluble complaints, being immersed in academics is what Deepan loves best. "I take a class at NID in the morning and head to rehearsals in Bellandur, which is in Tamil Nadu (laughs) in the evenings. I cut across Karnataka during my lunch hour!"
German Expressionism began in the 1920s, with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the movement. The silent film is lauded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, with a scathing insight into the rise of fascism, a lackadaisical society and the human proclivity for madness. It makes for a gripping tale- an insane hypnotist uses a somnambulist to commit murders. "Dr Caligari is supposed to be analogy of Hitler, while the somnambulist refers to society as a whole, a society that no longer thinks or fights, one that is falling asleep," says Deepan.
The film is important for a number of reasons, he explains. It was the first to be shot entirely within a studio space, with sets painted in the expressionist style. "It's also full of surrealism and elements of magic, which did draw me to it quite a bit," says Deepan, whose last visit to the city was for a staging of one of his biggest hits: O.V,. Vijayan's The Legend of Khasak. The magnum opus production engaged the senses, using food, scents and even fire to draw the audience into a different reality. Elements of film made their way into the performance as well, as they do with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit differently. "In this play, the story is very much dependent on what happens on the screen at the back. The actors on stage talk to the actors on screen."
To Deepan, this marks theatre's greatest victory as an artistic medium. "It is the only form that is constantly expanding, it's very fluid," he remarks. "In essence, the language of film has not changed - that holds for most art forms. Theatre, however, can work to incorporate them all." Deepan uses dialogue in his theatrical adaptation, one of the most striking differences from the film. "We use it sparingly, though," he says. "There are four or five bits of text that are very poetical and philosophical. There is no mundane daily conversation, what is said seeks to understand the mind."
The play remains, in its essence, a story of darkness and silence. It is into these grotesque corners of the human psyche that Deepan wanders boldly - "This is part of us. Anybody who doesn't think so is lying!" Always the iconoclast, this is Deepan's nod to what he perceives as the limitations of Indian classical art forms. "My work looks at the history of Indian theatre," he explains. "All Indian classical art is an expression of beauty. Anything else was considered not pure enough." Tribal art veered away from this, with work that reflected the turmoil in the artists' lives. "The Theyyam ritual in Kerala is a good example of this," he remarks. Similarly, European avant garde art took on this notion of classicism, "it questions the elitism of art, making it raw, something that will provoke. How can we speak only of goodness, when the world is such a dark place?"
What: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
When: Feb 9, 8.30 pm, Feb 10 and Feb 11 at 6.30 pm and 8.30 pm
Where: The Bay Amphitheater, RMZ Ecoworld, Adarsh Palm Retreat, Bellandur