Director Suman Mukhopadhyay first staged Mephisto in Kolkata to protest the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Bengali play re-emerged in 2012 as a critique of the violence displayed by the ruling Trinamool Congress party. It is based on Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel of the same name, Ariane Mnouchkine’s stage version of the book and Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo’s movie adaptation.
Now, smack in the middle of the Bengal assembly elections, Mephisto is back on the stage in Kolkata to “remind people of how authoritarian fascist rule can destroy the fabric of a country, and what the role of an artist can be in this situation”, Mukhopadhyay told Scroll.in during rehearsals.
The central question posed by Mann’s novel – should artists speak to power or allow themselves to be co-opted – makes Mephisto resonate far beyond its original setting in Nazi-era Germany, Mukhopadhyay said.
Mephisto follows Hendrik Hoefgen, who runs a Bolshevik theatre group in 1920s Germany but later switches sides and ingratiates himself with the Nazis. Hoefgen’s on-stage portrayal of Mephistopheles in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust earns him accolades, but he eventually realises that he has turned into Faust himself – a puppet of the Mephistophelian Nazis.
In the Bengali version, Anirban Bhattacharya plays Hoefgen. Riddhi Sen plays Hans Miklas, Hoefgen’s friend who is swayed by Nazi hate speech about the Jewish community. “Like many of his time, he supports the Nazi party, believing they are the answer to rising inflation and all other problems, but ultimately, he realises he has been fooled, much like what’s happening now,” Sen said.
Mukhopadhyay’s cast and crew have been drawn from the theatre groups Chetana, Mukhomukhi and Tritiya Sutra. “I feel there’s unity in the rehearsals,” he observed. “That they are doing it for a cause. That energy has trickled into the entire team.”
Among the cast is Debleena Dutt Mukherjee, who plays a popular Jewish actress who flees Germany. “If they attack us at the venue, I won’t be surprised,” Dutt Mukherjee said. Ever since she declared on a television show in January that she has no problem cooking beef despite being a vegetarian, she has been threated with gang rape and has had to travel with police protection , she said.
The latest iteration of the play includes a video installation featuring footage from Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet-era classic Battleship Potemkin, the Arab Spring movement of 2010-’12, protests in Palestine against the Israeli government, and the farmers’ agitation in India.
Mukhopadhyay asserted that he has not set out to make a “propaganda play” in which he “underlined the political situation in bold and direct people to vote one way or another”. He added, “The idea is to hope that one resonates with world history and realise that if we don’t speak up, the times will get much worse.”
The decision to revive the play is especially relevant given the ideological schisms in Bengali culture over the past few years. Several Bengali actors joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in the weeks before the Assembly election, including Rudranil Ghosh and Mithun Chakraborty.
Can actors remain apolitical entertainers? This question, which is also posed by Mephisto, depends on the social and political context, lead actor Anirban Bhattacharya said. “Hendrik Hoefgen happened because of a political flux, a change in the power structure,” he observed. “First the times emerge, then the man. Now is no different.”
Bhattacharya is among the Bengali actors and filmmakers seeking to point out the dangers of embracing Hindutva thought. He wrote the lyrics for the song Ami Onno Kothao Jabona Ami Ei Deshe Tei Thakbo (I Won’t Go Anywhere Else, I Will Stay In This Country) to protest the Central government’s proposed National Register of Citizens, which is widely seen as targetting Indian Muslims.
The music video for the song featured several members of Mephisto’s cast, including Bhattacharya, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Riddhi Sen, and Debleena Dutt Mukherjee.
State control of the imagination ultimately goes beyond the party in power, Suman Mukhopadhyay noted. In 2005, when the Left ruled Bengal, the government-run theatre Nandan initially refused to screen Mukhopadhyay’s debut film Herbert, a tragicomic critique of Communist rule in Bengal.
Mukhopadhyay also battled with the Central Board of Film Certification in 2013 over his movie Kangal Malsat, which critiqued Communists, Mamata Banerjee, and Joseph Stalin. The film was cleared only after the footage of Banerjee being sworn in as chief minister was excised.
“What is different now is that the political spirit has switched to plain rowdyism to the extent that now censorship can manifest as physical assault, which wasn’t the case before,” Mukhopadhyay said. “All authoritarian governments create a situation of fear and anxiety to compel people to not speak up. Even the Stalinists did the same alongside Nazis, which we have included in our play. Donald Trump wouldn’t have been voted out of power without Black Lives Matter. History shows that humanity always finds a way to fight authoritarianism.”