Bihari playwright and folk performer Bhikari Thakur is apparently known as the “Shakespeare of Bhojpuri” (so says Wikipedia). The better title is the one given to him by his collaborators: “Budhau” or old man.

Thakur died in 1971, but going by the moist-eyed interviews in the documentary Naach Launda Naach, he appears to moved on only a few weeks ago. Thakur authored 12 plays (including the landmark migration-themed Bidesiya) and numerous songs in Bhojpuri since the 1920s and ran a drama troupe. Four of the troupe’s surviving members pop up in the documentary Naach Launda Naach to recite his songs from memory, share their views on his politics, and rewind to their experiences of working with Thakur over the decades.

Some of the performers specialise in Launda Naach, a subset of the Naach performance style that involves men taking on women’s roles. Launda Naach has different connotations in different circles, and has unfortunately come to imply a highly sexualised form in which boys and young men dress up in drag and dance for the pleasure of patrons. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production, directed by Jainendra Singh Dost and Shilpi Gulati, tries to restore the purity of the performing tradition as well as move away from a discussion on its gender-bending aspects to focus on the players. The riveting 52-minute film is among the titles at PBST’s annual Open Frame festival in Delhi.

Lakhichand Manjhi in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Lakhichand Manjhi in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

The performers are shown in the opening montage to be rubbing shoulders with commuters in shared public transport. These men merge easily into crowds, and the documentary lets their individual personalities emerge.

The seeds of the documentary were sown at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2012, where the filmmakers were pursing Master of Philosophy degrees in different subjects. “I was researching on documentary practice and Jainendra was looking at folk theatre in Bihar,” Gulati said. “He had met the artists during his field research. Our interaction over the last five years and a deep-rooted love for theatre lead us to collaborate on this film.”

Dost, who has also written the biographical play Bhikarinama, drew from his origins while conducting his research – he is from Bihar’s Chhapra district, and has seen numerous Naach performances during his formative years.

“The documentary is one way of understanding the culture of Naach,” Dost said. “Bhikari Thakur is still popular, and in Chhapra district alone, according to my research, there are 30-35 groups that perform Launch Naach despite new forms of media.”

At its peak, Thakur’s stage productions had the power to not only empty out cinema halls but also shake tradition. Shivlal Baari, who continues to perform at the age of 75, remembers how Thakur’s play Beti Bechawa led to curbs on the practice of what he called “daughter-selling markets” – public events where girls were auctioned off to the highest bidders, who were often much older men.

Shivlal Baari in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Shivlal Baari in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Baari has some of the warmest words for the Naach tradition: “Naach is my god. I was able to get married, bring up my kids. My father died when I was a boy. Naach gave me comfort. It gave me strength, people’s respect.”

Thakur’s ability to weave his social concerns, especially on caste, into his plays is expressed through evocative anecdotes. Thakur was from the Nai caste, and he never forgot his origins or his achievement. Seventy-year-old Ram Chandar Chote tells the filmmakers, “He used to tell me, boy, if an upper caste man asks you to sit on a chair, don’t do it. You ask him to spread a mat for you on the floor… the more you sit on the floor, the higher you will go.”

Thakur’s progressive themes resonate even though he wrote his plays decades ago, Dost said. “There is no question of changing or altering his texts, even among audiences,” Dost pointed out. The simple beauty and directness of Thakur’s vision become clear in the local stage productions captured by the filmmakers. The drama troupe also performs in Delhi, where 92-year-old Ram Chandar Manjhi, a Launda Naach veteran, is introduced as “bigger than Sridevi and Amitabh Bachchan”. Manjhi is thronged for photographs and selfies after his performance.

Ram Chandar Manjhi and his granddaughter, Pinki. in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Ram Chandar Manjhi and his granddaughter, Pinki. in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

The fidelity to Launda Naach’s original conventions means that the female roles continue to be performed by men. “Launda Naach is limiting in the sense that is supposed to feature men the way women are a part of other theatre traditions,” Dost explained. “The performances of Bhikhari Thakur’s plays that I have seen at various cultural institutions in Delhi do have women playing female roles on stage,” Gulati added. “However in rural Bihar, men continue with the tradition of female impersonation.”

Thakur remains an elusive presence in the documentary, evoked entirely through reminiscences and anecdotes. One reason is that there has been no audio-visual documentation of his plays, Gulati pointed out. “There is a glimpse of him in the film Bidesiya (1963) and his songs and plays have been penned down by others but there is no documented record of his performances,” she said. “In fact, the images of him that exist in the archives or circulate on the internet are mere hand-drawn sketches. The only way we could recreate the legend in our minds was through the memories of our artists who have known him personally. As they shared his tunes, his politics, even his critique with us, we began to see a glimpse of him in them.”

Bhikari Thakur.
Bhikari Thakur.

A great deal of the film’s charm is a result of the way it has been lensed by Udit Khurana. Through long takes, observational camerawork and interviews conducted in domestic settings, Khurana creates intimate portraits of the veterans. By shooting at their humble homes and giving a peek into the lives they lead off the stage, a vivid sense emerges of the realities of Bihar that Thakur wrote and sang about.

“We started this film with two primarily agendas – first, to bring alive the world of Bhikhari Thakur, his wonderful songs and plays before an audience who may not be familiar with his work; and second, to see how the artists saw themselves as bastions of this tradition,” Gulati said. “Over a period of time, we noticed a decided to contrast the performance on stage with the realities of everyday life, how they merge and depart.”

Another interesting stylistic choice, which banishes any similarity with television documentaries, is to place the camera at side angles. Thus the subjects rarely directly look into the lens.

“During our recce shoot, we had followed the conventional interview technique like in most documentary films,” Gulati said. “The footage we got was extremely important and informational, but it lacked a certain emotional connect. We consciously changed our strategy from the next schedule onwards. As we spent more time with the protagonists and became familiar with their environments, we no longer felt the need for sit-down interviews. We became comfortable in their everyday routines and our conversations became more organic.”

Ram Chandar Chote in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Ram Chandar Chote in Naach Launda Naach. Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Intense discussions were conducted over how the performers were to be depicted, Dost added. “We did not want to focus on poverty, did not want any emotional blackmail, and did not want to say, look at these poor struggling artists,” Dost said. This approach is especially important since Thakur’s plays don’t belong to a glorious but faded past and have travelled well into the present, especially since the Bihari experience of migration continues. Audience comprises between 500-1,000 people per show, especially in Bihar and parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

“There is still migration; the woman is still waiting; the philosophical connection is still strong; the songs are very nice,” Dost said. “Wherever there are Biharis, his plays have worked.”

The criticism that the Naach tradition is obscene lowbrow entertainment is adequately countered by Ram Chandar Chote. “Naach has all types of things, some good, some bad,” he tells the filmmakers. “Some people sing well, some don’t. Is it objectionable? It comes out of society, and will therefore reflect it.”