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The politics of quietude

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

A review of Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta, the latest offering from Aasakta Kalamanch,

by Prachi Sibal

Director Mohit Takalkar, you can tell, is fascinated by language and its grammar, with its implications on context and performance. His last, the META-winning Hunkaro, enables an audience to follow and respond to Rajasthani text beyond its linguistic elements. This time, with his new Marathi play, Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta, he explores language in the context of quietude, the absence of wordage as much as its presence.

Adapted from British playwright Sam Steiner’s debut Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Ghanta opened to full houses at The Box in Pune, last month. It is, in this case, set in Pune, with a few minimal markers of the city and the country (notably a callback to Mann ki Baat) that could change based on where it is being performed.

The story is that of a couple, tellingly named Aaditya and Feroza. He is a musician struggling to find his place in the world. She, a lawyer with professional standing, who has earned her economic mobility through great strife. He’s an activist, showing up for protests against a fascist regime. She’s like the rest of us, too caught up in her daily life to engage in political discourse beyond the dining table.

At first, they don’t seem like an unlikely couple, and theirs is a world of possibility; of romance, discord, and comfort. The non-linear narrative gives us a quick and immersive look at the different stages in their relationship. The newfound language of love, the laughter in a park, the silences at the dining table, and the intimacy in their shared living space.

He finds her political stance passive; she thinks it has to do with the fact that she earns more than him. She’s steadfast as a worker, and a few early scenes convey that clearly. Their conversations are long and meandering. They talk of politics, of art, friends, and exes, with intensity. Their dialogue also gives us a glimpse into the prevailing politics around them. There is increased fascist control even though they might appear somewhat insulated from it.

Then, everything changes.

The government in question brings in a new law that forbids citizens from speaking more than 140 words in a day. Aaditya’s response is of panic, followed by furore, making his way to the nearest protest. Feroza is disheartened but complacent. She accepts her fate, even nudging Aaditya to do the same. A poignant scene unfolds, where in the lead up to midnight, the two speak heartily, pulling up a book, creating their own acronyms to maximise the use of words. It’s laced with humour but gives you an eerie feeling, an almost apocalyptic image of a world where words will need to be rationed. ‘I love you’, becomes ‘lou’, and continues to be the guiding phrase of the play thereafter.

The clock strikes 12 and a deafening silence descends in the theatre. The set made up of a large cottony cloud hanging above the actors’ heads feels larger and all consuming. Ghanta seems a much less bizarre possibility now than it may have been when Steiner first wrote Lemons in 2015. It also makes Takalkar’s work deeply political and urgent.

Feroza and Aaditya go about their lives, eating in silence, conveying necessary emotion, and aiding the other with a word count. They mark what remains, and not what’s been used. The characters express the mundane but withhold the emotional. It makes one wonder, what would you do if you were to ration your words? Would you trade the “I love you” at the end of the day for “pass the salt”?

Days turn in to nights, and Aaditya’s resentment for the times and the new rule grows. Feroza’s focus on the practical aspects of rationing words to fit her job and her personal life remains, but you can tell she is frustrated, too. Politics doesn’t spare the apolitical. Their relationship is tested and the verbal void weights heavy in the room, much like the cloud overhead.

The words that remain at the end of each day for them to communicate with each other become a marker of emotion. Sometimes she has enough when he’s out of words. At others, she’s run out while he’s saving up for a conversation. In a particular fit of anger, she exhausts her day’s quota by screaming ‘ghanta’ that translates to ‘nothing’, five times, an interesting choice over the word ‘lemon’ in the original. Their methods of expression are changing as is their relationship. There’s clanging crockery, abandoned meals, and silence, a lot of silence.

Ghanta, for its duration of 120 minutes draws you into its world effectively. You are invested in the characters, their desires, their relationship, and their politics. The world seems familiar, with familiar places, and a familiar surveillance regime. The political rift within a home, symptomatic of growing fascist control, feels most familiar.

Amid this, the absurdity of the forced quietude hangs heavy on your chest. You yearn for words as much as the protagonists do. And therein lies the play’s strength. It urges you to share the pleasure as well as the pain. Takalkar isn’t one for serving an idea on a platter, but believes in taking you on a journey with his thoughts and characters. And though painstaking at times, it is well worth the rewards.

Lalit Prabhakar as Aaditya is at ease with his character of the artist idealogue with an able display of his vulnerabilities. Mallika Singh Hanspal’s is a searing performance of a woman who holds a multitude of inner conflict. It’s hard to believe that this is her first performance in Marathi. Together, they breathe life into a layered and complex narrative, while staying true to the simplicity and universality of a romantic partnership.

Despite not being fluent with the language, Ghanta, kept me engaged, and at the edge of the seating I managed on The Box’s floor. The sets, simplistic furniture, and the cotton cloud hanging above the stage, is a potent externalisation of the internal. It’s an image that will stay with me for a long time. The light that falls on it changes with the time of day, and the mood, but it’s always there, heavy and hard to ignore.

Vikrant Thakar’s light design, especially in a black box theatre, is a thing of beauty. It never misses a beat and is synchronous with the emotional graph of the performance. The costumes are real, lived in, and remain unchanged through the course of the play. Hanspal’s changing bags are the pop of colour you didn’t know you needed in a theatre.

The sound design is among the few things that takes more away from the experience than adding to it. The juxtaposition of music with Aaditya’s guitar is frequently out of sync and at its best feels misplaced. The play could also do with a shorter runtime and you can sense the audience anticipating an end much before the actual one.

Ghanta, after all, is a play that demands repeat viewing. Each time you inhabit Takalkar’s complex world, you will experience its nuances, and come back richer.

Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta travels to Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai

for 4 shows on September 23 and 24. Tickets here.


Prachi Sibal is based in Mumbai and has been a features writer for over a decade. Her work has appeared in several publications like VICE India, Scroll, Huffington Post India, Open Magazine and The Ken, among others. Although she has written on several subjects ranging from the performing arts and culture to South Indian cinema and business trends, theatre is where her heart truly lies.

Photographs by Vishal Magar | Instagram @imthemaximus

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