Stories on Wheels
Eclectic Northeast|September 2020
Even in the age of multiplexes and video streaming, Assam’s mobile theatre industry is still flourishing
Manjum Mahanta

In an age where people can opt to watch a movie in an air-conditioned movie hall, or stream the latest movies and shows on their phone in the comfort of their own homes, why would people still come out in huge numbers to sit on plain old plastic chairs inside a makeshift tent to watch mobile theatre? Maybe the fact that you can actually see the story unfold right in front of you, instead of through the screen, is thrilling, or maybe it has something to do with the fact that the audience is much livelier and is not shy of shouting out witty comments, making it way more immersive. Whatever the reason, anyone who has experienced mobile theatre will have to agree that there is something quite special about watching a show. In Assam, mobile theatre has become a major entertainment industry, said to be worth crores. We take a look at its history, and how it managed to give the film industry in the State a run for its money.

Staged Stories

When Assamese films started suffering from heavy losses in the late 90s and early 20s, the theatre was initially seen simply as an alternative, both for the actors and the people of Assam in general. But, with time, the theatre industry started to grow in popularity. The first mobile theatre group of Assam was established in 1963. It was Nataraj Theatre, founded by playwright and actor Achyut Lahkar, who is commonly referred to as the father of mobile theatre or Bhryamyman, as otherwise known in Assam.

It is interesting to note that mobile theatre took an organised form, after a long journey of more than 30 years, wherein it was in the form of ‘yatra’ and ‘opera’ in the initial stage. Revolutionary dramatist Brajanath Sarma’s Kohinoor Opera was the preindication of mobile theatre in Assam. And so, it is no surprise that Sarma is credited as being the pioneer of Assamese commercial mobile stage.

‘Mobile theatre of Assam has a long heritage in the field of performing art. They have been around from the ‘60s. However, most of them started prospering in the ‘80s, after political tensions killed cinema halls in the ‘70s,’ shared Utpal Barpujari, a renowned filmmaker and critic from Assam. ‘The term “mobile theatre” was first used by the renowned social worker Radha Govinda Baruah in the remark book of Suradevi Theatre after watching the performances in Latasil playground, Guwahati.’

He further added, ‘Despite very little financial assistance from corporate houses or sponsors, the mobile theatres of Assam has reached a milestone rare in Indian theatre history.’ Every year, after rigorous rehearsals, the groups begin their seven-month journey, from the month of June or July, across Assam. Each troupe, employing more than 100 people, performs in at least 50 locations. It is common to see big actors from the Assamese film industry also take part.

Even when television and video streaming boom seems to have affected the market for feature films, mobile theatre carries on at ease. Plays are enacted for close to 240 days every year in front of audiences comprising thousands of people, by nearly a hundred theatre companies, each having two to three performances every day. Tickets cost anywhere between ₹50 and ₹2,500.

Utpal Barpujari recounts a first-hand experience depicting the popularity of the plays. ‘Last year, I went for a play in Guwahati at 11 pm, and it was a full house. Assamese audiences like seeing their stars sing and dance right in front of them.’ It has to be noted that mobile theatre in Assam is not just a mode of entertainment; they have also acted as a medium to spread awareness on various important social issues.

Popularity and Profit

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