Nearly two decades after it was made, you’ll still find the residents of Pathshala, a little town in lower Assam, gushing about Titanic. Without ever having watched the film. This is because the Titanic Pathshala loves isn’t the record-breaking blockbuster by James Cameron. It is a play, adapted by a local theatre group months after Cameron’s cult classic hit screens in 1997. But if you ask anyone in Pathshala they will have you believe that Cameron made his version only after seeing Kohinoor Theatre’s production on one of his many visits there. All of Assam was riveted. National media picked it up soon enough. In their September 1998 issue, India Today proclaimed the Assamese version the winner: “After all, could Cameron recreate a maritime disaster without water?”

It was Titanic that catapulted Pathshala’s Kohinoor Theatre to fame. In 2010, the National School of Drama invited them to the Capital to showcase their ‘unique’ model of entertainment. While Assam’s 80-year-old film industry is on the verge of near-collapse, the bhramyaman (mobile theatre) industry is in the pink. The first group, Nataraj Theatre was propped up in Pathshala in 1963, unaware that it was paving the way for a multi-crore industry in the decades to come.

Much is known about the bhramyaman groups of Assam: each group (about 150-strong) travels from villages to towns across the state, staging plays from August to April every year; the entire crew — from the cook to the actor — travel together, and whenever they arrive at a new village, every household reaches for the poosaki kapoor (dressy clothes) it reserves for special occasions.

In mid-2007, the ULFA threatened to force closure of these groups, branding them as vehicles of “cheap popularity trying to ape Bollywood”. While “cheap” popularity managed to override the diktat of the banned militant organisation, the theatre industry still has its fair share of critics. “They sing and dance for no apparent reason,” says Naba Tamuli Phukan. When Abahan Theatre staged their first play of the season, Raktapaan, last year, it was much like a Bollywood masala film, complete with pelvic thrusts and flashy clothes. “I would cycle 10 km from my hometown in Nagoan to Bebejiya, if I missed a single show,” says Phukan, who has been watching plays since 1964. He remembers how he used to think about the plays he watched for days after. “Such was the impact. Nowadays I can’t remember the last play I saw,” he says.

Screen to stage

Jatin Bora, the poster boy of Assamese films, will turn 46 this April. The middle-aged, slightly rotund actor has a tremendous fan following: seven-year-old girls and 50-year-old men alike hound him for selfies and autographs. He is seen on countless billboards across Guwahati, endorsing inverters or promoting his new play. Bora prides himself on being one of the first actors to have made the switch from films to (mobile) theatre, setting a trend in the new millennium.

While the reverse is happening around the world, Assam has witnessed a shift from films to theatre, both in terms of actors and audiences. Why has the Assamese film industry, known for its sensitive, languid storytelling, failed miserably? “The mobile theatre goes to the doorstep of the people in the remotest of villages. Cinema halls, on the other hand, are few and confined to towns,” says Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of the Assam State Film Corporation. High production costs and low returns, and lack of good scripts are the other contributory factors. “Theatre in Assam now is high on production value — an extremely stylised and glamorous affair,” says Sharma

A risqué affair

The glamour, however, brings with it many other elemental changes. For one, the ramp is a recent addition to the bhramyaman stage. The choreographer is a new recruit to the crew. The musician, on the other hand, has lost out. “Pre-recorded songs by well-known playback singers like Papon and Zubeen Garg are used by most theatre groups today. The concept of live orchestra no longer exists,” says Teertha Saharia of Abahan Theatre. Several families have lost out on employment too. Take Anil Pathak, for example. A playback singer with various theatre groups since 1984, Pathak now runs a small restaurant selling ‘bhaat aru sah’ (rice and tea) in Guwahati. He quit theatre in 2005 when pre-recorded audio tracks started replacing his voice. “I felt unwanted,” he says. His restaurant gives him and his family enough money to get by but, “What is the point… I was never too passionate about food anyway,” he says.

The natya-nritika, or dance drama is also on the wane. In an attempt to keep the tradition alive, some theatre groups precede the main play with a short dance drama, which is nothing more than a feeble imitation of the glorious productions of the past. National award-winning filmmaker Munin Barua predicts a slow decline of bhramyaman theatre sooner or later. “The kind of plays I write, they don’t run anymore,” says the man who has delivered blockbusters like Hiya Diya Niya (2000) and Ramdhenu (2011). He talks about the golden age where writers like Bhabendranath Saikia and Arun Sharma created socially relevant plays, rooted deep in Assamese culture and history. “The theatre groups vie to get the biggest stars, offering them even bigger paycheques,” he says. While older plays would be adapted from Bengali jatras, most today are South Indian film rip-offs. “I am not saying imports don’t work, they do. Villagers would spout dialogues from Cleopatra and Hamlet till a few years ago,” Barua says, “But we can’t really feed the masses idlis and dosas in the name of bhramyaman theatre; the Axomiya will very soon want his favourite maasor tenga (tangy fish curry).”

Another aspect irking the purists is language. “They use words which no respectable Assamese-speaking person would,” says Barua. While recent imports like tamaam (tremendous) and botola (rubbish) work colloquially, it admittedly sounds awkward on stage. But the crowds love it. Hoots and whistles follow almost every act of Abahan Theatre’s Raktapaan, which has all the ingredients of a runaway success: romance, fight sequences, family feuds and death. The play opens on a monsoon day in Pathshala. But the entire town, in gumboots, raincoats and umbrellas, shows up. The spotlight remains on the heroine, who shimmies around on the ramp in her satin sari. The crowd cheers. They approve.

Big names, big bucks

The USP these days isn’t the play, but the star. The bigwigs have already been booked for next August. Prastuti Parashar, 36, reportedly the highest paid actor in the industry (a whopping ₹1 crore per season) has already been signed by Abahan. She moved to theatre in 2005 with Shakuntala Theatre’s Morome Morom Bisare, considered to be one of the first ‘modern’ plays. “It was a multi-starrer, with fashionable costumes, fast-paced dances, and glamour,” she says. Was it a hit? “A super duper hit!” comes the reply.

Parashar is well aware of the impact she makes in an industry partial to the male. “I don’t confine myself to pretty Barbie doll roles,” says the actor. Her role in and as Maharani (2013), by Rajtilak Theatre, still has hundreds of women stopping her on roads, telling her how ‘empowered’ she made them feel. “I prefer theatre to films. The former is more challenging,” she says.

However, sceptics are certain that it is the money that has led to the shift. “Earlier, theatres would go to rural areas for charitable reasons,” says Arun Nath, a noted actor based in Sonitpur. As a young actor travelling with Rupkonwar Theatre in the early 1970s, he remembers sleeping on wooden benches in old classrooms, in ramshackle school buildings without electricity. Today, big man Bora travels with the group, but in his own car, with a personal assistant and gets the best accommodation. “I don’t even have to button my own shirt,” Bora says, “but the only problem for me as an actor is how demanding mobile theatre is.” In 2013, Bora’s father died while he was touring with a theatre group. “I performed the last rites but had to get back on stage immediately after. I was acting even as my father’s body burned,” he says.

Three weeks back, in Sarthebari, Bora went on stage as Jaladayshya, the ‘good’ pirate, who rescues people from the ravaging floods of Majuli. Around 9 pm, the tickets were sold out, and the enraged crowd proceeded to break the counters. In Tezpur’s Kumargaon, I ask a nine-year-old to choose between a Shah Rukh Khan film in a cinema hall and a Jatin Bora naatok (play) in Joymoti Pothaar. “Definitely Jatin da,” she answers.

Tora Agarwalais an independent journalist based in Assam