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A CurtainUp Review

Sakharam Binder

They'd like us to believe that they're an innocent lot! 'You hold your tongue and I'll hold mine!' Damn them all! Don't have the guts to do a thing openly!
---Sakharam Binder, about the married men in the village .
Sarita Choudhury & Bernard White (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Violent cruelty is always shocking. Yet, with sex, cuss words and violence common on both stage and screen and censorship giving way to self-imposed restraint or "just say No, " Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder is hardly likely to be as shocking as it was when it premiered in Bombay thirty years ago and was closed down by the censors. The buzz surrounding the Play Company's month long production stems from the fact that this is the first chance for American audiences to see this work by the prolific and much acclaimed Indian author (besides plays, he's published a novel, essays, social criticism, biographies and screenplays).

As directed by Maria Mileaf, who steered Oren Safdie's Private Jokes Public Places (Our Review) to a successful, much extended run, and with a terrific cast to give Tendulkar's character a vivid stage life, this American premiere has enough elements in place to make it worth seeing.

Unless you know the play, this brief write-up used by the company and publicists to give audiences an idea of what to expect might be a bit misleading: "Sakharam Binder, a bookbinder takes in a succession of women who have been thrown out of their homes by their husbands. He offers them food, shelter and living essentials in exchange for domestic services and companionship. Brahmin by birth, Sakharam fiercely opposes the hypocrisy he sees in the institution of marriage and practices this alternative arrangement in his home. Though he takes great pride in the forthright nature of these unions, he is ultimately overpowered by the potent and sometimes violent force of the bonds that develop."

Being amongst those unfamiliar with the play, the above sent me to the handsome Theater B, with its uniformly perfect sightlines, expecting a common man style hero whose own emotions somehow get in the way of his "rescue mission." Wrong expectation. What we have here is a central character who talks a good game about Indian husbands' hypocrisy but manages to treat the women even worse then the husbands who cheat on them and often cast them out. Okay, so we get an anti-hero rather than a hero. With the tall and attractive Bernard White inhabiting the role, the man has considerable appeal. When his latest "rescued" lady (#7), the subservient, religious Laxmi (Anna George), finally speaks up one gets a sense that Sakharam is a man who could easily be likeable if he hadn't allowed the customs of the country to carry his sexist practices to the point of rape.

The play unfolds with considerable comedic brio which escalates when the spunky, gorgeous Champa (Sarita Choudhury) enters Sakharam's humble little home. It's quickly apparent that Champra causes the bookbinder's self confidence to become as unglued as the pages not bound correctly in the bindery where he works. However, there is nothing comic about what amounts to repeated rape scenes.

White and George (both giving powerhouse performances) dominate the ninety-minute long first act, which also features several brief appearances by Sakharam's Muslim friend Dawood Miyan, (Adam Alexi-Malle making the most of this supporting role). While, that first act is too long, it's never less than entertaining and you can't help but be moved by Laxim's desperate situation, with her only release from despair coming from a "relationship" with an ant. No complaints about the production values either. Antje Ellermann's spare yet tellingly detailed set, with its glimpse of the yard outside the cottage, is particularly praiseworthy.

When Sarita Choudhury finally makes her appearance, it's a Wow! Her arrival, as well as that of her husband Fouzdar (Sanjiv Jhaveri) point to a final forty-five minutes that will bring a satisfying and funny comeuppance for Sakharam.

Unfortunately, the signs that Sakharam is not just hot-tempered, but sadistic put him beyond comedic redemption. His cruelty intensifies with the heat of his passion and the second act veers straight into operatic territory. The abuse now turns even nastier. Poor Laxmi gets her head smashed against the wall and though Tendukar allows her to prove that the meek often do inherit the earth, the total shift in mood invalidates the comic elements. Even trimming some of the fat from this curry of sexual tensions, would not save Sakharam Binder from being an overly melodramatic tragedy and too mean-spirited to be the comedy with a serious underlying theme that it could have been.

A brief footnote: Mr. Tendulkar was honored throughout October at various events around town as part of the Indo-American Arts Council's Tendulkar Festival -- see www.iaac. One such event a reading of the playwright's newest play, His Fifth Woman, indicates that Mr. Tendulkar apparently hasn't finished exploring how Sakharam Binder's stance against marriage nevertheless raises responsibility issues. According to a capsule summary, the new play takes Sakharam back to the next to the last woman before Laxmi. That "fifth" woman's sudden death leaves Sakharam to decide whether to obligate himself for her burial or to allow her to enter the afterlife as an unclaimed body. Given the timid Laxmi's surprising show of strength at the end of Sakharam Binder, could she actually be the ghost of that dead woman?

Sakharam Binder
Written by Vijay Tendulkar
Translation by Kumud Mehta & Shanta Gokhale
Directed by Maria Mileaf.
Cast: Adam Alexi-Malle (Dawood Miyan), Sarita Choudhury (Champa), Anna George (Laxmi), Sanjiv Jhaveri (Fouzdar) and Bernard White (Saakharamaram Binder).
Set Design:Antje Ellermann .
Costume Design: Katherine Roth
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, includes one 10-minute intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street 212.279.4200 or
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:15 PM and Sunday at 4:00 PM at
Tickets are $25.00. Student tickets are $5.00 with valid I.D. at the box office only.
10/21/04 to 11/20/04; opening 10/30/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/27 press performance
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