Chowringhee by Mani Shankar Mukerji, adapted by Roger James Elsgood

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 11 March 2012
Recorded entirely on location in Kolkata with a cast of Bengali actors, Chowringhee told the story of Sankar (Joy Sengupta), an ambitious young man fallen on hard times, who is forced out of his job in a lawyer's office and eventually ends up selling waste paper baskets. Helped a little by detective Byron (Rajiv Roy), he ends up getting a job at The Shajahan, Calcutta's finest hotel. There he becomes involved in a series of intrigues involving the hotel manager Marco Polo (Pradip Mitra, Sujay Prasad Chatterjee), a local film star and her husband, and several local business people of both sexes.
Thematically speaking, the play has strong echoes of recent television series such as Hotel Babylon in which the action is centred round life in a hotel attracting the great, the good and the not-so-good. The staff become involved, both wittingly and unwittingly, in a series of intrigues with the guests - some of which they would rather have avoided. Inevitably there are winners and losers: this is a dog-eat-dog world in which only the fittest (which does not necessarily mean the strongest) survive.
However Willi Richards' production differed from the television series through a skilful emphasis on the novel's socio-historical context. Set in the late 1950s, Chowringhee depicts an India ten years on from independence: while the country has made significant strides, it still bears the colonial influence, for example, in the characters' names (Byron). A postcolonial society is not necessarily a better world: in Roger James Elsgood's adaptation we were exposed to a society where social and cultural divisions still played considerable importance in determining people's attitudes to one another. Influence matters more than integrity, something which Mrs. Pakrashi (Senjuti Mukherjee) ruthlessly exploits for her own ends. On the other hand, Sankar emerges from the experience of working at the Shahjahan with his ambition intact; he can face the future with equanimity, even if he is not quite sure what to do.
I thoroughly enjoyed this production, both for its depth of characterization and its sense of period. I congratulate Elsgood for his supple adaptation of a novel originally translated into English by Arunava Sinha, as well as Richards for his production.