In 1967 when Tendulkar's "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe" was first staged, critics instantly saw in it a lift from Friedrich Durrenmatt's novella "The Dangerous Game". While admitting that he had indeed been influenced by the novella, Tendulkar subtly demolished the idea of his play being a straight lift by mentioning, in the preface to the published script, a few other sources that had influenced him--a real life incident for instance, when he had shown a theatre group the way to a community hall where they were scheduled to present a mock trial, just as Samant does in his play. He also cited a poem by Shirish Pai which gave him the character of his protagonist Leela Benare along with the film "We're no angels", Acharya Atre's play "Dr Lagoo" and the time plays of J. B. Priestley. This said, he went on to aver that "the core of this play and the life that is reflected in it, belong one hundred per cent to our society".
I couldn't agree with him more. "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe" could not have been conceived and performed on any other soil but this, and by nobody else but Tendulkar, who has consistently let down his female protagonists as he lets down Leela Benare here..
The climax of "Shantata ..." presents the moral world-view of the Indian male, expressed in the overheated speeches of Sukhatme and Kashikar who are playing the counsel for the prosecution and the judge respectively in Benare's mock trial. The speeches are all about the sanctity of motherhood and the danger that free (and therefore easy) women like Benare spell for society.
When I first saw the play forty years ago, I remember thinking vaguely that Tendulkar understood the plight of women in our society. But now I think otherwise. Tendulkar had no real understanding of women. In putting women in situations where their vulnerability was maximally on display, he claimed he was only reflecting reality. Which reality? Reality is not some kind of objective phenomenon out there that remains unaltered, whoever the observer. Like a photographer, a writer too frames just that slice of reality out of the whole that interests him or serves his purpose. What a writer excludes from that slice tells us as much about his purpose as what he includes.
I propose that what Tendulkar includes and excludes in "Shantata Court Chalu Ahe", suggests that he is not really interested in Benare's reality. He is more interested in the reality of middle-class society vis-a-vis socially constructed gender roles. As a progressive writer, he is filled with revulsion by the moral power they put into the hands of narrow little men and women. The mock trial is thus a re-enactment of the village or caste panchayat meetings we read of everyday which sentence women to brutal, humiliating punishments for contravening community and caste rules.
The mock trial is a reflection of that. But Tendulkar does grave injustice to Leela Benare by not allowing her to speak out against the rabid shredding of her character by the court. If this is indeed a "mock" trial, and she is "the accused", she would have to make a statement. If the mock has become real, and everybody is giving vent to their actual feelings, then she too should have the opportunity to do so. But neither of these things happens. What happens is an internal monologue, one of the best-known in Marathi dramatic literature, but external silence. Her silence confirms her "guilt". The predators shrug the whole thing off as "just a game" while Leela Benare sobs uncontrollably, her spirit broken.
In her introduction to "Vijay Tendulkar: Five Plays", an Oxford University Press publication, Arundhati Banerjee makes a significant comparison between Nora's last speech and Benare's monologue. She points out that Benare's monologue "lacks the note of protest that characterises the speech of Ibsen's heroine. It is more a self-justification than an attack on society's hypocrisies. It is poignant, sensitive and highlights the vulnerability of women in our society."
Nora admits to her crime, but while doing so, she also puts her finger on the social forces that drove her to it. This new awareness of what she is vis-a-vis the world, gives her something precious that she has never had before, that she hadn't even dreamt she had a right to -- self-esteem. Benare on the other hand, whose self-esteem is already shaky when the play starts, loses it completely when she allows the court to corner her into admitting that she has "sinned". All she can say in that famous internal monologue is that her private life is her own business. Others have nothing to do with it.
But they do, don't they? Our society has everything to do with the lives of women, particularly single women. Indira Sant's devastatingly funny/angry poem "Ekti" (Woman Alone) tells us how much the world concerns itself with who the single woman is, where she comes from, where she goes, with whom she goes, why she laughs and why she cries.
Sant's abstraction of the single woman continues to live in the face of the world's interference. Tendulkar's heroine attempts suicide. That is the reality he has chosen to reflect.