"'Today, with filmmakers directing on stage and star actors performing as stage artistes, the quality and sophistication of the mobile theatres have gone up. Stage plays with special effects look like a movie,' said set designer Tarun Das."
By Syed Zarir Hussain

Pathsala (Assam), Aug 21 - Assam's travelling theatres are playing to packed audiences in both urban and rural areas despite jazzed up cinema complexes and cable television.

About three years ago, the state produced about a dozen-odd Assamese language films annually. However, this has dwindled to naught with moviegoers growing scarce.

With regional cinema in the doldrums, actors, musicians, directors and technicians found an alternative livelihood in the highly popular mobile theatres.

The theatres, which belong to a tradition stretching back more than four centuries, have multiplied to over 30.

'It would have been a silent death for hundreds of people involved in the Assamese film industry but for the mobile theatres,' director Munna Ahmed told IANS.

'Actors, musicians, directors and technicians are today earning more from mobile theatres than they did from films,' he added.

Like Ahmed, there are other filmmakers and actors who once ruled the silver screen but are now working in mobile theatres.

Thousands of people prefer to sit in grassy fields to watch the plays with themes ranging from contemporary events to mythologies, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean plays and Indian classics.

'It is indeed a matter of great pride to find mobile theatres being able to captivate so many people despite modern cinemas and a variety of television channels available to the audience,' said Arun Sharma, a noted Assamese playwright and Sahitya Akademi award winner.

The modern commercial form, which emerged in the late 1960s, has clung to its community roots with troupes often performing 10-minute sketches before the main show on subjects like AIDS and drug abuse.

The troupes themselves are mini communities, each comprising more than 100 actors, technicians, cooks and general helpers, who travel together on the road for eight straight months beginning August and perform on the stage in villages and cities across the state.

'An average 800 to 1,000 people watch a show and that in itself is an indication of the popularity of the mobile theatres,' said Biswa Saikia, owner of one of the theatre groups.

Some productions were such hits that dozens of foreign television crews and journalists trailed the travelling theatre groups through slush and mud in the interiors of Assam.

The staging of plays like 'Lady Diana', 'Titanic' and the re-creation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York were instant hits.

Encouraged, the travelling troupes have started introducing innovations in their productions by way of lighting and other technical expertise.

'Today, with filmmakers directing on stage and star actors performing as stage artistes, the quality and sophistication of the mobile theatres have gone up. Stage plays with special effects look like a movie,' said set designer Tarun Das.

The groups contribute almost 40 percent of their income to local education and other community projects - another reason for the people's acceptance of the travelling theatres over other modes of entertainment.


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