Sakharam Binder has a well-developed system: By taking in women cast off by their husbands and unable to return to their families for the shame they would face, he gains a temporary housewife and bedmate. In the societal parameters of the town where this penetrating work by prominent Indian playwright Vijay Tendulkar is set, these castoffs are more like slaves than kept women, with the author suggesting that any other option would offer an even worse fate.
Binder (Bernard White) is a bookbinder who prides himself on his lack of regard for cultural dictates. He sees himself as progressive: smoking, drinking and laughing off the mockery and disgust of the villagers as they watch him lead these tainted wives to his home, a new one on the heels of each former woman’s departure.
The play opens with seventh wife, Laxmi (Anna George), following Binder to his door. He informs the dainty, suffering woman of the rules of the house, and of his requirements. It almost seems he is bluffing when he animatedly warns in his practiced orientation speech that he is hotheaded and likely to revert to violence.
“Maybe I’m a rascal, a womanizer, a pauper. Why maybe? I am all that. And I drink. But I must be respected in my own house. I’m the master here,” Binder tells Laxmi. And he ends with one final requirement: “You’ll have to be a wife to me, and anyone with a little sense will know what to make of that.”
To his credit, Binder is forthright in his self-portrait and doesn’t leave anything out, and we witness him doing unto the poor woman all that is promised and warned. But this is our antihero, and as cruel and crude as we watch him be, Binder as inhabited by the transfixing White is our master as well.
The strapping actor impregnates his character with the unselfconscious mannerisms and prowling unpredictability of an undomesticated animal, reveling in his own bodily interjections — spitting, scratching, digesting –and indulging his appetite for food, drink and sex with a visceral satisfaction that is uneasy to watch at best.
Lusty and rapacious, Binder partakes in life’s pleasures and the woman in his company as a means of furthering his quotidian satisfaction. Laxmi’s fiercely religious and pious nature enflames Binder, and after much brutality is heaped on her, she lashes out at him verbally and is kicked out of the house.
Enter Champa, (the smoldering Sarita Choudhury) the one who breaks the mold. She is curvy, sensuous, frank and, because she walked out on her pining husband, has the illusion of choice as a bargaining tool. Her nonchalance and disregard for Binder’s instructions combined with her flirty intensity renders him speechless. The power shifts, making him glassy-eyed and useless.
But this is not a story of redemption. The mood is only momentarily lightened in a play that ends at its most disturbing point.
Antje Ellermann’s detailed sets transform the stage into a dusty village home. The props — from a rolled out fabric bed, smoking pipe, straw broom, cooking and tea supplies — support the ethnographical context with their authentic simplicity and fold seamlessly into the gripping action.
“Sakharam Binder” was banned in India after its debut in 1974, presumably due to the cultural scenario it evokes, where women are forced to abandon their souls and corporal beings in order to survive. In a place where a man like this is a rescuer and an option worth withstanding, the larger world, though we never see outside Binder’s narrow walls, must be an unimaginably perilous place.