Strains of Hindustani Classical music interspersed with those from ghungroos greet us as we enter the rehearsals for the play Begum Jaan that opens this weekend. The elaborate set recreates the ambience of a kotha in Lucknow, with Mughal style arches. Directed by Pradeep Gupta, the play stars actress Daisy Shah (who makes her stage debut), veteran actor Gufi Paintal, Akhil Rajendra, Jitendra Srimali and Pankaj Mishra. As we tiptoe into the Yashwant Rao Chavan Natya Sankul, in Matunga and settle into a seat, Shah who plays the title role is enacting a scene where she meets her lover, a chronic alcoholic, Rashid Khan (played by Rajendra) for the first time.
Daisy Shah as Begum Jaan
The story centres around a young and innocent Uzma, who becomes a famous courtesan after her relatives betray her. Her beauty mesmerises, Rashid Khan, the son of a nawab and she acts as his emotional anchor and reforms him. As she falls head over heels in love with Rashid, his father Nawab Sarfraz Khan (Gufi Paintal) plays tricks to part the lovers.
(From left) Gufi Paintal and Daisy Shah at a rehearsal. Pics/ Sneha Kharape
“While the subject invloving the life a courtesan has been dealt with in cinema many times over, it hasn’t been explored in theatre as much. I was part of the Mumbai District Aids Control Society and have done over 200 street plays. At the time, I met a lot of women from red light districts. Their stories stayed with me and I wanted to do a play about them, shares Gupta. “The play is set in a time where people sent their children to courtesans to be trained in tameez and tehzeeb (manners), but looked down upon them at the same time. Today, the same song and dance happens in bars. In that milieu, the setting was a lot more cultured. Some of them dedicated themselves to their art and there was no prostitution involved. They knew love and sacrifice and that’s what the play is about,” he shares.
(From left) Daisy Shah, Jitendra Srimali and Akhil Rajendra at the rehearsal of Begum Jaan
While casting for the play, Gupta was in search of a dancer who could act. He also wanted a known face to make the play commercially viable, which led him to pick Shah. “Pradeepji had seen my films and approached me to play Begum. I had never done a play before and I was worried about it being live. There are no retakes. There were 45 pages in the script. Unlike a film, where you cut after a shot, here, you learn the dialogues and memorise them. Though I am a dancer, I had no training in Kathak. I trained for two months and learnt from scratch,” admits Shah, while placing a dupatta over her head, as she readies to go on stage.
“We would rehearse four hours a day. It helped that Daisy is already a dancer but Classical forms require precision in the mudras that we worked hard to achieve,” shares choreographer Ruchi Sharma, who is also a Guinness World Record holder for taking 5,000 chakkars on stage.
The music, composed by Kuldeep Singh is the high point of the two-hour play and features four songs and a background score. It recreates the time and setting beautifully.
While a candle-holder and a round make shift bed with curtains are placed on stage, Gupta readies his actors for the next scene, a confrontation between the courtesan and the Nawab’s father. “This scene is very powerful and emotionally draining for me and it helps that Gufiji is with me. His reactions help me emote,” says Shah.
“My character is actually positive. The nawab only wants the best for his son. He even says that if Begum Jaan didn’t have the stigma of being a nautch girl attached to her, he would have gladly accepted her as his daughter-in-law. By the end of the story the audience will feel sympathetic towards both Begum Jaan and the Nawab,” Paintal tells us before going up on stage giving us a glimpse of his brilliance.
On: July 2, 7.30 pm
At: Rang Sharda Auditorium, Bandra (W).