Irom Sharmila's life story to come to the stage

Updated: Dec 20, 2018, 11:49 IST | Snigdha Hasan

Theatre stalwarts Shanta Gokhale and Mahesh Dattani come together to bring to life the story of Irom Sharmila - the political activist and the person - on stage

Irom Sharmila's life story to come to the stage
Mahesh Dattani and Shanta Gokhale at Gokhale's Shivaji Park residence

On a balmy Saturday afternoon, the discussion in the study of Shanta Gokhale's Shivaji Park residence is one about the complex relationship that a playwright and director share. What was Vijay Tendulkar's approach to the staging of the plays he wrote, and how did it differ from Girish Karnad's? Should scripts allow no room for interpretation? How far should a director go with editing the text? After all, it comes down to trusting one's writing with a collaborator, who ought to bring his own perspective to it when he visualises it for the stage.

But this sense of trust is what got Gokhale, eminent playwright, cultural critic and theatre historian, and award-winning theatre director Mahesh Dattani together for Menghaobi: The Fair One. The play depicts the story of Irom Sharmila, the political and human rights activist from Manipur who fasted for 16 years as part of her struggle to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed in the state. The protagonist, however, is a homemaker in Delhi, who through her narrow understanding of life and nationhood, questions Sharmila's struggle. Towards the end, she finds herself in complete sympathy with Sharmila.

Scenes from the play. Pic/Ashish Raje
Scenes from the play. Pic/Ashish Raje

"It began with my admiration for Sharmila. But it was also mixed with doubt. Because yes, she was fighting this fight, and there were people with her fighting the same fight. But how could she succeed? Because ultimately, she was a lone person," says Gokhale. The play had been taking shape for over three years, and kept evolving with developments in Sharmila's struggle. In fact, when the activist, miffed with the state's apathy to her cause, decided to break her fast, Gokhale felt that her play was no longer relevant.

What put things back in motion was when a friend urged her to consider relooking at the play, and around the same time, Gokhale's daughter Renuka Shahane put up a post on Facebook. "We were distraught that in her land, where she has done so much, she was completely rejected by her people," shares Gokhale, referring to Sharmila's defeat in Manipur's state assembly elections, which she contested in a bid to further her cause.

Sukhita Aiyar (left) as Irom Sharmila and Padma Damodaran as the protagonist
Sukhita Aiyar (left) as Irom Sharmila and Padma Damodaran as the protagonist

"She had no home to go to. So, Renuka put up a post saying, 'Please come and stay with me'," And that became the trigger for act two, when the woman protagonist opens up her home to Sharmila. Layered with folklore from Manipur, and the legend of Antigone and Creon, the play takes the audience to the dramatic moment when Sharmila, who has been an ascetic for 16 years, is wondering if she should embrace personal happiness through matrimony.

Now that the two acts came together coherently, Gokhale wrote to Dattani in November 2017 and invited him for a reading of the final play. "But I felt that you can't be fair to this play with just a cold reading," Dattani tells us, adding that he decided to have a staged reading instead. A few months later, he had a movement director come in to help actors portray certain telling moments in the play.

By the time the play with the final cast — Padma Damodaran, Sukhita Aiyar, Prince Kanwal, Himanshu Talreja,Raul Valmiki, Tapaz Boro, Jason Tham, Paayal Kapoor Nair and Vidyuth Ven — was ready, Dattani had to grapple with finding a producer. "The moment you say that the play is about the army and Manipur, [the discussion] ends. That's when we went into a crowd-funding campaign," he shares.

After its Mumbai premiere, Dattani plans to take the play to Bengaluru where Sharmila now lives, and other countries. "This is a play that should be seen by anyone and everyone," he says, "Because it's about human rights and human dignity. And when that's attacked, the world needs to listen."

From December 21 to 23
At G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Mahalaxmi.
Entry Rs 500

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