Naseeruddin Shah directs an all-female cast as a tribute to Ismat Chughtai

Apr 10, 2018, 08:14 IST | Snigdha Hasan

In his third tribute to Ismat Chughtai, Naseeruddin Shah directs an all-female cast to present a bouquet of performances that celebrate the litterateur, her life and plucky writing

A scene from Ismat Apa ke Naam
A scene from Ismat Apa ke Naam

Motley and Ismat Chughtai go long back. In 2000, when the theatre group co-founded by Naseeruddin Shah made its foray into Hindustani, it chose to do so by weaving together three stories by the avant-garde writer for a series of zesty monologues called Ismat Apa ke Naam. Next came Manto...Ismat Haazir Hain followed by a fresh selection of stories for Ismat Apa ke Naam 2. And with each production, the group unveiled a layer of Chughtai's worldview and style of storytelling, hitherto unknown to most audiences, for whom her oeuvre was synonymous with Lihaaf.

(From left, standing) Shruti Vyas, Seema Pahwa, Bhavna Pani, (seated, from left) Prerna Chawla, Jaya Virrley, Naseeruddin Shah and Trishla Patel
(From left, standing) Shruti Vyas, Seema Pahwa, Bhavna Pani, (seated, from left) Prerna Chawla, Jaya Virrley, Naseeruddin Shah and Trishla Patel

"Her storytelling ability is one of a kind. It can only be referred to in Ghalib's words as andaaz-e-bayaan. There is humour, satire and wickedness in it. She herself describes her way of writing as, 'as if I am chatting to the reader'. That is what makes her stories so accessible to the listener," says Shah, ahead of the final rehearsal for his latest tribute to Chughtai, titled Aurat! Aurat!! Aurat!!! Moving away from monologues, Shah has directed an all-female cast that plays multiple characters on stage to present segments from her autobiography and the essays, Ek Shauhar ki Khaatir, Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwaab, and Soney ka Anda.

Ismat Chughtai
Ismat Chughtai

In the autobiographical part, three actors depict Ismat's childhood, adolescence and early life in Bombay. "The idea was not to try and imitate her, but to make sure that her attitude and thoughts come across," says Trishla Patel, who plays Chughtai as a ninth grader. So, were the seeds of her revolutionary writing sown in childhood? "She was born that way. All she wanted was women to be equal to men; she had nothing against men and that is a very fine line," she shares.

The next piece, Shauhar ki Khaatir, is set in a jam-packed railway compartment. "All her fellow women passengers are intrigued by the presence of Chughtai, the solo traveller. In their conversation with her, her marital status gets unwavering attention," says Bhavna Pani, who plays one of the passengers. She continues, "Chughtai too plays with them by telling some women that she is married and revealing to others that she is not!"

Shah sets Chughtai's famous essay, Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwaab, in a typical family, where the author, through the lady of the household, thinks aloud about the state of women in her time, the way they are subjugated to domestic chores and strictly told not to do anything else. "People have created and fallen in love with the idea of a woman that's devoid of logic," says Pani about the essay. "It will make people think about how we have blindly been following norms without giving them a thought."

The final performance, Soney ka Anda, is a solo act by veteran actor Seema Pahwa, and is about the mourning that follows the birth of a girl child. The music accompanying all four pieces draw from Faiz Ahmad Faiz's nazm, Pa Ba-Jaulan Chalo, whose lyrics translate to, "Even if we are shackled, let's move forward with gusto in the shackles."

True to the spirit of the music, Pani feels that portraying the spirit of Chughtai on stage has been a liberating experience. She says, "Reading Chughtai shows you how to live unapologetically as a woman. She can say such profound things in such simple ways. Some things are right below your nose, but you need an Ismat to see them." Shah agrees. "Her oeuvre is so varied. It counts among the best short story writing in the world. Unfortunately, the translations don't do justice to the zest of Ismat's writing and most people have read her in translation."

The style apart, it's the biting relevance of her stories that urges Shah to turn to Chughtai time and again. "The references in her writings are from the 1940s, but the thoughts are worth reiterating because things may be a bit evolved in the metropolises, but certainly not in other parts of the country. Women are still subjugated in many ways and treated shabbily. What she was talking about 70 to 80 years ago is still true, and that's the unfortunate part," he concludes.

From: Today till April 15
At: Prithvi Theatre, Juhu
Call: 26149546
Cost: Rs 300

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