Four plays staged under the aegis of Faiz Foundation Trust at the Alhamra in Lahore last week -- one an adaptation of the American play A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing and the other three, based on the two short stories of Prem Chand, Shatranj Ke Khilari, Bare Bhai Sahib and one by Kamtanath titled Sankraman -- were examples of realistic theatre.
The star of the performance was Naseeruddin Shah -- who initially made a name for himself in the so-called parallel cinema of India in the 1970s and 1980s, before joining the mainstream cinema with qualified success. He is also fondly remembered because he took part in a number of Pakistani film productions, and to say the least, uplifted the level of performance by his restrained performance.
If the play in particular has a ‘big’ name, so to say, with oodles of star value attached, it can be a disadvantage of sorts -- because instead of seeing the play in its entirety one is always constrained to focus on the performance of the actor.
It also raises the expectations to unprecedented levels.
Most of the people in the audience were there either because they owe some kind of obligation to Faiz or else that Naseeruddin Shah was performing in the play. He has performed in plays in Pakistan earlier as well and is remembered for his excellent performance in them.
Being a graduate of the National School of Drama in Delhi, Shah’s first-love has been theatre and, despite his film and television engagements, he has gone back to it time and again.
One proof of it is the Motley Theatre Productions -- formed by him and Benjamin Gilani in 1979. One of the fortes of this group has been to stage plays with a strong storytelling tradition. In our culture, usually, theatre has been either based on western adaptations or is derived from the narrative mode usually represented in the form of afsana or novel.
So, a comparison between the first play -- A Walk in the Woods -- and the other three plays -- Shatranj Ke Khilari, Bare Bhai Sahib and Sankraman -- was evident. A Walk… was written specifically as a play and it has also been performed with varying levels of success while the others were short stories which were adapted into plays for the stage. While the first production directed by Ratna Pathak Shah was crisp as it steadily built up by retaining its dramatic tension, the other three were more like a number of episodes held together by a string of narration.
It went to the credit of Naseeruddin Shah that he did not let his own role or performance overshadow the play. He should be commended for A Walk in the Woods; a tailor-made scenario for a ready matching of wits, the other character of Ram Chinnapa played by Rajit Kapoor also deflected the attention from the characters to the play as a whole.
The play must have been chosen for its relevance. Based on an intractable situation between two enemy states trying to negotiate an agreement (Soviet Union and United States in the play, India and Pakistan in the adaptation), the two characters of negotiators in an attempt to find a breakthrough took an unconventional path by abandoning the setting of a formal negotiation and taking strolls in the woods near Geneva, where the talks were being held. There they arrived at some meeting point, a draft plan for the improvement of relationship between the two countries.
One, Jamaluddin Lutfullah (played by Shah), a Pakistani elderly negotiator, elderly who had been part of such a process over a period of time was very well familiar with the repeated disappointments and patience required for the grind involved, and had started to take the ups and downs in his stride. The Indian negotiator, the younger Ram Chinnapa (played by Rajit Kapoor), who joined the process after the retirement of the seasoned predecessor Joshi was very much an optimist, brimming with confidence and eager to take the process of improvement of relationship between the two states rushingly forward. But he encountered the cold deterring and probably realistic approach of his counterpart and in frustration labelled it as nothing but cynicism.
The play was a contrast between these two positions, one naïve and full of confidence, the other realistic and restrained -- and till the end it was difficult to say which one had the edge over the other but it seemed that the more seasoned and restraint approach of the Pakistani diplomat countered the gushing readiness of the Indian counterpart.
The utter and absolute hopelessness in the process with no headway being made was salvaged by the personal rapport the two characters developed by beginning to share things on a more personal level. They left in the end without giving up hope, recognition of the disappointments and frustrations built in the long haul.
As if to pick up the gauntlet, the three plays adapted from short stories were directed by Naseeruddin Shah in line with the main objective of the theatre group that he formed 35 years ago. Shatranj Key Khilari had been made famous at the popular level by the film based on the same story by Satyajit Ray. In the film format it was easier for Ray to visually establish the opulence coupled with indolence of the ruling elite of Awadh around 1947. The total breakdown of the relationship between the husbands and wives and its substitution through relationships outside marriage, the defunct values of honour operative only in terms of the family rather than the country at large was symbolic of a lack of a focal point where the two should ideally converge.
In Shatranj Key Khilari’ Mirza was played by Rakesh Chaturvedi and Meer by Manoj Pahwa while in Bare Bhai Sahib elder brother was played by Faisal Rashid and the younger by Vivaan Asad Shah.
In Sankraman, the father was played by Naseeruddin Shah, his wife by Seema Peshwa and the son by Rakesh Chaturvedi. Both the plays were peeps into the lives of ordinary people with their ordinary cares and concerns, habits and peculiarities, more in synch with the tradition of realism that has largely informed the ethos of the short story in the subcontinent.