I will not, like other star-struck reviewers, fawn over the performances of Deepti Naval and Shekhar Suman in a theatre production that came to Delhi last weekend. Because they were good, but not fawn-worthy; clouded by too many elements that were more jarring than complimentary.

‘Ek Mulaqaat’ is an imaginary meeting between a man and a woman who inspired and loved each other, but could not cherish the joy of a relationship as lovers are supposed to be. Amritsar-born Naval plays famous Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam and Suman is the equally well-known poet Sahir Ludhianvi. As they meet, they delve into the past to talk about their unfulfilled love. There’s lot of poetry, in Urdu and Punjabi, and some of Ludhianvi’s music too.

Wearing a shawl and knitting a sweater, Pritam sits on her terrace by herself like a wistful granny who has lived a life of pain and unfulfilled desires. Her live-in partner, painter Imroz, impatiently waits for her downstairs, but she keeps the door of the terrace locked from inside. And then Suman, as Ludhianvi, appears on stage and recites Kabhie Kabhie. He is stiff and characteristically full of himself, and that shows in his performance. He gets the Urdu diction right, and at times a bit too right – you know when you want to get the “gh” of ghazal right, for example, you put excessive stress on the insides of your mouth and you end up sounding like Javed Akhtar. Sorry sir, I love Silsila’s music, but somehow I am also thinking of your son, Farhan, who can be a phonetic howler as well.

And when you say something so laboriously, you might miss the emotion. That’s what happened with Suman.

His recitation of Ludhianvi’s ‘Taj Mahal’ – a moving poem about why the monument shouldn’t be a meeting point for two people in love – was impressive. But his delivery is always closer to a speech most of the time rather than a dialogue. I wonder if Farooq Sheikh, who made a great pair with Naval in many Hindi films, were alive, would he have been a better choice?

“He would not have been the obvious choice for Sahir Ludhianvi, in spite of being one of the most well-spoken actors. I think Shekhar Suman, visually, fits the role. He almost looks like Sahir,” Naval said early this year in an interview.

But I am not writing off Suman or Naval. There’s romance for sure, especially towards the end, when the man finally sheds his star persona. His poetic response to why he couldn’t be with her, while admitting to his love is disarming and draws huge applause in the audience. Naval is gentle, but intense. This is her debut on stage.

Pritam’s many Punjabi poems speak of love, separation and most prominently India’s partition. Even though I do not understand a lot of Punjabi being one myself, I get the essence of many of them, thanks to Gulzar’s spine-chilling recitation. So when I heard Naval reciting those same lines on the stage, I sat disappointed and unmoved. Not only because her recitations seemed abrupt in the script, I thought she missed the Punjabi accent despite being a sardarni. But she makes up in the end by singing a song without background score.

Ok, tell me how would you react if Ludhianvi attributed “career ki masroofiyat” for not giving enough time to Pritam? Or if she, in another situation, talked of “indispensability” of something something? These and many other such “whatevers” distorted the sound of chaste Urdu and Punjabi terribly. As if that was not enough, the production crew couldn’t handle the lights efficiently. And what’s with those disco lights – yes, disco lights – in the end? Good heavens!

The show is ambitious, but falls short of expectations. Unfortunately, too many pitfalls overshadowed the sincerity of the overall play. There was more that could have come out of this production. After all, as Naval said it’s her payback to Pritam, whom she knew personally.
PS: Or may be I am too young to appreciate romance between old people that’s layered and has many grey areas. I guess I will get there too. Actually, I hope not.

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