Pictures from Mumbai’s theatres

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The set of Pakistan Aur Alzheimer’s, a tragic-comic play about India’s partition, at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Shakti Mills

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Qissa Urdu Ki Akhri Kitaab Ka, a satire on contemporary appropriation and censorship of historical narratives, Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

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The Father, a tragi-farcical play about an Alzheimer’s patient, at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

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Gypsy Under the Moon, the theatrical adaptation of famous Bengali novel ‘Srikanta’, at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre (NCPA), Nariman Point

Theatre Review – ‘Oh My Sweet Land’

Actress Corinne JaberLast week, the audience in a New Delhi auditorium sat in front an unusual setting during a theatre show. The artist ended her performance. As she walked off the stage, she left the door of the refrigerator open, revealing big portions of meat that resembled a slaughterhouse.

The lights were dimmed. In another corner of the stage, a dish was being cooked on the gas. The sound of oil, spices and boiling meat grew increasingly louder and I wondered if the production crew was preparing us for a final burst before the show ended. There was no “staged blast”, but the sequence left the audience confused – and unusually quiet for a few moments – about whether the show had ended or not.

The show ended, it turned out, giving way to belated applause by a thin audience of ‘Oh My Sweet Land,’ a play about a half-Syrian woman’s unexpected journey into the Arabic country devastated by war, where she meets some of the refugees.

Back home, in Paris, she falls in love with Ashraf, a Syrian man who comes to her apartment to plan fellow Syrians’ escape from the war-torn country.

Ashraf and the woman make love at night because, according to her, it’s the only antidote to the man’s agony. During the day, they’re in Paris and at night the house transforms into an atmospheric Syria. One night, he takes her to a deserted Parisian street that ends in a cul-de-sac. It reminds him of his home, he says, of sweet and now bloody memories.

And, after a three-month long affair with her, he disappears.

The un-named woman, played by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, then travels to Syria to look for the exiled Damascene medical worker she fell in love with. She recounts a journey of exploding water melon fields and burning houses, a funereal hospital, a bullet-riddled Mercedes that reminds her of her father, and a narrow escape from a seedy interrogation cell. There’s also the tragic-comic story of a journalist who stages his own funeral to evade arrest.

While cooking Syrian dish kebah, the woman narrates all these – and many more – incidents with a schizophrenic intensity that smells of war, a fractured past and an uncertain future. The performance is pervaded with silences and outbursts, and lot of unpalatable plainspeak too. Occasionally, in the background, a Syrian song plays, creating a nostalgic, but painful, local setting marred by turmoil.

For the woman, who performs multiple roles in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, cooking a traditional Syrian dish becomes a way of connecting to her homeland she doesn’t know much about. She’s half-Syrian and half-German like Jaber herself, who was brought up unacquainted with Syrian culture and language. But the only Syrian element in her house was the local food, her strongest connection to the Arabic nation.

So, on the stage, the woman prepares kebah with a compulsiveness that makes her homecoming torturous and suffocating. The aroma of stirring spices and warm oil – mouth-watering as it is – during the performance creates a semblance of irony as she narrates stories of pain and horror. This peculiar juxtaposition compliments the show’s title – ‘Oh My Sweet Land’.

The show debuted about two years ago in Switzerland and the actress has given more than 60 performances so far.

Themes of displacement and a neurosis linked to one’s homeland are at the heart of this play. And it is no coincidence that it’s directed by Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi.

In his earlier show, ‘I am Yusuf and This is My Brother’, a young man recollects the loss of his ancestors after the British left Palestine in 1948. Even in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, the lines between the personal and the performative blur as Jaber draws upon a self-conscious opaqueness about Syria. The main character – and all the roles that she plays – cannot escape Syria or be part of it, peacefully and entirely. The image of the cul-de-sac in a Parisian street reverberates throughout the performance.

The final image, the woman tells us, is from a TV screen showing corpses of children, covered in white cloth, placed next to each other. They were victims of a deadly chemical gas attack in Syria.

She walks out of the stage, leaving the door of the refrigerator open and the simmering kebah on the gas. The mutton – not beef, Jaber says in the interview – is seen inside the fridge.

The show was staged as part of the yearly Old World Theatre Festival organized in New Delhi and suburb Gurgaon last week.

Review – ‘Ek Mulaqaat’ with Deepti Naval, Shekhar Suman

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.