Even after more than two decades since her demise, the sharp, perceptive Urdu writings of Ismat Chugtai are still rock solid in their relevance. The issues they highlight are still very much ablaze, albeit in different forms and avatars. That’s precisely why Naseeruddin Shah’s heartfelt adaptation of three of her vignettes strikes immediate resonance. As Naseer remarks in his pithy prelude, nothing much has changed over time including societal expectations from women or the belligerent patrol of the moral police.
Having watched the play, however, one felt Naseer’s hands-off synopsis of Chugtai’s life and times, unfolding the gravity and depth of her work, was more enduring in impact than the adaptation, notwithstanding his astute reproduction - a fine blend of narration and enactment – and loyal to Chugtai’s pen in word and spirit. Blessed with the virtue of brevity, his introductory summary effectively highlights the poignancy of Chugtai’s life, her single-handed fight against contrived controversies and venomous contempt in her fearless crusade of women empowerment through literature. The adaptation is top-class in ideation, little surprise given that it’s a Motley product, but the presentation doesn’t seem to match the beauty of Naseer’s brilliant outline preceding it.
The first story ‘Chui Mui’, exposing the societal diktats that make motherhood the litmus test of womanhood and a potent wedlock-securing padlock, is ably narrated and enacted by Heeba Shah. In the absence of ‘’audience-friendly” material unlike the latter stories that are rich in sexual undertones (that often unintentionally but almost instantaneously guarantee a guffaw); she does really well to construct a neat imagery of distinctly wordy descriptions. However, her role switch over - as narrator and character – seems hurried at times if not hassled. Every time she gets into the skin of a character, she seems visibly mindful of the ensuing summation in the narration to follow. That lingering anticipation seems to have left traces of stiffness in her performance. But she’s not to blame...There’s just too much weight on her shoulders and it's her thankless effort that rolls out the velvet carpet for the two veterans with acts richer in theatrical possibilities. A swap of roles in future performances could prove an effective way of load balancing.
Contrary to what one was inclined to assume before entering the auditorium, Ratna Pathak’s ‘Mughal Bachcha’ turns out to be the most endearing of the three acts. Yes, the dark humor of the story does have an inbuilt pull (an amusing tale of a fair-skinned damsel wedded to a dark-skinned Mughal descendant of a British regime. Although deprived of erstwhile patrician comforts, the latter is yet overflowing with overbearing pride which eventually turns futile and fatal) but Pathak delivers the goods in a freewheeling style that well and truly enriches the substance. Her inventive narration and optimal enactment more than condone the occasional elongated pause or the use of a peculiarly conspicuous table lamp that doesn’t seem to be in sync with the other props.
After having kicked off the proceedings, Naseeruddin Shah comes back to present the concluding story ‘Gharwali’, a satirical take on the bizarre legitimacy of illicit relationships, thanks to society’s circuitous sanctions to protect the interests of the well protected. Naseer being Naseer delivers a top notch performance, rich in voice modulation and physical gesticulation, but one felt he goes over the top on a few occasions, especially in his full-of-beans acrobatics to accentuate the drama of certain situations. Not surprisingly, the audience is at its receptive best for this last act. For many viewers, this is a double bonanza. On the one hand, they get to sport the prized ‘intellectual’ badge for having watched a Motley adaptation of a Chugtai story (despite a Johnny lever show and a Bollywood orchestra happening in close vicinity.) On the other hand, they have the license to relish some 24-carat titillating, sexually explicit references conveniently ignoring the incisive contexts in which they are made. Mobile phones on silent mode for two-and-a-half hours is the only sacrifice in the bargain.