In a self-referential moment, Ms Saraf complains about her limited part, and is promptly cast as Punnu, but it would seem that Sassi remains a giggly damsel in distress for perpetuity. But this is meta theatre that works. The play makes several such nods to female empowerment, which sometimes smacks of tokenism. But it is also a good thing because semi-mainstream Hindi theatre is notoriously wedded to the status quo.
Last week, the musical Ishq Aaha, directed by next-generation impresarios Gagan Dev Riar and Sukant Goel, played at Prithvi Theatre to good houses. The production featured four popular tragic romances from Punjab, all turned on their heads in a colorful riotous venture. However, despite a youthful vibe, its commitment to reinvention was only partially successful. The live singing by its ensemble of actors had the rawness of ordinary voices mixed with moments of sheer musical virtuosity, and the tellings were peppered with signifiers of modern living. For instance, in the first story, Sassi and Punnuh meet via Facebook. Scripted by Amitosh Nagpal, the segment does betray a Piya Behroopiya hangover that occasionally grates. The ebullience of the mandli of performers seated with the musicians, seems a little out of turn at first. Yet, the rambunctious number, ‘Jogira Shararara’, conspires to set things in order. Also at hand are natural talents Niketa Saraf and Vipin Heero who play the first pair of star-crossed lovers with unregimented flair, allowing us to overlook the initially scrappy ensemble work. In a self-referential moment, Ms Saraf complains about her limited part, and is promptly cast as Punnuh, but it would seem that Sassi remains a giggly damsel in distress for perpetuity. But this is meta theatre that works. The play makes several such nods to female empowerment, which sometimes smacks of tokenism. But it is also a good thing because semi-mainstream Hindi theatre is notoriously wedded to the status quo.
Transposed to a contemporary milieu, the second piece exhibits more fidelity to the saga it’s derived from, that of Mirza and Sahibaan. Latter-day Jats are cut of the same cloth as their centuries-old predecessors, and writer Purva Naresh astutely weaves in the markers of patriarchy. A joyous ‘rakhi’ sequence introduces the brothers who dote on their little sister, almost ominously. A masochistic love-making sequence between the lovers skirts on the edges of consent, and Mirza’s friend exhorts him to consummate the affair before anything untoward happens. Which is, of course, a given, since the spectre of honor killings looms large from the get go. In a departure from real life cases — like Nitish Katara — Sahibaan doesn’t quite do a Bharti Yadav, instead returning independently from the West to testify against her own brothers.
Although tightly performed and tautly directed by Mr Goel, the piece is never chilling enough, perhaps due to the comedic turns that break the tension — Divya Unny as a sensation-seeking journalist, Ms Saraf once again as Sahibaan’s sex-starved best friend, and the uproarious Neha Singh as the aunt who is complaisant on the surface — but it still deeply sympathetic to the female protagonist’s hopes and desires.
In the play’s third act, written by Raghav Dutt and Mr Riar, the underrated Ms Singh is finally given a part with gravitas and she doesn’t disappoint. Here, as the notional Ranjha to her Heer, Nitin Bhardwaj is a rustic flautist: Sohail, from Chandigarh, cast in the ‘eternal lover’ mould. His sense of entitlement to the object of his affection, and his relentless courtship, is in the best (or worst) tradition of the standard issue Bollywood leading man (from Devdas to Raanjhanaa).
As Saira, a standoffish events manager from Mumbai who rebuffs his advances while secretly admiring his gusto, Ms Singh is the modern Indian woman. Her paranoia about men and their agendas is often unfounded, and her feminism is always an affliction. Sohail’s compulsiveness is cloaked with natural affability, and blamed on the cultural chasm between high and low cities, even as he makes no attempt to bridge this apart from professing his ardor either directly or indirectly. The meaning-making of love signals on both sides make for amusing exchanges. Even the gaggle of sassy gay friends Saira’s saddled with, are a hilariously cacophonous lot. Yet, it is a dangerous message to suggest that when women say no, they actually mean yes. Ms Singh ultimately turns in a nuanced portrayal that creates a sobering counterpoint to the regressiveness. She does this without allowing her character to fall into caricature, in a piece that feels suspiciously like the handiwork of a men’s rights activist.
Embedded in this contemporary telling, is the musical show, Sohni Mahiwal, that Saira produces. Mr Riar infuses this play within the play with a lyricism and a fluidity of movement that evokes the river Chenab as literally the impasse between two lovers. Yet, this is a clumsy segment that resolutely refuses to take off, and puts into glaring relief the choppiness and tonal inconsistency of Ishq Aaha.
In the end though, all is almost forgiven as the play peaks with a rousing rendition of the kafiyas of Baba Bulleh Shah, ‘Sikh Chajj Koi Yaar Manavan Da’, one of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s popular qawaalis. Given the play’s unjustified running time, economy of expression doesn’t quite appear to be its strong suit. However, it’s certainly heartening to see Mr Riar and Mr Goel, whose talents are so uniquely suited to the stage, at the helm of affairs here. These are good beginnings.