Friday, 28 April 2006

Review: Hindi stage play, Raat: Night hides many secrets

Syed Akbar
Night hides many secrets in its folds of darkness but when it starts revealing, the truth is not always easy to comprehend. The memories it leaves in its wake are often bitter and sometimes startling.This is true both with the physical darkness of the night and the psychological darkness in one's life.
Raat (Night), a Hindi drama by eminent director MS Sathyu, successfully brings to light the untold atrocities and crimes committed by the protectors of law against hapless and innocent people under the cover of darkness, inside the four walls of the so-called investigation cells. Raat can be valued as a dramatic work that examines the psychological repercussions of human rights abuses.
Sathyu, who shot to fame with his "Garam Hawa" in 1973, also speaks of the trauma, both physical and mental, the victims undergo for the rest of their life while inquiry or truth commissions take their own time to prepare voluminous reports, which are ultimately consigned to government's apathy and its disrespect for human dignity. Through his three-person play, Sathyu vividly depicts how an innocent victim of police or state torture will react when he or she gets an upper hand over the perpetrators of crime.
Raat clearly has Sathyu's stamp on it. The play is set in an Indian State, assumed to be Gujarat or Maharashtra after the communal orgy there. It is based on "Death and the Maiden", an internationally acclaimed play by Ariel Dorfman. The original is set in Chile in the times of dictatorship exposing political bosses. Writer Javed Siddiqui has based script on the present-day Indian scenario highlighting treatment and torture of political activists, especially women. Death and the Maiden was produced in London at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1991. Like the parent play, Raat requires the active participation of the audience. The staging is beautifully used to achieve the audience's interaction and drive home the message.
With his Raat, Sathyu has revived the Hindustani theatre in Hyderabad after a long gap of two decades. The Hindustani theatre, quite popularly in these parts in 1970s and 1980s, died a slow death with the passing away of the doyen Qadir Ali Baig. His eldest son Moin Ali Baig continued the tradition for some time but in English through his Avant-garde Theatre, before shifting the base to the USA. A theatre foundation formed in memory of Qadir Ali Baig recently has already brought to the city two versatile Hindustani plays, Aparajita and Raat.
"It's a pleasant audience here. I am delighted to receive such an appreciation from the people in Hyderabad. I asked Javed to write the script based on Indian context and the play is before you," says a delighted Sathyu, who has brought his Raat to Hyderabad for the first time.
Raat and Aparajita have established that theatre is still attractive in Hyderabad despite the presence of a huge number of cinema halls. What's noteworthy is that almost 60 per cent of the audience were people between the age of 18 and 24 years. "Though the play was staged at Taramati Baradari, quite far away from the city, the turnout was in appreciable number. The audience comprised mostly of students and youths. This is a clear sign that theatre has a bright future in Hyderabad, as in Kolkata and Mumbai," observes producer Muhammad Ali Baig.
Versatile artiste Aanjjan Srivastav lives in the role of Bobby, a senior police inspector known for his surgical precision in execution of third degree methods on the detainees. Surender Gupta plays the role of Kabir, an IAS officer appointed by the State government to head a commission to inquire into the communal riots and the excesses indulged in by the police and government machinery against innocent people. Rashmi Sharma acts as Kabir's wife Aashi, a political activist held in illegal custody for nine days and gang-raped by policemen to extract information which she does not possess.
Rashmi uses powerful dialogues, often unprintable, to bring out the anger and fear she had been nurturing for years after her traumatising experience at the hands of the police. She was returning home from a relief camp in a communally hit city when a police van stops by her and a police inspector offers her a lift. Unsuspecting she sits in the vehicle only to find herself in an interrogation cell for the next nine days. Bobby is the senior police inspector, and he may or may not have been Aashi's chief torturer. The play is about the mystery of whether Bobby was the torturer or not. Aashi played her role excellently as an angry and bitter woman. She is angry at life and everyone in it including her husband.
Sathyu uses the characters of Aashi and Kabir to drive home his message on the futility or otherwise of the inquiry commissions set up by governments from time to time. "Inquiry commissions are able to establish certain truths in a public way, to become part of official history. The previous regime had committed excesses. It lived by telling this falsity. The new government is sincere and let's hope justice will be rendered to the victims," Kabir tells Aashi.
Javed Siddiqui tells the audience through the dialogues Aashi and Kabir exchange between themselves as Aashi holds a revolver against Bobby to teach him a lesson. The message is loud and clear: symbolic punishment is important. We should be content if the people who did terrible things to us and those we love came to ask forgiveness, to say I will never do this to you again, I am really sorry this happened. But until that happens, we should demand they be brought to justice, and the justice we seek has to do with the truth.
The title of the play Raat comes from the dark days Aashi underwent in policy custody. The entire play is set in the backdrop of a stormy night. The opening scene depicts the tension writ large on the face of Aashi. The entire 90-minute play is set in an isolated house where Aashi and Kabir live and the former in virtual fear.
Rashmi could not resist the temptation of a big applause from the Hyderabad theatre lovers after the show. "It's a better turnout than we expected. The audience got themselves involved in the play and this was quite evident from the occasional applause," points out Rashmi, who is performing a Hindustani play for the first time in the city.
Kabir returning from a meeting with the chief minister gets struck in a storm as his car had a flat tyre. He could not change the tyre as his wife Aashi had removed the jack from the car a day earlier. He founds Bobby a Good Samaritan who drops him at his house. Aashi gets agitated when she hears the sound of a new car. She opens the door and enters into an argument with Kabir for having come in a stranger's vehicle. You could have changed the tyre.
Bobby returns and bangs at the door in a drunken state. Before Kabir could open the door, Aashi runs into the bed room and watches the stranger enter. Soon Aashi becoming increasingly agitated decides that Bobby was her torturer. Though she was blind-folded by the police, she could easily recognise Bobby through his voice and smell of sweat.
Thanks to the unparalleled directorial skills and the tight and powerful dialogues, till the end of the play the audience were not sure if Aashi was going to kill Bobby, torture him or what, but rest assured that it is a long night of terror for the three characters. The play takes many twists but ends with Kabir and Aashi decided to adopt an orphan, a victim of mindless communal frenzy.
"In the foundation's quest of bringing professional standard theatre to Hyderabad, we are presenting this universal play as a tribute to theatre doyen, Qadir Ali Baig. Our aim is to develop local talent. Until then we will have to depend on artistes from outside," says Muhammad Ali Baig.

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Syed Akbar at the 11th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity