Two to play

Sarwat Ali March 23, 2014

‘Teri Amrita’ managed to capture the Lahori audience despite its lack of action

 Two to play

What are the rules that evaluate a drama on stage that has no action but only the presence of two characters completely involved in reading letters that they write to each other? Perhaps, the presence of the two superstars — Om Puri and Divya Dutta — took the pressure away from the way the play was written and its production designed, to concentrate only on their performances. Both have a huge presence and that can easily dominate the role or let their person totally eliminate the character.

Usually the play is meant to be action. Aristotle defined it as imitation of significant action — and here was a play totally devoid of action. It was just two characters on stage, and that too sedentary, reading out letters to each other from the two sides of the stage.

It might have been a radio play where the entire emphasis is on the delivery of the broadcaster. Since nothing else is meant to be seen by the listener on the radio, the entire focus narrows down to the voice as it is supposed to substitute for the movement of the body and the expression of the face.

The question to ask is, why was a radio play or the format of a radio play chosen to be performed at the Alhamra under the banner of Barfi Theatre Productions by a duo of Indian actors who are known in Pakistan through their films and not through the work that they have done on stage?

The Pakistani viewers are only exposed to the vaulting Indian cinema and not to the other forms that do not find a ready platform other than through the television screen.

Since Aristotelian canons, the stage play has underdone so many changes that even he would be at a loss to define what he saw today as theatre or the stage play. From Waiting for Godotto the massive intervention by technology, the stage has swung from one end to the other, struggling to redefine the meaning of theatre. But if theatre means human dilemma as delivered by two characters on stage then it qualified to be the skimpiest form of theatre, very basic and minimalist in nature.

Gurney’s Love Letters is a good play and it was made into a successful Indian production by Javed Siddiqui, who translated and adapted it into Urdu and called it Tumhari Amrita. For years Farooq Sheikh and Shabana Azmi played the two characters to raving reviews and great critical acclaim. It was directed by Feroz Abbas and was also staged once in Karachi with the two aforesaid celebrities playing the two characters of Amrita and Zulfiqar Haider.

In Pakistan the same play with the same adaptation has been staged more than once in Karachi by local actors.

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But it was the first time that it was staged in Punjabi and there was something in the language that clicked instantly. The Punjabi of Teri Amrita was full of charge and carried the idiomatic richness which made the otherwise sedentary performance into a combination of restraint and repressed emotion. A relationship that exists in words and does not go beyond it to be translated into something more instant was quite palpable. It retained immediacy and combined it well with frustration.

It was a difficult role to perform because it just meant reading out letters to the other character who is also on stage doing the same. The lack of action in the play had to be compensated by immense control over the voice because that was the only craft that could be used. Both Om Puri and Divya Dutta did that quite well as the response of the audience showed. And, in it, he must have been helped by his association with the radio.

(In the early years of cinema, it was usual for actors, writers and directors to be familiar with stage and radio before graduating to film.)

An exchange of letters between Zulfiqar Haider and Amrita Nigam spans over 35 years in which both grow from their teens into middle age, the tension and frustration of the relationship based on unrequited love was weaved through words.

Om Puri and Divya Dutta have taken different routes to films. While he went through the regimen of the National School of Drama to become principally a stage actor, she went into modelling and then appeared in films, mostly playing the character of a Punjabi woman. She was equally convincing as Amrita in the play.

The Indian film is watched by millions here, either in cinema or on television through cable and satellite networks but the average viewer here is not exposed to other forms of performing arts. In the past years, there have been sporadic examples of Indian theatre being staged here. During the Rafi Peer Festivals many Indians groups came and performed giving some indication of the width and depth of the Indian theatre scene. But one play here and one play there leaves the appetite only whetted and not satiated.

In the last few months, Naseeruddin Shah too has been staging plays here with some other members of the cast under the sponsorship of Faiz Foundation and NAPA also has invited groups. It would be so much better if there is more exchange of plays between the two countries and that would surely help the Pakistan theatre scene that is good but narrowly constructed. It needs to grow both vertically and horizontally.


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