By Devanshi Panda
The Shah family of actors inaugurate the Delhi Theatre Festival with their witty and hilarious Ismat Apa ke Naam.
It's a rainy evening in August and people across the city of Delhi trudge through flooded streets to reach the Siri Fort Auditorium. As they shake off rainwater in the chilled auditorium, squeezing their sarees and stomping the mud off their shoes, excited whispers begin to spread through the room. After a prolonged wait, the face of Naseeruddin Shah finally pops up on stage and his booming voice introduces Ismat Apa Ke Naam, the inaugural play for the Delhi Theatre Festival, produced by Motley Theatre and directed by himself. The play is designed to be more storytelling than theatre, Shah informs, and the Shah family are to read and enact three stories just as the feminist and witty author Ismat Chugtai might have intended; perfect with the exact Urdu narration of her tales.
The first story enacted is Chui Mui, or Touch Me Not. With nothing but a bed and a dupatta for props, Heeba Shah swiftly shape-shifts between the characters of the pregnant Bhabijan, the narrator, the judgemental Bi Mughlani, and the peasant woman. Her excellent voice modulation lends personality and depth to her characters, and the play’s wry humour combined with it important social commentary on childbirth and privilege. Utilising sound and lighting to its advantage, the scenes are set in a train compartment created with the simple shadow effect of grill windows - the sounds of the train chugging sounds in the distance. Many in the audience have never even heard of Heeba Shah before her act, but her exceptional acting has no doubt carved her name into the minds of the crowd.
The following act, Mughal Baccha or The Mughal Born, is played by Ratna Pathak Shah. As the dark stage gives way to dim light, Ratna sits on a rocking chair under a lamp and begins the tale of Gori Bi and Kale Mian. She flips through the pages of an album, talking talking to us as if we are sitting in her living room. Ratna’s marvellous expressions and her ability to relate to the audience perfectly conveys Chugtai’s story of pride, prejudice, and the complexities of marriage in the wake of a crumbling Mughal empire. Ratna toys with the refrain “Ghungat uthao” or “Lift your veil”, each time using it to express a different emotion, and has the audience rolling in fits of laughter till the very end of the story.
Naseeruddin Shah — the last and most awaited performance — brings the evening to a close with Gharwali, or Homemaker. No amount of English translation prowess can compare to the mélange that is Ismat Chugtai’s original words and Naseeruddin Shah’s acting. Homemaker is the tale of a promiscuous woman servant, Lajjo, who comes to work for Mirza mian, a bachelor who runs a grocery store. Watching him transform from the begrudging bachelor to a young, flirtatious damsel complete with his hands on his hips and the crass tongue of a village bumpkin at the ripe age of seventy-three, Shah yet again proves his versatility as an actor who owns the stage. He takes the Siri Fort Auditorium on a tour of Mirza’s home and his relationship with his gharwali with just an earthen clay water pot and a screen at his disposal. He neatly packs a tale of lust, status, and expected societal roles into a humerous gift for the audience.
Despite Delhi’s troublesome rains and the delay, Ismat Apa Ke Naam is a treat to watch for both young and old alike. Though it stays true to some of the bawdy elements that Chugtai never hesitated to include in her tales, this trifecta of stories made for the perfect family experience, and left many in awe of the progressive spirit that was Ismat Chugtai.
About the Writer:
Devanshi is an undergrad history student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi with the memory of a goldfish (the irony is not lost on her). She is the Editor-in-Chief of her college's magazine and her poetry has been published in many university magazines. Her words have also appeared in the Monograph Magazine and one of her essays is all set to be published in a food anthology by Nivaala and the Alipore Post. Devanshi is particularly interested in weaving tales on personal experiences, art, culture, and the confluence of fashion and history. She hopes to own a bookcase that leads into a secret chamber one day.