Sunday, June 23, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

As Naseeruddin Shah took the stage

Update : 06 May 2017, 12:15 AM
It was like preparing for a long-awaited fiesta with all the patience I could ever think of mustering. I was waiting for him, him in flesh and blood, the man with all his magic tricks that kept on mesmerising me -- the girl who was in love with the silver screen since her childhood. It was the Shah, the thespian, the master, the artist. Here was my time to see him in front of me, not on the silver screen but on stage. How could I let that chance slip away? Two weeks went away in eager waiting, the last two days in extensive planning! It was at Bashundhara Convention Centre, and we all knew it was not going to be an easy ride, considering the inevitable traffic jam and the unavoidable summer heat. But the universe sent its blessings in the form of a Friday with its comparatively less traffic and cool breeze and with the promise of a soothing rain. We arrived in time. All the excitement began to evaporate the moment I entered the auditorium. It was enormous, resembling a place where a concert or an award ceremony usually takes place, not a theatre! I had a ticket in the gallery section, which meant I had to sit at the farthest corner of the auditorium. I could see the stage alright, but it looked like a miniature version, a small window lit in yellow light. To make matters worse, there were two massive screens on both sides of the room for those who couldn’t see the stage clearly. It seemed like a joke to those of us who couldn’t secure a VIP ticket! Clearly, the organisers knew business better than theatre! All the arrangements felt bizarre, because this was far from theatre. A sense of immediacy and direct communication with the actors on stage was what I wanted from a play, and that was exactly why I rushed to the show, to see one of my most favourite actors on stage, something completely different from seeing him on screen. If I wanted to see him on screen, I would buy DVDs of his movies, not this ticket for his play! The name, Naseeruddin Shah, was a brand first, to be sold as a commodity, like the expensive delicacies downstairs. The “actor” was just there for the organisers to sell that brand! One and half hours went by with a hungry stomach and a sick heart, and then he arrived! Thank heavens he did!
If the organisers don’t prioritise the artistic as well as technical aspects of theatre, the outcome is bound to be disappointing, something which many people ignored that day because of Shah’s riveting performance.
He did deserve a standing ovation and most of the audience stood up, clapping, laughing, and screaming ecstatically, even though I couldn’t see him clearly. He was speaking in formal Urdu, introducing the formidable feminist author, Ismat Chughtai, three of whose stories he adapted for stage. The show began shortly after Shah’s introduction. There were basically three plays, not one, and the three actors -- Heeba Shah (Shah’s daughter from his early marriage), Ratna Pathak and Shah playing separately in each. What made the plays unique was that it was not only some of the finest acting I saw in recent times, but it was also storytelling at its best. Both Heeba and Ratna -- actors of the first two plays --acted perfectly, blending and slipping in any character while narrating the stories with an ease that is characteristic of a skillful thespian. However, I could not appreciate the full extent of their acting because of one obvious barrier, the language. Chughtai created some of the greatest and most powerful works in Urdu literature, but sadly Urdu is as foreign to me as French or German! My agony increased when I realised some of the people around me were quite comfortable with the language, laughing and commenting on certain scenes and dialogues, something which made it even more difficult for me to focus on the storyline. I was almost losing my heart when Shah arrived with “Gharwali”. This play, like the others before, was in Urdu and delivered in the same comic vein. But somehow I could connect with Shah better. It’s a story about a girl named Lajjo who has a questionable reputation and works as a domestic servant at rich men’s houses. Shah, like Ratna and Heeba before him, did complete justice to Chughtai’s powerful attack on the male chauvinistic society, showing what a girl without fortune has to go through in order to survive. Shah’s performance ranged from comic bordering on farce to intensely serious acting depending on the narrative. He knows how to tell a story! It was a blessing to see him shifting roles after roles effortlessly- apart from being the omnipotent storyteller, sometimes he’s a seductive girl, then a woman in love with a much aged man, Mirza. Then he plays Mirza himself in many colours -- sometimes a man unable to resist the seductive beauty of Lajjo whom he later marries, then a typical domineering husband not hesitating to beat her severely after he catches her cheating with another man. It was especially delightful to see him play an old woman, mumbling and gurgling words or a hypocritical friend of Mirza with a moral high ground. Nothing seemed difficult in Shah’s domain, as he acted like a shapeshifter. Here was the supreme example of the power of comedy -- making the audience laugh, leaving them uncomfortable afterwards. Shah saved the day, otherwise I would have to go home with a heavy heart, experiencing something quite contrary to my expectation. Shah is a beloved name in Bangladesh. When someone like him comes here with a show, it’s quite natural that a lot of people would be interested to watch his performance, without having to worry about the availability or the affordability of tickets. If the organisers don’t prioritise the artistic as well as technical aspects of theatre, the outcome is bound to be disappointing, something which many people ignored that day because of Shah’s riveting performance. These issues must be addressed before another show like this is arranged. Otherwise, it will be the same all over again.
Farhana Susmita is a film critic and writer. She teaches English Literature at Jagannath University.
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