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A theatre festival in Mumbai questions the cowardice of silence

In the new edition of Aarambh Mumbai, the featured plays encourage people to gather and break silence on relevant issues together

'Ok Tata Bye Bye'
'Ok Tata Bye Bye'

When Aarambh Mumbai was to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the covid-19 pandemic struck and theatres shut down. So, this time, writer-director-producer Purva Naresh, refused to wait for the festival to celebrate 15 years and has decided to herald the festivities one year in advance with its new edition, titled Rang Manch Ka Rang-Punch.

Spread over five days at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, the festival features proscenium plays, fringe performances, workshops, masterclasses, spoken word, poetry, and acts in the foyer. Naresh has always chosen to write her plays rather than adapting work by other playwrights. This time, two new fringe shows— Bang Bang Baingani and Bawli Betiyaan and Songs of The Wicked Women—will be premiered as part of the larger festival.

“When I take in the themes and protagonists—mainly women and some men— I see a lot of besharam characters,” explains Naresh. “Earlier silence was a virtue. It was all about tameez and lihaaz, but now the silence is cowardice. We are launching the ‘Besharam Express’, where a lot of brave people will stop at the Prithvi Theatre station and break the silence together,” she adds.

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'Roshe Roshe' is the tale of Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon
'Roshe Roshe' is the tale of Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon

The festival features a mix of older plays like OK Tata Bye Bye (directed by Rabijita Gogoi) and more recent ones like Roshe Roshe and Bandish (20 to 20,000 Hz), both written and directed by Purva Naresh. While the former tells the story of a sex worker looking for acceptance, and was a recipient of the Laadli Media and Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity in 2011-12, Roshe Roshe is the tale of Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon. Bandish, on the other hand, delves into historical bans placed on artists.

The two new plays are a part of Mehfil – E- Fringe. Bang Bang Baingani draws inspiration from the life of Sampat Pal, the UP-based social activist, and founder of Gulabi Gang. “I was invited to Leicester, UK, as part of a theatre grant to write a play on her life. I wanted to have a bit of a laugh on the side while I worked on a serious play. So, I wrote a draft and it turned into a black comedy. That draft was lying around. We decided to do it as a fringe performance and have some fun with it,” says Naresh.

Directed by Asmit Pathare, it tells the story of two killers, who have been given a hit job for Baingani Bai. They leave without gathering much detail, hoping to figure it out along the way. When they arrive, a comedy of errors ensues, as they cannot ascertain the identity of the real Baingani Bai.

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Bawli Betiyaan and Songs of The Wicked Women is a collection of testimonials of women, interspersed with music. “They speak of the moment they decided to not be nice girls and turn into bawli betiyaan,” adds Naresh.

She believes that the fringe format is best suited for the new work to enable it to evolve. “Fringe performances don’t have the fear of being perfect. They can still grow. The suspension of disbelief within the audience is also stronger. They know it is an experiment,” she says.

After the festival, Naresh plans to take the two productions to other informal, non-proscenium venues. As an extension of the idea of Bawli Betiyaan, Naresh wants to explore the idea of wicked women further in a play. “My friend, writer Annie Zaidi is working on a thesis on chudails in Indian literature, and it is inspiring me,” she says.

If this wasn’t all, Naresh also hopes to direct a feature film this year and write a play based on Fyodor Dostovesky’s White Nights. “I want to explore the concept of a never-ending night and what it does to us—metaphorically, symbolically, and politically,” she says.

Rang Manch Ka Rang-Punch will be held at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai till March 17. Bang Bang Baingani will be held at Prithvi House on 13-14 March at 5 pm, while Bawli Betiyaan will be staged on 15 March at 7 pm.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based culture writer.

 

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