The table in Danish Husain’s living room at his Madh Island home is piled high with books on various subjects. Peeking out from a corner is Har Pal Ka Shayar: Sahir by Surinder Deol. Right next to it is Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet by Akshay Manwani. On the day we visit, some actors are rehearsing and singing some of Ludhianvi’s popular songs from Hindi movies, even as Husain presides over the informal baithak of sorts.
The director-actor is gearing up for a production, Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon, on the life of the celebrated Urdu poet and Hindi film lyricist. Hailed as one of the most revolutionary poets of the 20th century, Ludhianvi was a prominent voice in the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Some of his memorable songs include Thandi Hawayein Lehra Ke Aayein (Naujawan, 1951), Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye (Pyaasa, 1957), Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959), Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya (Hum Dono, 1961) and Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon (Kabhi Kabhi, 1976), which has led to the title of the play.
Husain chanced upon the subject when he was searching for a relevant play for the ten year anniversary of his theatre group, The Hoshruba Repertory. A conversation with Amita Talwar, founder of the not-for-profit, Art for Causes, led him to screenwriter Mir Ali Hussain’s script on Ludhianvi, which he had written for her. Although he liked the script, which was in first-person, Husain felt that a man as complex and enigmatic as Ludhianvi needed to be looked at from an outsider’s perspective. “I had seen Himanshu Bajpai’s dastaan, Dastan-e-Sahir, a few days before that and I decided to merge the two scripts with their permission. I took elements from both the scripts, restructured them and wrote wherever I felt there was a gap,” he shares.
In Husain’s play, one half of the stage turns into a recording studio from the 1960s, where five actors essay the roles of musicians, music directors and technicians. They end up discussing Ludhianvi’s songs and accomplishments. The other half of the stage is designed as Ludhianvi’s study, where Husain, plays the lyricist, and delves into stories and anecdotes from his life. Back and forth they go, taking the narrative forward in a linear manner. A semi-biographical adaptation of the poet-lyricist such as this would seem incomplete without his songs, which have been woven into the narrative.
Although the director relied heavily on the scripts by Ali Hussain and Bajpai, he did some secondary reading as well, and heard some of Ludhianvi’s audio recordings. “My work at first was to look for historical inaccuracies, if they were any, and to correct them. Secondly, both the writers have particular styles, so I had to marry the scripts in a way that there was a seamless transition,” he explains.
As far as physical appearance and mannerisms go, Husain is of the opinion that they don’t matter as much on stage as in a screen adaptation. “On stage, the idea is not so much to be Sahir but to create a semblance of his life, and I think we have achieved that,” he says. Lyricist Javed Akhtar, who has known and worked with Ludhianvi intimately, was of great help to Husain. “He told me that Sahir would comb his hair when he was distressed and that he would speak with a wry smile on his face with his lips going to one side. However, I am just keeping a hint of these mannerisms and not overplaying them,” he shares.
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The play covers many aspects of the poet’s life, ranging from his early childhood days and struggles to get into the film industry, to his growing fame as a poet, falling out with some colleagues, and finally, his decline into depression. “Most of those things are so relevant today. It also means that things haven’t really changed at all in the last 60-70 years because everything he said all those years earlier sounds true even today,” says Husain.
Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon will be staged at the Tata Theatre, National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, on 20 January at 7 pm.