Mumbai-based Motley Theatre, co-founded in 1979 by Naseeruddin Shah, has had a very long-standing engagement with writer Ismat Chughtai’s stories. In the past few decades, the group has constantly interpreted and reinterpreted several of her works in its performances, ranging from Ek Shauhar ki Khaatir, Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwaab, Ismat Apa Ke Naam and Kambakht bilkul Aurat. And now to celebrate 105 years of ‘Ismat apa’, as the group members fondly call her, Motley is staging dramatised readings of three of her stories, Nivala, Hindustan Chhod Do and Jadein.
Performed as Teen Ishqiya Afsaane (Three Love Stories) by Heeba Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah, this reading, to be held later this evening, has been organised by the India Foundation of the Arts, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation that supports the practice, research and education in the arts to mark its 25 years of grantmaking in India. And like most theatre performances during the covid-19 pandemic, this one too is being performed over Zoom. This is a new experience for Motley as well, as performing to a live audience is very different from an online dramatised reading, when one is performing to the web camera.
One wonders how performers keep the elements of theatre intact in such a scenario, when lines between film and theatre are getting somewhat blurred. “The most basic and primal form of theatre is storytelling. That is what we focus on when we perform live on stage and that is what this new way of reaching the audiences online is based on. Why is why doing stories online makes sense,” elaborates Ratna Pathak Shah.
Even in the past readings, based on Chughtai’s stories, the group has focused on narrating the text in her exact words in Urdu—which is more effective than any other format, as Naseeruddin Shah has stated earlier. The performances have always highlighted the ensuing relevance of the writer’s works, which focused on sexuality, class conflict and on making the invisible in the city of Mumbai more visible. Chughtai’s powerful take on human frailty continues to have a pan-India resonance even today.
“Ismat Chughtai’s great love for words and the way she uses them inventively, humorously and dramatically to create unforgettable characters is what drew Naseer to her in the first place,” says Pathak Shah. “To tamper with them is totally unnecessary.” The performers’ job, then, is to make those words their own and to communicate them clearly and “with beauty”. “Ismat’s magic does the rest,” she adds.
Teen Ishqiya Afsaane are not your regular love stories. Instead, they focus on the varied kinds of love that one can have for one’s home, and the different consequences that this can yield. In Jadein, the protagonist, Amma, refuses to move from her haveli during the Partition. But as her loved ones leave, she is left alone in the big space. The idea of home and homelessness becomes particularly poignant at a time when we have seen thousands of migrant labour making that arduous journey back to their hometowns. “Out of the three stories that we are performing, two are based in the city of Bombay that Ismat knew so well. Heeba’s story and mine capture the quintessential spirit of this city of migrants. The story that Naseer is doing is about another, more painful migration, the Partition,” explains Pathak Shah. “Migration has been a huge social force in the last 100 years and these stories are Ismat apa’s way of delving into the lives of migrants.”
One of the three stories, Nivala, has been Naseeruddin Shah’s dream project for some time now. There are several elements from the story that stand out for both him and Pathak Shah—Chughtai’s take on the fakeness of society and its effect on people, especially women from various backgrounds, be it a nurse, a sex worker, a drunk alcoholic or someone who works as an extra in films. “It shows the pretence and fakeness embedded so deeply within us and how we perceive ourselves, our strengths and, sadly, others’ worth accordingly,” says Pathak Shah. She asserts that we put on these masks ourselves, because women at some point have accepted that their worth will be measured by external unnatural appearances and “how ‘others’ perceive them”. “These ‘others’ themselves are broken and lost, and have no sense of self-worth! The story ironically also shows how peer pressure makes an extremely sensible woman turn into a highly insecure and sorry figure,” adds Pathak Shah.
The online dramatized reading of ‘Teen Ishqiya Afsaane’ will be held at 7 pm on 22 August under Paytm Insider's theatre IP - Front & Centre.