Loud voices can be heard from a street in a slum in Wadala, Mumbai. Five masked actors are performing a street play, observing social distancing norms. The residents are watching from their doorsteps.
In one scene, a character, standing at a bus stop, tells two friends about how he feels bogged down by work deadlines and anxiety related to covid-19. They shrug off his concerns, remarking that the virus is nothing but a rumour, a way for news channels to increase TRPs. A character, who has been listening to this conversation, chides the two. “Kya hum corona se aise jeetenge? Jagah jagah bheed badha kar...na kisi ke chehre pe mask hai, na koi social distancing,” she says. The message is to stop crowding, don masks and maintain social distancing. The friends look chastised. And the actors move on to the next scene.
This is part of the play Corona Virus, which was first performed in Wadala last week by the Young Creative Production theatre group. Written in Hindi and Marathi, many more iterations are planned in the coming weeks across Mumbai. “In the past year, we have noticed that not many people in the slums are following covid-19 protocols,” says Nizamuddin Shah, 25, founder of the group. “So we trained people in different parts of the neighbourhood to perform the play. They shall repeat it several times till the residents get the message. The play is all about masking up, sanitisation, myths and rumours around vaccination, and more.”
This isn’t the first time Young Creative Production has done a play related to a social cause. In fact, the group was formed with exactly that intention 10 years ago. Shah grew up in the Wadala slum area, watching people turn to drugs and alcohol at a very early age. “My own friends...,” he says. “I had always been interested in theatre, doing street plays since class II. I realised one should talk about such issues in a way that is also entertaining.”
He started with five friends who were struggling with alcoholism. Over the past 10 years, nearly 300-400 people have participated in his plays. The group, which was called Jannat Media Production till its rebranding a year ago, has done more than 10,000 street performances across Maharashtra on issues such as climate change, women’s education, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, tuberculosis, cleanliness and, now, covid-19.
Shah’s family isn’t new to the performing arts. His brother, Amiruddin, shot to fame in 2017 as a Mumbai slum boy who won the London-based Royal Ballet School’s prestigious Nadia Nerina Scholarship. Yeh Ballet, a film based on two gifted teens—one of them Amiruddin—and directed by Sooni Taraporevala, is now streaming on Netflix.
Shah hopes not only to create a discourse on social issues but also offer a platform to actors from all walks of life—donning the role of change-maker. The participants include car cleaners, electricians, migrant workers, college students, young women who work in salons or apply mehndi (henna). Even aspiring rap artists and musicians from the neighbourhoods get to perform with the group. There is no age limit. “We also encourage participation of kids from the slums who are struggling with mental health, or with addiction. I have seen women actors grow in confidence with each play, breaking free from the norms forced on them by society,” says Shah.
“The group consciously performs in slums and villages. In underprivileged homes, children have no choice but to work to provide for their families. And they end up getting subjected to abusive behaviour. We want to create awareness about these topics.” The group has also done plays on bullying, menstruation and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community.
Many of the participants have gone on to take up acting as a profession—with some getting roles in Marathi serials and others producing and acting in short films. And some are keen to take the plays, and their message, to their own villages and towns. One such actor is 19-year-old Ahzam Hussain Niazi, who has been with the group for three years. Niazi, who belongs to Gonda village, near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, is studying for a bachelor’s degree in biology. “I have been living in Mumbai to attend coaching classes for higher studies. While there, I started working in a sari shop in Vashi. That’s when I saw Nizam Sir performing in a street play nearby,” says the teenager, who has been living in his village since the lockdown in Maharashtra.
He has taken part in 200-300 shows, juggling studies and his passion, and now wants to take these plays, especially Corona Virus, to his village too so that residents understand the need to follow proper protocols. “I also want to bring the play about women’s education. There needs to be a change in society’s mindset and that can only happen with consistent efforts. Since I do street plays, people in the village make fun of me and ask my family ki aap ka beta madaari hai kya (Is your son a street performer?)” says Niazi. While his parents support him, the people in the village do not.
Niazi says children in his area are encouraged to take up only two professions—that of a doctor or pilot. No other profession seems to exist for them. “When I went to Mumbai, I saw youngsters take up rap or dance,” he says. “I wish for a similar life for youth in my village. And I feel that the Young Creative Production plays will help bring some shift in the mindset.”