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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Final day of Sanhita’s theatre festival: Language of Hindustani theatre, and ode to an iconic Hindi poet

Final day of Sanhita’s theatre festival: Language of Hindustani theatre, and ode to an iconic Hindi poet

August 17 marked the end of the three-day Natya Mahotsav (theatre festival) organised by Sanhita Manch, an initiative of Being Association, at the P.L. Deshpande Auditorium at the Ravindra Natya Mandir Complex in central Mumbai. The festival included several interactive sessions and staging of three Hindi/Urdu plays selected from 77 entries. Held for the second year in succession, the festival aims to encourage original as well as adaptive playwriting in Hindi. Of the entries, 70 were original works while seven were adaptations.

A two-member selection committee, consisting of theatre veterans Atul Tiwari and Ranjeet Kapoor, chose Harus Marus by Mukesh Nema, Pashmeena by Mrinal Mathur and Nirala by Ashvini Kumar Tiwari as the top three efforts. The plays were staged on August 15, 16 and 17 respectively. Due to previous commitments, I could not see Harus Marus. However, I did manage to see the other two plays, and attend a session on Language in Hindustani Theatre. Eminent theatre and film personalities Makrand Deshpande, Salim Arif and Amitosh Nagpal were the participants in the session, which was moderated by drama and film critic Deepa Gahlot.

Deshpande traced the origins of his writing to the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Bandra in Mumbai, where he lived as a child. Since his friends spoke various languages at home, their common language was Hindi. He felt that the setting-up of Prithvi Theatre, an amphitheatre shaped auditorium with a high roof, changed the dynamics of space and he used a rope to male his entry from the roof in his first play there. Prithvi Theatre, still active more than 40 years after it commenced operations, was an initiative of late Jennifer Kapoor, wife of actor late Shashi Kapoor and daughter-in-law of late Prithviraj Kapoor, all theatre veterans. It gave a huge impetus to Hindi-Urdu drama, providing them with a state-of-the-art venue at affordable hiring rates, in the upmarket area of Juhu. Having written some 50 plays in Hindi, he has now written his first Marathi play. You might recall Makrand in films like Swades, where he lip-synced to the popular song, ‘Yoonhee chalaachal rahee’.

Salim Arif is an alumnus of the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, as were many of the people involved in this festival, like Atul Tiwari. Tiwari was seated next to me and I have worked in the TV serial Chanakya, as an actor, where Salim made a significant contribution. Salim has worked a lot with Gulzar, whose writings and plays have been adapted for theatrical performances by him. Kharaashen was the first such adaptation that I saw, and it made strong impact. He pointed out that language is dictated by subjects and audiences. The Parsee theatre in the first half of the 20th century realised this and used Urdu, which was much more a common language then than it is now. High flown Urdu may be suitable for films like Mughal-e-Azam and Razia Sultan, because royalty would not speak the common man’s Urdu. To be more precise, the language should have been Persian, but that would reduce the audience to a minuscule minority, so the makers settled for Persianised Urdu.

Amitosh Nagpal was the youngest of the three speakers. He called himself an actor who got fed-up playing a friend of the hero in Hindi films and decided to take-up writing, in the hope that he would be able to wrangle out good roles in his own scripts. That did not happen, and, instead, he kept getting offers for writing only. Hailing from Haryana, he admitted that his Punjabi was very evident initially because sounds like ao or au did not exist for him. As a result, his Hindi suffered and he kept saying o instead. Over the years, he has not only overcome this handicap but even bagged the dialogue writing assignment of the successful film, Hindi Medium. He felt that instead of strongly criticising actors whose native diction coloured their dialogue delivery, we should commend them for making that effort. Amitosh is also known for his play, Piya Behrupia, a translation and adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Atul Kumar, which is a runaway hit and most popular Hindi play export in recent years. Lamenting the plight of the Hindi language writers and actors who have to sell themselves to English speaking TV channel personnel, he said that all communication about writing and acting in Hindi serials happens in English.

After a break, the audience, at least some of them, moved into the mini-theatre, where the one-act play Nirala was to be staged. Once again, the numbers were disappointing, though the fare, which lasted a mere 65 minutes, was more than serviceable.

‘Nirala’ was the pen-name of Suryakant Tripathi, a doyen among Hindi poets of the last century. He chose this name because some of his earliest works were published in a magazine called Matvala. Both matvala and nirala can be roughly translated as ‘heart-driven’ and ‘distinctive’. Tripathi was born in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and lived in Kolkata for a few years. His later life was spent largely in Lucknow and Allahabad, the biggest cities in the northern Indian state.

Presented by the Amritsar-based troupe Dastak (knock), the play is a multi-layered tapestry that plays with time and space, using as many as three actors to depict the teens-and-twenties age (Surya), the adult to middle age (Nirala) and the old age (Tripathi) of Nirala. Other actors play his father, his wife, his daughter, sister-in-law, his publisher, his pal and fellow poet laureate Sumitranandan Pant, Mahatma Gandhi, a poetry symposium organiser, a crematorium priest and a milkman. All of them were on stage in the beginning and again in the end, defining organic unity. What was half covered in the first scene was expanded in the play and unravelled at the end.

Many aspects of Nirala’s life were shown, but many could not be covered, mainly because the play was so short and, perhaps, because the author found certain incidents mandatory and deserving priority. The poet’s sinking into depression at untimely deaths of almost all his family members and the dementia in his last days, his bitter-sweet relations with the stylish Pant, his generosity is giving away his brand new slippers to a barefoot milkman who did the rounds in the scorching summer of U.P., his affection for his ‘sister’ poetess Mahadevi Verma and her sublime love for her ‘brother’, his relations with his publisher, his slightly ambivalent stance on religious conflicts between the majority and minority communities, and a small dose of his poetry.

A biopic play, Nirala did not have enough of his poetry and the many levels made it difficult going, though a commendable effort was made to get characters to talk both in sequence or in tandem. One reason why audiences with limited levels of Hindi knowledge will be non-plussed is the use of words like vikshipt (demented) and pratyush (early dawn), though we also find Nirala employing Urdu and English words like gulab (rose/Urdu) and capitalist. A more representative selection of Nirala’s poetry and a more substantial showing of his early life could have added to the merits of the play.

Deservingly, the iconic poem about the woman who he saw breaking stones on the road to Allahabad finds pride of place. And yes, the ‘confrontation’ with Mahatma Gandhi was de rigueur, and here it is: Gandhi commented that Hindi had not produced authors of the calibre of Bengali and English writer Rabindranath Tagore, and Nirala asked him whether he had read some of the contemporary Indian authors; Gandhi admitted his knowledge of Hindi writing was limited; Nirala then stated sarcastically that perhaps what Gandhijee meant was that in Hindi, there was yet to be a Nobel prize-winner like Tagore, and that was the thrust of his remark.

Rajinder Singh and Priya Gupta performing Nirala

Director Rajinder Singh played the middle years’ Nirala quite well, but for the Punjabi accent that slipped through occasionally. His decision to show Gandhi in a shadow was a good idea, because audiences might expect to see a Gandhi-lookalike. Moreover, the play depicts an unflattering moment on Gandhijee’s life. The play was co-directed by Amita Sharma, Singh’s wife, whom he thanked for deputing whenever he was doing his own scenes. We get a dose of the Bengali that was the medium in which Nirala studied in Kolkata (then Calcutta) and spoke with his wife, Manohara (often sounded like ‘Manora’) but we miss the local dialect that he might have spoken at home in Unnao and with his family members at various stages in his life. Pant was born at the turn of the century and died in 1977 at Allahabad.

Adequate support came from Rajinder Kumar (the old Nirala), Bikramjeet Sharma (young Nirala), Gurpinder Singh (Panditjee—father, and the publisher Mahadev), Gagandeep Singh (priest and Gandhi), Shivalika Sharma (symposium organiser and sister-in-law), Priya Gupta (Manohara), Amita Sharma (Mahadevi; obviously, Rajinder Singh took over direction when she was acting), Komalpreet Singh (milkman/gvala), Pooja Sharma (Saroj, daughter) and Vipin (Sumitranandan Pant). Priya Gupta was a bit too syrupy for Manohara, but then who can measure romance on any scale?

After the play, author Tiwari, a 22 year-old prodigy who has just graduated from NSD, patiently listened to feedback and suggestions to improve and expand the play. Thanks to generous lift offer in his spacious car from Atul Tiwari, he, Amitosh, Deepa Gahlot, Shashi Sharma and I kept reflecting on the play until I got-off at Bandra, though I am sure the discussion must have continued.

Nirala, the play, is an ode to the bard of Allahabad, and must be seen by those who are at least slightly familiar with his poetry. It might be seen by those who are interested in Indian language literature and literary figures but avoided by the Hinglish or only English crowd.


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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