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Prithvi Festival 2019: Untitled 1, Review--Poison, its forms, uses and doses

Prithvi Festival 2019: Untitled 1, Review--Poison, its forms, uses and doses

As a Big Brother is Watching state, the concept was explored by George Orwell in 1948. He called it ‘1984’, by merely reversing the last two digits of the year he wrote the book in, and placing it 36 years into the future. Playwright Annie Zaidi sets Untitled1 in the present, or the very near future, with the same concept: An authoritarian state that wants to control what people say, hear, watch, write, read and more. Untitled 1 won The Hindu Playwriting Award 2018. It is a very literary work, converted into a captivating futuristic setting on stage, with elaborate design and carefully crafted costumes. It works very well as a literary piece, but does not have the dramatic impact that such a potentially disturbing work might have had.

According to Annie, “The writer is the writer (in the play). A part of him is me; other parts are a reflection of all writers. He is of the breed that has become popular accidentally. He doesn’t write to please his audience. He is the stereotype of what I think a good writer should be.” Untitled 1 is also about poison, its many forms and doses, and uses. So much so that it almost appears the raison d’être for writing the play.

Annie Zaidi's work includes reportage, essays, fiction, drama, film and graphic storytelling. She is the author of Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, and the co-author of The Good Indian Girl. Her collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, was nominated for the Crossword Book Award for non-fiction. She is also the editor of Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women's Writing. A radio play, 'Jam' was regional (South Asia) winner at the BBC's International Playwriting Competition. Annie also works as a filmmaker. Her first documentary film, In her Words: The Journey of Indian Women, traces the lives and struggles of women as reflected in their literature. She has written and directed five fictional short films.

Danish Hussain, actor-director-producer and dastango (story-teller, in archaic Urdu), was the first to approach Annie, and his group Hoshruba Repertory has presented the play at the Prithvi Festival, where it was staged on Thursday evening, in the amphitheatre, Prithvi Theatre. Dhanya Pailo (pardon me if I got the spelling wrong; I only heard the audio) did a fabulous job of creating a surveillance set-up, with technology at its core, what with blue tablets and cameras everywhere. Though the set occupied around a third of the stage, it seemed to span three-fourths of it, since even the back-drop served as a multiple CCTV monitor. If anything, this was overdone, and distractive.

Vishwas is a writer in a state that has taken full control of its citizens and monitors their every move, including how much time they spend on the Internet and the phone, and on what or with whom. He is writing a novel under a fellowship grant, but has not submitted any material for a long time, though the scholarship period is about to end. He has a dysfunctional relationship with his wife and has no children. A school friend, Satyajeet, who now works for the Department of Communication, keeps visiting his work-place and asks a lot of questions about him, his wife, his life in general, and some other writers in particular.

One day, Satyajeet conducts a raid on Vishwas’s home, followed by one at his office. There he finds that Vishwas has been writing a lot ‘off the grid’, a banned activity, because it cannot be monitored. He also seems to have blocked the camera in his laptop and installed software called Infinite Monkey that churns out gibberish, to mislead the watchdogs. He is promptly arrested. The search also yields a copy of a book titled Untitled 1, which is mainly a disjointed reflection upon history, of the times circa 300-100 BC. Satyajeet finds this anarchic. Moreover, the book has been published by an ex-writer called Kamal, who was working for the Communications Department but was discredited and sacked. Vishwas tells Satyajeet that Kamal only sends jokes these days and that he does not know Kamal’s whereabouts.

With the state machinery behind him and a penchant for guile and interrogation, tracing Kamal will not be very difficult for Satyajeet.For the first 10-15 minutes, Danish Hussain, playing Vishwas, reads from his laptop and addresses the audience in a mix of English, Hindi and Urdu, often translating the words of one language into the two other languages. Perhaps this is done to facilitate the audience’s understanding, but it has no significance in the narrative, except to prove that Hussain has a near perfect command over all three tongues, which is a qualification he can justifiably be proud of. In addition, these bits are the most undramatic, being mere play-reading at best. He underplays his role for the greater part, getting so soft at times that his dialogue was hard to follow. With his wife, though, personally or on the phone, the pitch was rather high. Yes, he looked the part he played, and showed good stage presence.

Both he and his wife Deena (Kitu Gidwani) wear a toga like kurta, pleated over around the waist, taking us back to the times of Socrates, a period that is discussed at some length in Vishwas’s writings. A major chunk of the play is devoted to the Maurya dynasty of Indian kings, and Chanakya, with strong references to Lord Shiva coming in later on. They are all brilliantly and succinctly written, but the sub-text is never easy to read. You can be sure it is there, only it is rather well-concealed, since, after all, we are living in a totalitarian state.

Kitu, at 52, is not what she was at 25 (a TV star), back in the mid to late-80s, a slim girl with a long face. She is now rotund, quite the Deena one would expect, physically. Though she remained in character throughout, I wonder if the playwright had imagined her as the sour-puss, resigned, cryptic woman she is made to play. Her role is not meant to be impactful, but it could surely have been a little more meaningful. On the regular walks that she goes, sometimes alone and sometimes pursued by Satyajeet and his two hench-women, there is never another soul around. It’s night and possible that nobody else wants to walk at that time, but not plausible that nobody ever comes or passes them.

Abhishek Saha (Baroda-born, theatre/TV/film actor) has just the right physique and is given a costume that is part over-the-top fashion, part superhero (Kitu, and titular Mukesh Khanna’s series Shaktiman being an inspiration?). Slick and suave, he has the longest soliloquy at the end, and what initially appears as a memory lapse later turns out to be deliberate groping. Memory lapses, though, did seem the problem on a couple of earlier occasions. Satyajeet’s two lady ‘bouncers’—(Nishanthi Evani and Ruchita Tahiliani)--are fit and sharp, with tight dresses and midriff showing. They do not utter a word, go about their duties mechanically. Well, they don’t have to say anything, if the intention is to portray them as semi-robots.

An unbilled cameo came from the Voice-Over of the judge in Vishwas’s trial, which just has to belong to Denzil Smith. Rich and baritone, it was suitably devoid of passion or emotion. Other credits were not announced, though Danish did gesture towards them and some of them came on stage. Not a word was uttered before the play or after, except a cursory "thank you" from the director, after the play, which was odd.

There weren’t many moments where the crowd could guffaw or applaud or gape in amazement. Untitled 1 is that kind of play. It is less physical, more meta-physical. Could there have been more moments of applause or ticklish humour? Me thinks so. Did the director, Danish Hussain, want such moments? Well, there are directors who do not specifically want such moments. If they can trigger the imagination and arouse the psyche of the audience, they believe they have achieved what they wanted, and that their job is done. But how do they know? Think about it.

Rating: ***

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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 FilmFestivals.com 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.


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