THE third theatrical production based on Ismat Chughtai’s writings by Mumbai-based theatre group Motley, Aurat! Aurat!! Aurat!!!, opened to packed houses in Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai this week. The Naseeruddin Shah-directed play features segments from Chughtai’s autobiography, as well as her essays, Ek Shauhar ki Khaatir, Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwaab and Soney ka Anda. Unlike the previous plays, Ismat Apa Ke Naam and Kambakht Bilkul Aurat, this production has an all-female cast. Taking a break from the rehearsals, Shah spoke about discovering these four pieces and why they are still relevant. Excerpts:
What made you pick these essays by Chughtai for your latest play?
When I was searching for something on the Internet, I came across videos posted of Jameel Gulrays, where he was reading Chughtai’s stories. I was amazed that this man has dedicated his life to preserving her work by putting them on YouTube. I know Ismat’s writing well, as I have read many of her stories. Yet, I was bowled over by these essays that Gulrays was reading. I heard him read all the four pieces that we are presenting. He has also been helping us with some other pieces, in understanding difficult words and their meaning.
Why did you think of having an all-women cast?
I came across Gulrays’ videos during the Prithvi Theatre run of our last show, The Father. I instantly felt that this had to be done by women since these writings were in first person. These lovely actors (Seema Pahwa, Bhavna Pani, Trishla Patel, Shruti Vyas, Prerna Chawla, Jaya Virrley) are playing Ismat at various stages of her life. The first essay is about her childhood. It is very fascinating to know what she was like as a child. She refused to tow the line from the very start. It is worth emphasising.
Tell us about these three essays.
One of the episodes is in a train compartment. While travelling alone, she met all these ladies who wanted to know where is she going, just like it happens during any train journey in India. If you are a woman, then the inevitable question that pops up is, ‘Are you married’? She is exasperated with this question, as everyone asks it sooner or later.
In Adhi Aurat Adha Khwab, she is talking to the other women in the household — an old lady who cooks, washerwoman and others. Men appear time to time, saying chauvinistic things, and women have a ball ripping them apart. The third essay, Soney ka Anda, comes close to a story. It is an episode about a man having his third daughter and the woman’s point of view. Why is a woman expected to lay a golden egg, in this case a boy. This is one of her most intense pieces. Previously, I had not come across her arguing her point so vehemently.
What prompted you to change the format of presenting her writings?
The last piece, Soney ka Anda, is a monologue (delivered by Pahwa). If one person presents Adhi Aurat Adha Khwab, it would sound like a lecture. So, I have turned it into a conversation in a household where women are compelled to do the chores. Had they been educated, they would have had better lives. I often think of my mom and her five sisters. None of them were educated, except for learning to write in Urdu and reading the Quran. My mother would have done something better with her life had she been educated. Women have been denied access to education for centuries.
What makes Chughtai so relevant in contemporary times?
Some of her pieces might sound dated, such as the argument that men and women must work alongside. But it is still worth reiterating these thoughts. That kind of chauvinism, which prevailed then, is still around, and you read about it everyday in the newspaper. If you think these pieces are dated, then we must appreciate the courage of this woman to write such stuff at that time. She would have been lynched by the mullahs for cracking jokes about God and hoors.
You have dramatised Saadat Hasan Manto in the past. Will you be revisiting Manto anytime soon?
I want to. With the help of Gulrays, I’m going through some writings of Manto. I don’t want to do his nerve-wracking stories. Toba Tek Singh is my favourite but that can’t be staged. You can’t show that character. It is too strong a visual for the audience to take and it will never look convincing (when enacted). No actor can pull that off. And that’s the trouble with a lot of Manto’s writing, it is blood-curdling.
You can’t stage Thanda Gosht or Khol Do. Apart from visuals being strong, they involve nudity and sex. Gulrays has introduced me to some funny pieces written by Manto.