Welcoming the audience, one of the cast members steps forward for the routine announcement at the beginning of a play, and requests them to keep the phones on silent. As he belts it out in Urdu, Danish Husain interrupts him. “Maybe you should wiggle your bum a wee bit as you ask them to place their phones on vibrator mode,” he says, demonstrating it for his colleague at the rehearsal of their performance for the ongoing Prithvi Festival in Mumbai. The cast and crew laughs and instantly sees merit in Husain’s suggestion.
This mix of flamboyance and humour has made Husain a favourite in Mumbai’s theatre circuit.The theatre actor-director cleverly employs this in his latest play, Qissa Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitaab Ka, a political satire which premieres at Prithvi Festival today. Based on Pakistani humourist and poet Ibn-e-Insha’s Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitaab, the play is a two-actor farce, performed by Husain, along with Gopal Datt, known for his work on stage as well as the popular web series, TVF Pitchers.
“The original text is a witty take on what went on in Pakistan during the ’70s. Ibn-e-Insha wrote this satire in a textbook format, dividing the chapters into lessons on history, geography, grammar, mathematics, moral science and so on, along with his poetry,” explains Husain, who has directed the play. However, Husain presents it as a mix of banter, music, satire and storytelling. “The content and topicality,” explains Husain, “merits a conversational kind of performance. The audience shouldn’t feel that the play has been ‘performed’.”
While it draws from Ibn-e-Insha’s text, Qissa Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitaab Ka is largely rewritten to balance it with what is topical in India today. Fake news, family WhatsApp groups, Taj Mahal, gaumutra — these and other subjects that dominate conversations and current affairs, slip into the play. “Like we tell the audience, it’s an updated version of the book, a Version 2.0,” Husain says.
The original may have been penned back in the ’70s, in context of Pakistan, but there are several commonalities between then and now, which also apply to India. Husain has retained those bits. For instance certain lessons in history regarding the Mughal rule.
In the 75-minute performance, Datt is the voice of reason while Husain assumes the role of a counter-voice, while also questioning the norm. The former uses Hindi whereas the actor-director and founder of The Hoshruba Repertory, performs in Urdu. Husain, known for helping revive Dastangoi, explains that he didn’t wish to force on Datt a language he may not be fluent in. “I play to my co-actor’s strengths. Gopal has a fabulous sense of timing with comedy and may not have been able to improvise the text on stage if he were to perform in Urdu, a language I am comfortable with,” he points out, adding that the play uses impov comedy that he has been recently experimenting with in his other popular play, Qissebaazi.
Husain believes this play pushes the envelope by combining various performance formats, and also offers musical interludes in the form of Ibn-e-Insha’s poetry, performed by Shantanu Nandan Herlekar. “The closest it comes to is Aisi Taisi Democracy, where the stand-up comics mix gags and satire with music. But here, we also adapt an acclaimed literary work with all its nuances. It is, still, an ode to Ibn-e-Insha,” he says.