When the single lamp in the corner of the stage flickered, before the cast of Shikaar appeared, a woman sitting in the second row inside Prithvi Theatre loudly gasped and said, “So scary”. She was right. After all, watching a young woman go home alone in a cab at night is a situation that often invites dread, and a question: will she be safe? Moments later, however, the audience cares not for her safety but of the driver’s — unbeknownst to him, he’s been driving three hungry chudails (loosely translated as witches in English) out on their fortnightly hunt. The poor chap is done for.
Thus begins Shikaar, Patchworks Ensemble’s latest production, a rip-roaring comedy about five chudails, and a man on a mission. “In their gharana, the chudails can do shikaar or hunt every two weeks. One night, after they’ve procured their meal and are ready to consume the shikaar, there’s a knock on the door, a government official wants to enter the house,” says Sheena Khalid, director and co-founder, Patchworks Ensemble. Enter JD Lal (played by Saurabh Nayyar), from the Samaj Raksha Evam Sudharna Sanstha, an oily-haired man who has been entrusted with a single task: he must go door-to-door to train citizens on how to spot a chudail. He is armed with nothing but a book — Dekho Woh Aa Gayee (Look She’s Come) — and a white powder that non-patriots and deviants will mistake for cocaine but is actually a pure version of desh ki mitti. Entering a space inhabited solely by women, Lal takes it upon himself to train them through several levels, including the most effective one, “Shaq is my haq” (Doubt is my right), with surprising results.
The idea of the play came from novelist Shubhangi Swarup, and the play is a devised performance by Patchwork regulars Rachel D’Souza, Shruti Vyas, Chakori Dwivedi, Neha Singh, Reshma Shetty and Nayyar. “In our play, chudails are born. The word has a Persian root and it was used for women who died from unrequited love or unfulfilled desires. We’re sticking with a heightened supernatural aspect, that mythical zone — it’s a conscious choice. In India, there’s a caste association with chudails. We aren’t commenting on that, because that struggle is not our story to tell,” says Khalid. “It’s hard to pin down a core theme for Shikaar but there have been a lot of little sparks. Of course, it’s taking on patriarchy, just by the virtue of the casting, five women and one man; this can be them versus him, or even pitting them against each other. Also, they hunt men, because the shikaar happens at night, and the only people who inhabit public spaces at that time are men. But one of the main ideas is about instigation, of how once a seed of doubt is planted, it takes on a life of its own,” she says.
Like their previous production, Gentlemen’s Club aka Tape, Shikaar has run to full houses, and deservedly so. As the Nani who leads the sisterhood of chudails, Shruti Vyas has some of the best lines and demonstrates incredible comic timing; Reshma Shetty, who plays Manvashi, a jet-setting, French-speaking chudail who could sell ice to an Eskimo, has the audience in splits. As the sanskari government employee, Nayyar steals the show — his earnestness, his blind belief in his organisation’s methods and practices, his pride in his prejudice — all these make JD Lal the real monster in the room. We may laugh at him, and his words, but his powers of persuasion can instill fear in a bunch of chudails — the hunters become the hunted. Now that’s really scary.
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