At the rehearsal of the play, Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba, theatre director Saif Hyder Hasan joked, “Why don’t we replace Azad Maidan (a site of speeches and protests in Mumbai during the freedom struggle) with Shaheen Bagh (in Delhi, where a large gathering of women has been protesting the CAA-NRC since December 2019)? At the end of the day, isn’t it the same thing?” Hasan’s understanding of the present begins by staring at the past. His “relationship plays” Ek Mulaqaat, about the unfulfilled love of Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi, and Gardish Mein Taare, about the turbulent marriage of Guru Dutt and Geeta Dutt, were also journey into the histories of art, films and literature. Now, Mumbai-based Hasan has explored the marriage of Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba in the play, Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba on a canvas that stretches from the Quit India Movement to parental concerns about there son Harilal. The play, which was staged in Mumbai and Delhi, generated curiosity as Hasan has cast against type by roping in one of India’s first sex symbols, Zeenat Aman, to play Kasturba.
The story begins with the Quit India Movement and Kasturba is writing a letter — at this point the audience does not know she has died — and Mahatama Gandhi is responding to what she is writing. Kasturba’s letters analyse their marriage as she talks about its ups and downs and tells Gandhi, ‘You wren’t an easy man to live with’. At another point, she adds, ‘Sita did not have a choice. I did not have a choice’. Kasturba was illiterate, so death gave Hasan a hook to create the structure of the show. Excerpts from a conversation with Hasan:
You have directed film actors scubas Deepti Naval, Shekhar Suman and Satish Kaushik in plays.Was bringing back Zeenat Aman in a new role an extension of this side of you as a theatre maker?
When I was coming up with names for the role, I thought of the usual ones who were similar to Kasturba. Then, one day, while talking to myself, I said, ‘Nobody will link Zeenat to Kasturba. If Zeenat comes back with this play, she will create an interest in the audience’. She has been a huge star and an actor who isn’t done and dusted. You would want to get out and watch her perform. I knew she had done theatre. Ramesh Talwar i had directed her in the play, Chupke Chupke, and Divya Palat in a Broadway-style show, The Graduate, here she played Mrs Robinson. I had met her 10 years ago for another play, Mirror Mirror On The Wall. That’s how she was in my mind.
Were you a fan when she was the pin-up in Hindi films of the 1970s and ‘80s?
For me, it was only Amitabh Bachchan when I was growing up. Zeenat was in most of the masala blockbusters of that era but my interest in heroines started after Sridevi. When I was 10, Zeenat was appearing in bikinis but it did nothing for me. But, when I look back, I feel that her performance in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) was poignant, she tries doing something very different in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) and, in Ram Balram (1980), she has a very interesting track as the illegitimate daughter of Ajit. Zeenat was right up there with Hema Malini and Rekha and I would consider Parveen Babi to be one notch below in terms of stardom.
Arif Zakaria stars as Mahatma Gandhi opposite her in Dearest Bapu. How do you create a play with a big star so that it des not tilt away from less-known names?
Arif and Zeenat are almost equal participant in the show. I would say they are 60-40 representation. Zeenat doesn’t come to the rehearsal room like a star. She was the one who settled the equation right on the first day when she insisted on calling me Sir because I was the captain of the ship. My style of storytelling is a package of sound, lights and performances. I find the strengths and weaknesses of my actors. Tomorrow, if another actor comes in to play Kasturba, I will direct her in a different way. Zeenat used to call herself a camera actor, or a ‘take’ actor. She used to ask me, ‘Why do you have so many rehearsals?’ Gradually, actors start understanding that, when the script enters your system slowly through rehearsals, it helps you in the last week of the show.
What drew you to the story of Ba and Bapu?
Three years ago, I wanted to write a three-woman story on the wives of Ghalib, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. What was it to be the wives of these men? Then, I realised that the stories would not be enough and I would be devoting only half and hour to these women. Uska mazaa nahin aayega. The play is about companionship of 65 years and talks about the moments of togetherness and upheavals. You remember stories of your parents and grandparents who were married for decades. I find this interesting especially since relationships are failing left, right and centre.
What are the characteristics of Kasturba that you bring out in your play?
She is a woman of her times but, at the same time, she has a voice of her own. About Gandhi’s vow of celibacy, she says, ‘It was not easy for me to go with it. It pained me but I went along with it, as with all the other things”. She was a young woman in her thirties when he took the vow of celibacy. I had to edit out a lot of portions but there is a part when she says, about Mahatma Gandhi and their son, Harilal, that the former became a father to a nation but not so much to his children.
How would these relate to the feminist ideas of the modern woman?
Whenever Gandhi would fast, she would go on a one-meal diet and fall sick. At Agha Khan Palace in Pune, Gandhi went on a fast. Kasturba, who had already suffered a heart attack, went on a diet of bananas and milk once a day, and collapsed. She did not recover. Today’s woman, would she do it? I doubt. You have to see this according to the times in which she was living. History fascinates me. My problem with the contemporary society is that people have no sense of history. When right-wing talk about Babar destroying a temple, I do not justify it but I say, ‘Those were pre-Constitution times. Those were medieval times’. We need to develop a sense of history. Why do we keep looking at the past through the spectacles of the present? If you don’t understand the past, how will you understand the present.
Your plays are packed of music and complex lighting. How have you treated the simple story of ba and Bapu in this play?
I have tried to do away with the typical Gandhi symbolism. There is no charkha in the play and Vaishnav jan is a completely redone version. The lights are complicated in this show as well and are almost another character in the performance. The lights contribute to the mood and silences. I purchased a lot of pictures of Gandhi and Kasturba from Gandhi Museum, Delhi, which will tell you one story in the background, where they will be projected with music. As a result, there is one story in the foreground.
The play opens at NCPA, Mumbai, on February 21, and at Siri Fort auditorium on February 22, 5 pm and 8 pm.
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