She was abused. Her books were banned. Fatwas were issued against her. Charges of obscenity were leveled at her. But Ismat Chughtai rose above all the hate to become a renowned writer and a free-spirited feminist. In a society where women are denied even basic rights, she fearlessly touched upon topics that caused people to threaten her life. Her stories went on to be popular worldwide, and her most famous, or rather infamous story, Lihaaf, published in 1942, is studied as a literary piece even today. It is that story that put her on the list of feminist writers, but a deeper look into her other works shows how they all encompass the themes of femininity, womanhood, sexuality and gender roles.
To celebrate her progressive ideology and works, popular actors of the Motley theatre group, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah performed a dramatic reading of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories, put together in a play titled ‘Ismat Aapa Ke Naam’. The play has been performed at various venues till date, and lovers of theatre flock to see it again and again, every time it is staged in their city. It’s not just the actors that attract people to watch this play, but the performance itself that is so mesmerizing. It stands out due to its fusion of narration and mono-act theatre, where the actors jump freely and effortlessly from narration to characterization and vice versa. All the three stories – Chhui Muee, Mughal Bachha and Gharwali – are written by Ismat Chughtai, and narrated in her own words, as put very clearly by Naseeruddin Shah at the very beginning of the play.
The first story, narrated by Heeba Shah, contrasts two pregnant women in a train compartment. Snatches of one of the women’s background takes you into her affluent and comfortable lifestyle. This woman had nothing to worry about – except delivering a healthy baby boy, so her husband would not abandon her. The other pregnant woman is starkly different– she has neither a husband nor any wealth. She is striving to lead her life on her own terms, and manages to deliver her child, all by herself, in that compartment. Heeba got into the skin of both the women, switching between the two naturally, keeping the audience engaged with her highly physical performance.
Ratna Pathak Shah delivers this story seated on a rocking chair, a reminder of the age-old grandma’s stories. Unlike Heeba, she mostly narrates the story, her voice, intonation and expressions keeping the audience engaged. This story is about an unusual couple – Gori Bi and Kale Miyan – taking place post the Mughal era. The arrogant groom, a descendant of the Mughals, abandons his wife on their wedding night, leaving her alone and helpless. Ratna Pathak Shah captivates the audience throughout, with her perfect delivery and the way she prepares and eats an invisible paan during her performance.
The best was saved for the last. Naseeruddin Shah shifts not only between two characters, but from a man to a woman, during his narration. The story is about a bachelor Mirza, and his maid, Lajjo, who is often spoken about with reference to a prostitute. She has many admirers, but cares only for her employer. Eventually, she finds herself tossed aside, as her status changes from exotic housemaid to devoted wife. While both the characters are starkly opposite – one being the old, nervous Mirza and the other a young, free-spirited Lajjo – Naseeruddin played both the characters very convincingly. His portrayal of other minor characters was equally brilliant to watch, making it the most impressive piece of the three.
The three plays were superbly performed, with the lighting adding a brilliant effect to the acts. The set was minimal, and while some props seemed unnecessary, they added an exceptional effect. From Heeba Shah constantly playing with cushions, to Ratna Pathak Shah using a jug to wash her hands, to Naseeruddin Shah fussing around the water container – these little details enhanced the performances greatly. However, this play is best enjoyed in a small compact auditorium like the Prithvi Theatre, rather than a big stage. Catch it the next time it stages in your city. The Shah family ensure 90 minutes of pure delight!