NSD Repertory’s Manto melange weaved a magical web on a firm foundation of technical brilliance

Two men on a railway platform sipping tea from kulhars. One, a bookseller selling Saadat Hassan Manto’s books and, the other, a porter. Both curse Manto for writing about the “filth” of society — whores and rabble-rousers and a nation in ferment. “What if the government were to banish these writers along with prostitutes and criminals to the fringes of the city?” asks the porter. “Then Manto would write a book on them,” replies the bookseller.

“Dafa 292”, an Urdu play by National School of Drama’s repertory company, was presented at the Old World Theatre Festival in New Delhi on Tuesday. The play derived its name from Section 292 of the Indian and Pakistan Penal Codes, which criminalises obscenity in publishing — a charge slapped on Manto several times.

The script was inspired by Manto’s stories, such as “Siyah Hashiye”, “Sabz Sandal”, “Akkal Dadh”, “Teen Khamosh Auratein” and “Pase Manzar”. The play was a montage of scenes from his works and times. His characters sang, screamed and seduced behind layers of screens. The stage had three layers divided by screens, and the spotlight artistically shifted from character to character behind these layers.

Manto’s brilliance, his treatment of subjects, and the magic with which he created tales from the lives of common people was naturally present. But the real winner here was the sheer technical superiority NSD incorporated. The lighting by Sauti Chakraborty was magical.

Picture this: A woman dressing up on a pedestal. The light then falls on a ruffian dressing up. He comments that she is from his community. The light then falls on a second ruffian, who exclaims that they’ve been fooled. They then turn to the woman. A fluid-like darkness on the stage separates them. She says that they were misinformed by the enemies of her identity. They had raped one of their own. She then laughs hysterically. The lighting and her eerie laughter feel like a slap on the inhumanity of communal violence. Chakraborty’s lighting — be it the rapid flickering of a passing train or the parallel rays projected on Manto arguing with his wife — was a treat for any art lover. While the layers of screens physically created depth, the lighting painted emotions.

The presentation of “Teen Khamosh Auratein”, a tale of three very talkative women on a railway platform, entertained the audience the most. The women, played by Sajida, Ishita Chakraborty and Savitha B., provoked a laugh riot.

The most entertaining character, however, was that played by Kanhaiya Lal Kaithwas, a man who sleeps on the platform. His lines were few and monosyllabic, but his expressions and well-timed comic reactions were not just theatrically good but also very much that of Manto’s common man. While it initially got bogged down in parallel scenes of Manto’s arguments with his wife, on the whole the play directed by Anoop Trevedi was a fitting tribute to the writer and a treat for those who love him.