“3, Sakina Manzil” invokes both love and nostalgia, remembering a chapter from the forgotten pages of the past.
On 14th April, 1944, two powerful blasts rocked the Bombay docks, and SS Fort Stikine, a freighter carrying a cargo of cotton bales, gold and ammunition caught fire, which then spread to the nearby area. Buildings burned, the debris scattered, and the surrounding ships sunk. Around 800 people were killed, but the news, in a pre-independence India, was suppressed for weeks. In the aftermath of the blasts, two lovers found themselves separated, only to meet again after five decades at an ophthalmologist's clinic.
Playwright Ramu Ramanathan's “3, Sakina Manzil”, directed by Deepak Dhamija and presented by Desires Unlimited, invokes the tragedy of this estranged love, intertwined so seamlessly with the larger, historical tragedy of the explosion that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. “3, Sakina Manzil” and the unrequited love it held within its walls seeps out with the explosion, and the play becomes a reminder of all those unnamed victims of historical events.
The fact that the play is set in a pre-independence India, with the country still grappling with British rule and the world still under the grips of the Second World War, lends a sort of sepia tinted quality to the play. It’s a world where Dev Anand is only just starting out in the movie industry, the clothes are what you see in old black and white family photos, and conversations are peppered with words from days long gone. The gentle, silent love blossoming between Comrade Sashi and his namesake, who also happens to be his employer's daughter, is sweetly reminiscent of a different, almost alien world.
The blasts, when they come, rip apart what is ultimately a very simple love story. Complications draw the lovers apart, and when the play opens, we see two old people waiting at a doctor's clinic. Age has caught up with them, but once they recognise each other, memories come thick and strong. They remember, separately, the events of that day, reliving and rekindling emotions they have managed to sustain despite the passage of time and the distance between them. The story unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace with flashbacks that flesh out the story, but manages to hold the viewers interest, the dialogues intense and full of dry humour and nostalgia.
While the love story takes centre stage, the play also manages to ask necessary questions about the blast, invoking what has become an almost forgotten chapter from history.
With two actors and a set that’s simple but evocative, “3, Sakina Manzil” is a classically vintage play. Puneet Sikka (Sashi) and Tarun Singhal (Comrade Sashi) bring a strong, vulnerable chemistry to the stage, playing the roles of young, shy as well as estranged and reunited lovers convincingly. While not much happens on stage, the feeling of chaos, panic and activity after the blasts is palpable and well executed.
Dhamija’s direction is controlled and effective, and the “3 Sakina Manzil” does justice to both Ramanthan’s words and this part of Bombay’s history.