“Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?” stunned the audience with its script and skilled cast

He told the bitter truth in the most sparse and elegant way. He was persecuted by almost every power group, yet attained immortality with his blunt writings on the dark underbelly of society and the horrors of Partition. Lahore’s Ajoka Theatre was able to grasp Manto’s angst and artistically adapt it to the stage, despite the odds stacked up against their performance of “Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?”

The play, which was selected for the 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav of the National School of Drama, was cancelled due to fear of disruptions given the current strain on ties between India and Pakistan. However, Delhi’s theatre lovers were able to get it staged at the Akshara Theatre on January 19.

The play was long — two hours in all — and the troupe couldn’t use its sets as the stage was a fourth of what the play was planned for. They were courageous enough not to cut the script. Naseem Abbas, who played Manto, occasionally struggled with his lines. Yet, his powerful delivery, expressions and overwhelming presence ensured his character a spot on the minds of most actors who may attempt Manto.

What made the struggle to stage worth it was Shahid Nadeem’s powerful script. With lines such as “You are my friend Maulana Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, but not the maulvi of the mosque of my mind” and “Brothels are like a corpse carried on the shoulders of society. What’s the harm in showing their face?” the play punched as high as Manto’s tales.

The play uses an interesting device of a ghost-like woman (Uzma Hassan Kharal) who plays Manto’s conscience. Her eerie laughter and presence draws you into the mind of the troubled writer exploring the human condition in a confused new nation. Uzma scored full marks on every scale.

Manto’s stories were interspersed with events of his own life, giving a glimpse into the hypocrisy and politics that influenced his works. Ajoka used the large sheets of cloth, something not uncommon to Delhi’s campus theatre, in mystical dance-like performances.

The playwright also portrays Shahid’s own struggle with Manto, constantly questioning his writing. Accusing and defending him, loving him and letting him go. The play, directed by Madeeha Gauhar, qualifies as a critique and not just a narration of Manto. Acting it seemed was Ajoka’s catharsis for the shock of the curtain unexpectedly falling on their hopes, in Jaipur and Delhi. So moving was the play — the politics around it and the politics it conveyed — that most of the cast and many among the audience were moved to tears when they ended.