IPTA’s “Be’libaas” is crying out for a rewrite

A stenographer (Shobhana Bhardwaj) faces sexual harassment. She switches jobs, but the harassment continues. She also has to bear cheesy pick up lines such as: “Saath chai peene aur batein karne ka mazaa hee kuchch aur hai.” (The pleasure of tea with conversation is something else.) A couple of scenes later, she’s the B-grade film style seductive stenographer. Her rationale is that no matter what the job, sex is the only key to open the career doors for a woman. The new boss, like most real life bosses, objects to her pathetic attempts to seduce him.

The spotlight then dramatically shifts to the narrator (Raghavendra Tiwari). He asks whether it was just to fire her. The answer lay in the mocking laughter of the audience.

“Be’libaas (The Naked Truth)” is a play written by Aziz Quraishi, general secretary of the Delhi Chapter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), in 2009. He also directed and starred in the last performance at the India Habitat Centre on December 29. The play is a series of short narratives on harassment at the workplace and the collapse of social morals. A play on this theme couldn’t have come at a better time- when Delhi was protesting against violence against women. Sadly, the only truth laid bare was that the audience had evolved, leaving the script decades behind.

Seriously, when did you last hear terms like “aurat ka kawach” (the armour of a woman) and “kyunki main jismani kamzor hoon” (because I am physically weak)?

The acting wasn’t great. Luckily for the actors, the script was so bad that, no one is going to remember flaws in dialogue delivery. The play began with a domestic help getting raped — an outrageous and disturbingly common crime in India. In the play, however the maid submits to rape as easily as she makes tea. No resistance, no debate, no social marker. When she finally tells the rapist (by then the repeated rapes are made to look consensual) that his dad rapes her too, you’re confused about who’s the villain!

One narrative clumsily slips to the next. In each case, the female character eagerly jumps into prostitution at the slightest provocation. The play is reminiscent of the 2004 Neha Dhupia starrer “Julie.” The difference being that Julie at least tried to make her story sound convincing.

At the end of the play we’re left with one central idea: The only gainful employment for a woman is sex work. And, if you’re doing it anyway then why do it for free.

IPTA was the cultural arm of the undivided Communist Party of India. Quraishi is a veteran of many plays and has worked with some of India’s finest dramatists. He saved the CPI embarrassment by clarifying that IPTA Delhi is “apolitical” and not affiliated to any party now.