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Fractured reality

DIWAN SINGH BAJELI
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THEATRE A recent production based on three short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto reinforced the relevance of his message. DIWAN SINGH BAJELI

A scene from “Thanda Gosht”
A scene from “Thanda Gosht”

Delhi-based theatre directors have a great fascination for staging Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories which depict marginalised characters with compassion. What makes these characters so gripping is their deep humanism, universal appeal and the stories’ strong element of suspense to shock and disturb. Recently, as part of the events to mark the centenary year of this great short story writer of India and Pakistan, we have had a number of opportunities to watch stage productions of his stories presented by different directors with varying success. “Ek Kutte Ki Kahani” staged by Wings Cultural Society, a promising amateur theatre group, at Shri Ram Centre under the direction of Salima Raza, is a remarkable piece of theatre for projecting the haunting power of Manto’s characters from three of widely read stories.

Salima is a senior theatre, radio and television actor and director. She has selected these stories which were written by Manto when he migrated to Pakistan. This was the period of emotional, mental turmoil for the writer. Ironically, some of his greatest works were written in this chaotic state of his mind. Salima’s production opens with the bitter reflection of Manto’s inner world through the character of Manto himself. The action is set in Lahore, Pakistan. Suffering from split personality disorder, Manto is wandering in Lahore. In a frenzied mental condition, disillusioned Manto feels socially alienated and financially ruined. In his ravings he prays to Allah to take him away from this world. He says he avoids fragrance and embraces filth. When the world weeps, he laughs and when the world laughs, he weeps. He is infatuated by Satan whom Allah has banished from Jannat — paradise. Manto’s character elaborates his artistic credo to depict stark reality in its raw form. When these ravings become self-deprecating, Manto enters a mental asylum. The stage version is written by Danish Iqbal who displays fidelity to the original work. His dramatic device to show the action through the eyes of the doctor helps the action unfold without interruption.

The initial interaction between Manto and the doctor has the usual atmosphere of a hospital with the doctor attending on his patient in a casual attitude. Gradually the atmosphere becomes serious. The doctor, a reader of Manto and his great admirer, is shocked to learn the patient’s real identity. The doctor expresses a desire to read his latest stories. Manto takes out a story from his bag and gives it to the doctor. Thus the dramatic enactment begins.

The first story is “Thanda Gosht” which revolves round Ishar Singh, a brute and a heartless killer of innocent humanity, and his wife Kulwant. After butchering several people, he carries on his shoulders a young and beautiful woman with the motive to rape her. In the process he discovers that the woman he is carrying is a dead body. He is shocked and his whole being shatters, the brute within him disappears. He is metamorphosed into impotency. Tanushri Upadhyay as Kulwant, the wife, and Muhammad Aadil Saifi as Ishar Singh, the husband of Kulwant, create credible portraits, revealing the complex psychic and emotional state of their characters.

Manto’s “Kaali Shalwar” is the next enactment. Set during World War II, the piece has four characters. The war has devastated the people financially. The prostitutes suffer the most. To make ends meet, Sultana and her pimp Khudabaksh move from a small town to a city but there is no respite. She meets the cunning Shankar. A penniless Sultana needs a black shalwar to observe the sacred month of Muharram. The production brings the element of suspense to the fore with telling effect and focuses on the credulity and misery of women engaged in the oldest profession.

“Tetwal Ka Kutta” is the concluding story, set on the Indo-Pak border in Kashmir. The soldiers of both the countries are on guard. These are the very soldiers who once fought together as part of the same army. Now they are foes. A stray dog keeps crossing the border. The innocuous movements of the dog provoke these combatant forces into treating the dog as an informer of the enemy and it is brutally killed — such is the madness of national chauvinism. Beneath the madness of the soldiers of the hostile neighbours, the production reveals human warmth through the soldiers’ nostalgia about the happy days they shared together before the division of the country. Metaphorically, the dog stands for the common man who became the victim of the Partition.

Director Salima has effectively designed her production to impart dramatic thrust to the action. She has used offstage narration to reinforce conflict.

Young and dynamic theatre artiste Tarique Hameed as Manto gives a brilliant performance, capturing the disillusionment, bitterness and mental ailment of his character leading to schizophrenia. The production was a part of the Urdu Drama Festival organised by the Urdu Academy Delhi recently,


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