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Audiences flock to see entertaining Urdu plays, provided they are advertised as Hindi! Where have all the real Urdu plays gone, wonders RANA SIDDIQUI

Demand is greater than supply. One is not talking about IT professionals but Urdu plays on the Delhi stage. Delhiites complain about not having seen real Urdu plays for ages. The scene is the same in other cities like Mumbai and Bhopal where theatre otherwise is said to be thriving. For years there has been only a trickle of new Urdu plays. This despite the fact that some good old plays continue to be crowd-pullers, even if many of them are advertised as Hindi plays! Decades ago Nadira Babbar’s “Yahoodi Ki Ladki” played to packed halls in Delhi. Such is the success rate of this Urdu play that it has seen 1500 shows across the country and is still a major crowd puller.

More recently, Delhi saw “Maulana Azad” with Tom Alter in the title role. The two-and-half hour soliloquy in chaste Urdu is written and directed by Mohammad Sayeed Alam. This play has done 200 successful shows. Alam is almost the lone crusader in Delhi, who, through his plays like “Ghalib in New Delhi”, “K.L. Saigal” and “Bahadur Shah Zafar” gives Urdu theatre a kiss of life. Never mind that even Alam has to sell his Urdu plays as those in Hindi!

One can recall names like Revati Saran Sharma whose plays like “Phir Wohi Talash” and “Aur Shama Jalti Rahi” have earned a name for their excellent Urdu and stagecraft. Not to mention the doyen of Indian theatre, Habib Tanvir, whose “Agra Bazaar” and “Shatranj Ke Mohre” are always staged to overflowing halls.

The question

So, the audiences are there but why are Urdu plays so hard to come by? Where are the Urdu knowing actors, playwrights and directors? Perhaps the face of the Urdu play has changed. It is now represented by the likes of Naseeruddin Shah-Ratna Shah and Javed Akhtar-Shabana Azmi. As is known, they have transformed the stories of Ismat Chughtai, Sadat Hasan Manto, and memoirs of Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Azmi (“Kaifi Aur Main”, etc.) into Urdu plays.

Says Tanvir, “Actually, all good Urdu writers like Rajender Singh Bedi and Manto were with All India Radio, so they used to write radio plays. They may never have thought in terms of staging them. Moreover, great Urdu speaking actors like Prithiviraj Kapoor and Saeed Jaffery were all absorbed by the film industry. After all, films have more money and there is no one to take care of Urdu theatre.”

Agrees Nadira, “Why should the children learn Urdu? It doesn’t fetch them a job. Urdu exists only in the Constitution. For ages I have not been able to stage good Urdu plays because there are no sponsors. The Government says ‘Urdu ke liye budget nahi hai.’ (There is no budget for Urdu.) Yeh woh jung hai jo door tak haari ja chuki hai. (It is a lost cause.) There is no distribution network for Urdu books. The TV serials have further tarnished the language. How do we keep theatre alive if there is no language and no torchbearers?”

Alam finds it a “paradoxical situation”. He says, “Modern Hindi theatre is ‘literarily’ Urdu. For instance, a play like “Tughlaq” is advertised as ‘Hindi play’ while it is in Urdu.” He feels the prevailing confusion between Hindustani and Urdu has resulted in pure Urdu losing out. “We playwrights are also responsible for it. I am guilty of saying that ‘Ghalib in New Delhi’, and ‘K.L. Saigal’ are Hindi plays while they are 70 per cent Urdu. And I have to do it, because if I declare that the play is in Urdu, then I lose half the audience because they think I am talking of ‘Persianised’ Urdu which is never the case.”

The practitioners of Urdu theatre are not sure if the efforts of the Shahs and Javed-Shabana are harbingers of hope. Tanvir remarks, “It is just a new beginning. Whether it survives or dies, only time will tell.”

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