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Street thrills

PHEROZE L. VINCENT
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TABLE FOR TWO Theatre or food, Shilpi Marwaha is one of proletarian tastes

Colourful PLATTERShilpi Marwaha at Dilli ke Pakwan festival on Baba Kharak Singh MargPhoto: V.V. Krishnan
Colourful PLATTERShilpi Marwaha at Dilli ke Pakwan festival on Baba Kharak Singh MargPhoto: V.V. Krishnan

She’s the symbol of Delhi rising. Identified as the kaale kurte waali (the girl in a black kurta), Asmita Theatre’s leading actor Shilpi Marwaha became the face of the protests following the gang-rape of a student in Delhi in December. Pictures of her performing Dastak — a nukkad natak on rape— during the protests at India Gate were widely circulated by Indian and international news agencies. Shilpi is no stranger to those interested in serious drama, which she has practiced in the Capital for more than half a decade.

We meet at the Dilli ke Pakwan street food festival on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. “My staple diet is tea and biscuits. This often comes from residents of localities we do our street plays in,” she says. Asmita has been staging several performances of Dastak , everyday since the gang-rape was reported. The play raises larger questions of the culpability and hypocrisy of society on rape.

It is noon, and Shilpi has to rush for a rehearsal. But the food stalls have only just begun heating up their hot plates. Her reluctant gaze runs down from the chaat stall to the pakoda stall. She finally agrees to have idlis, but has to continue her search as the idlis have just been laid to steam. “Biscuits and matthis give me all the energy I need. Regular meals are rare.”

The theatre bug bit Shilpi when she was in Kamala Nehru College in 2008. Known for her loud and expressive performances, she’s hard to believe when she claims she had stage fright.

“The only reason I got into Asmita is because (director) Arvind sir doesn’t reject anybody…My father has been completely supportive of my work, even though I am his only child. However, he was worried during the protests at India Gate. He called me up when we were getting caned by the police. I managed to say that I will be home soon, even as I dodged the lathis,” she says. The protests were an avenue of intellectual growth for her. “People came with helplessness and anger. There were all kinds of people there— fathers who feared for their daughters who work late, girls who are harassed in buses. There were those who wanted castration and capital punishment and women who wanted freedom. We engaged with all these people. We tried to channel their anger constructively through theatre. If everyone is made aware and resists harassment of women, then we strike at the system that allows rape,” she explains.

We finally settle for pav-bhaji and tea. The tea is expensive (for a street kiosk), yet uplifting. It lights up Shilpi’s face. One often wonders how she maintains her voice, despite her loud delivery of dialogues— often in back-to-back plays. She’s also surprised that she hasn’t fallen terribly ill despite her punishing schedule and haphazard diet. “I need to eat fruits for energy, but where’s the time? Perhaps I don’t fall very ill, because I’m a Pathan,” she says smiling. “I think it’s because I love theatre so much. I’ve acted even with fever. It gives me energy. Taakat khatam hoti hai, par himmat nahi (Energy may run out, but not one’s will).”

Shilpi may not eat much, but humbly admits that she can cook quite well. “I wake up at 5 a.m. and cook. I make all the regular food— dal, chhole, kadhi, rajma, rotis. I have a weakness for curds and lassi, even though they say it’s bad for my throat. I always have some before I sleep.”

She has starred in Raanjhana , alongside Sonam Kapoor, Dhanush and Abhay Deol. The film is expected to release in June, this year. She has also starred in T. V. Chandran’s Malayalam film Bhoomiyude Avakashikal , last year. Films are secondary in her scheme of things, but put the butter on her bread. They have also made her conscious that she isn’t getting any younger and health is a resource that can’t be replenished.

“I am 23 now and I am trying to get on a diet. I love gulab jamuns, but I have had to cut down on them. And golgappas, oh golgappas! But there’s no chance for it now with this diet,” she says with a sigh.

PHEROZE L. VINCENT

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