Theatre

Play Tere Sheher Mein — Giving the homeless a stage

From IPTA’s play ‘Tere Sheher Mein’.

From IPTA’s play ‘Tere Sheher Mein’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In Mumbai’s chaotic streets, the homeless are shoved off stage while sea-facing towers catch the sun centre stage, spinning an opulent romance about the city of dreams.

Late writer, director and film producer Sagar Sarhadi’s Hindi play Tere Sheher Mein, written in 1964, rearranges these positions to spotlight the story of Zainab, a poor woman, whose shanty on a footpath close to a railway line becomes the anchor for a ragtag group of vagrants, while she struggles to keep herself and her two daughters afloat.

On March 16, the play was staged again at Prithvi Theatre, directed by filmmaker and Sarhadi’s nephew Ramesh Talwar, and produced by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Based on the story of a woman, who lived on the pavement outside Mumbai’s JJ Hospital, whom the late actor Shaukat Azmi spotted and introduced to Sarhadi, Tere Sheher Mein is also a two-act tribute to Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, set around the bleak lives of the residents of a dosshouse.

It fits into IPTA’s long-established tradition of social theatre and people-oriented themes. “For stage, the audience prefers comedy, but IPTA has always tackled serious subjects. It’s a powerful play showing the conditions of those who come to earn a living in this glamorous city. When the pandemic began, we saw their exodus. We meant to stage the play earlier and even had dates for the show, but the lockdown happened,” says Ramesh Talwar.

The stage at Prithvi was threadbare, with just a hovel that became the backdrop for all the action. Around it throbbed an ecosystem of downtrodden lives, constantly challenged, either by the unscrupulous forces of capitalism and corrupt politics, or simply the vagaries of nature.

On a particularly chilly night, the inhabitants shiver and hug each other for warmth, wondering if they will wake up to see the day. The winter is “ready to kill” and the lives of the poor are “a struggle” and “a war”, to borrow the poignant lines from Les Misérables.

The story

The protagonist Naasir, played by IPTA artiste Niraj Pandey, is a penniless writer who embodies this struggle to the point of hopelessness. He is in love with Zainab’s older daughter Salma but is too poor to propose marriage. “The difficulty about the character is that he is educated, a writer, and still lives on the footpath,” says Pandey.

A scene from ‘Tere Sheher Mein’.

A scene from ‘Tere Sheher Mein’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Both Naasir and Zainab (Mukta Walse Patil) are moral arcs of this bleak universe. But their idealism, like Zainab’s hut, gets torn down, ripped apart by deprivation.

Zainab has to bend her principles and let Salma marry Zaaman Khan, a dubious wheeler-dealer. Walse’s emotive performance is able to evoke audience sympathy.

Naasir articulates the dream of the poor uniting and a revolutionary fight against injustice, but also regretfully notes the lack of any real action. His frustration reaches a point where he is unable to hear his own voice. He yearns to un-see reality and take refuge in forgetfulness.

Other characters, the prostitute Rani, vendor Chutku, and thief Daldachor, add a dash of comic relief through slapstick and nautanki-style song-and-dance pieces (the play’s music was by Kuldip Singh). These performances were at times uninhibited and funny and at others descended into hackneyed theatrics.

Rani showers Naasir with affection but is spurned by him. He, however, realises that they are both similar in that, they each lose a part of themselves at the end of the day.

Before the pandemic, Talwar had directed Tere Sheher Mein for Mumbai University’s students of theatre arts. He decided to give them a commercial platform and take the play to a wider audience. Much of the student cast has been retained, with fresh actors for each performance, except for the lead roles, and veteran film and TV actor Masood Akhtar, for the role of migrant Dharamchand.

For the play and its cast, it has been an encouraging journey from a varsity production to the prestigious Prithvi. Talwar plans more runs ahead. “Who will take up such serious issues if not IPTA,” he asks.

IPTA was established on May 25, 1943, in Mumbai in the wake of the 1942 Bengal famine, when writers and artists travelled the country to sensitise people and raise funds. The movement mushroomed and theatre groups, cultural organisations, artists and activists came together to form IPTA. Always allied to people’s movements, IPTA’s productions have shown a long-standing commitment to social theatre.

The Mumbai-based writer is a freelance journalist.


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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 11:34:01 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/play-tere-sheher-mein-giving-the-homeless-a-stage/article65245814.ece