Theatre

Faezeh Jalali: Stuffed with metaphors

AT THE CENTRE OF ACTION Faezeh Jalali at the National School of Drama Food Court

AT THE CENTRE OF ACTION Faezeh Jalali at the National School of Drama Food Court   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

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Over hot parathas, the spirited Faezeh Jalali highlights how innovation is the key in theatre and cooking

Passionate about theatre, Faezeh Jalali is well known for espousing the cause of issue-based plays. Marrying the two, the versatile theatre practitioner has staged plays that entertain even as they provoke audience to contemplate. These include Jaal, Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear and I’m Every Woman among others. “Theatre is a catalyst for change. While entertaining it must make viewers analyse and reflect,” she comments, as we settle down for a luncheon interaction at the National School of Drama’s Food Court. Adding to her evocative works is her latest, Shikhandi–The Story of the In-Betweens, staged at the ongoing 8th Theatre Olympics. Written and directed by Faezeh, it is a comic, tongue-in-cheek retelling of the story of Shikhandi, perhaps one of the earliest trans-charaters in mythology.

Recounting how Shikhandi took shape, Faezeh says, while reading the epic, she was really enamoured by Shikhandi. “Meant to be born male to avenge an insult in past life as Amba, she is reborn as female, raised a male and has a sex change. It was not just that aspect but the human struggle for identity and finding a voice that brought me close to Shikhandi,” explains Faezeh. She strongly identified with Shikhandi’s struggle since as a girl she too encountered gender bias. “Fond of cricket, I was not allowed by boys to join the game. They would ask me to play with dolls or stand outside the field to fetch the ball. I found this humiliating. It irked me when boys were told not to cry like girls. What has tears got to do with gender?” she asks.

Despite complete freedom from parents, others reminded her of being a girl. “I was told repeatedly to conduct myself with grace. All this left an indelible mark. You’ll be surprised to know that even today many are unable to accept that I am a director.” Having suffered discrimination, made Faezeh understand transgenders’ situation better. “It made me empathise with their pain, which they undergo because they did not fit the so called normal gender slot.”

Asked to order, Faezeh promptly requests for aloo and paneer parathas. “I love the stuffed parathas they make in Delhi. I make it a point to have them whenever in the Capital.” Continuing about her journey with Shikhandi, it is surprising to know that initially it was a one-person device for just 20 minutes which is now a 90 minute play with eight actors. “The first draft was written in 2010 but in 2014 after my breakup I rewrote and expanded it to include more characters. Break-up always spurs your creative juices,” she jests.

Daunting task

Agreeing it was daunting task to turn a long play, she reveals, “In the theatrical sense it was challenging to locate the dramatic quality which is necessary to ensure the play is engaging and flows. The story states that Shikhandi unable to consummate his marriage is helped by a Yaksha. From drama perspective why did the Yaksha do that, there has to be some justification. In the story I wrote, the Yaksha himself is struggling with sexuality. Moreover, I found back stories for every character and incident in the epic which I wove in the play.”

With piping hot parathas with chutney and boondi raita arriving, we take a break. Relishing the food in small bites, Faezeb informs she loves eating rajma chawal and gol gappe in Delhi. “Not what is offered at the star hotels but on roadside eateries. It is simply yummy! I am not very fastidious about the eating place as long it is clean.” Raised in Mumbai and having studied theatre in the US for more than six years, Faezeh has developed a liking for other cuisines too. Her choicest cuisine is of course Iranian. “Being an Iranian, I prefer chelow kababs which has rice, kababs, butter and raw egg and tahchin the Persian baked cake which has yogurt, saffron, egg and chicken fillets.” Liking them so much, she must know how to prepare them “They are made best by my mother. I can guess what she has prepared simply by the fragrance at home. I did learn cooking but took it seriously in the US where I couldn’t survive on pizzas and burgers. Through hit and trial and recipes, I learnt from mother. I can cook vegetarian and non-vegetarian biryanis, pao baji and curd rice.” The last is a surprise. “I first tasted from my roomy, a Malayali. I loved it and learnt how to make it. I can simply live on curd rice through the year,” she grins.

Elements of Indian art

Continuing on her culinary skills, Faezeh reveals she loves to experiment with cooking the way she does with her theatre. “The only problem is after whipping up something delicious I am unable to recall the ingredients and their quantity.” That can’t be the case in theatre as well. “No way. In plays, I try incorporate elements of Indian art and folk forms with a contemporary touch. In Shikhandi, I have used Kalaripayattu, Yakshagana, Koodiyattam and Bharatanatyam gestures to explain the text and dialogues in English. Likewise, the fight sequences have elements of Kalaripayattu while the choreography has many facets of Bharatanatyam. My training in West has prepared me physically, made me capable to analyse script and go beyond the text, I still intuitively identify with Indian stories, epics, legends, myths and art forms. An amazing, rich and varied treasure trove dating back several centuries is what should inspire us and not the West.” Not trained in these forms, Faezeh has attended several workshops and reads extensively about them.

A scene from Shikhandi

A scene from Shikhandi  

The costumes used in Shikhandi too attracted lot of attention. “Yes, they are mix of traditional and contemporary and are same for men and women. The dhoti is in Yakshagana style with embellishments, short above the knee. There is a belt around the dhoti which covers the crotch area. The top has a feminine contemporary cut, one shoulder top which is like a sari blouse but sleeveless. That symbolises the feminine while the dhoti masculine. The reason is to reflect the concept of ardhanarishvara, both male and female attributes in us, just like Shikhandi.”

Casting transgenders

While preparing for the play, Faezeh did think about casting transgender actors. “I had met Living Vidya, a fine actor, who I was keen to cast. Likewise, a Kathak dancer and five others I had auditioned were excellent dancers and performers. All of them were keen but needed money to take care of their families and self. Short of funds, I couldn’t immediately offer salary or allowance. It was a great loss.”

These interactions helped Faezeh in reflecting their plight. “I realised how economic independence is vital for transgenders to be able to fulfil their dreams and ambitions. Many of the insights I gained in their life and struggle have found their way into the play. For example, when Shikhandi tries to tell Dhrupad, his father, about his gender confusion, the latter immediately suggests marriage as a solution. That is exactly how parents and family react when a person declares himself to be gay or lesbian. They think marriage will remove the confusion. There is more to transgenders than we know.”

With the parathas over, the staff suggests cheese vegetable grilled sandwiches. “Yes, I will taste them. As I love the ones made in Mumbai, it will remind me of my city,” she avers.

Reflecting on her journey, Faezeh says, “it has been a learning curve”. “Acting under ace directors like Rehan Engineer, Rajat Kapoor, Rodney Umlas and Pearl Padamsee, I picked up finer nuances of the craft and how to handle actors, be creative, open to suggestions and passionate about stage. Likewise, watching other plays, has exposed me to different forms of presentation. Besides, new content pushes you to become inquisitive. In this Olympics, I was amazed to know about Kalbeliyas’ life and their disappearing livelihood in Sabir Khan’s Doodhan.”

Having acted in films like Qissa and Slumdog Millionaire and TV show Mahi Way, Faezeh does not view them very differently. “Both are fun and when it comes to acting they are the same except that stage does not allow any retakes. The only problem is you have to wait hours after the make-up for the shots. That waiting period for a theatre person like me is killing,” she exclaims as she bids goodbye.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 12:26:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/stuffed-with-metaphors/article22876641.ece

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