Bombay Showcase

Between the lines of a letter

chronicle of modern history:The Indian outing of Dear Liar has been directed by the great Satyadev Dubey, and gives us a taste of turn-of-the-century theatre in Victorian London.— Photo: Special arrangement  

What is it about the epistolary romance that makes it such a mainstay of the Indian stage? After all, the art of letter-writing has long been consigned to the dust heap of crusty old things. One would be hard-pressed to locate those quaint red letter-boxes anywhere in the city. Even pen and paper, trusted lieutenants of yore, are slowly being rendered obsolete by our spangly smartphones and the ready repertoire of emojis we use so liberally to light up our sparse interactions. Those who still send postcards (like yours truly) are doing so more as a hark-back to simpler and more sedate times, than for the need to stay connected when the click of a mouse is all it takes. Love is but a midnight phone-call away, and perhaps, its only paper trail is the phone bill.

Yet, illuminated on stage, letters become far more than just relics of a bygone era. Their first-person immediacy renders them timeless. The interchange becomes an elegant portmanteau of ideas. Confidences shared in private are so much more compelling than the dreary accounts left behind by historians, often at a distinct remove. With some letters, the crinkly paper feels warm to the touch with each reading, and the whiff of just-dried ink lingers in the air long after the furtive beings who wrote the words have disappeared into the ether.

That incandescence aside, a two-hander of this kind is just bloody easy to stage. As playwright A.R. Gurney states, quite succinctly, in the preface to his Pulitzer-nominated Love Letters , the play “needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorisation of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.”

Some of the more popular epistolary plays on the Indian stage have all notched up runs of more than two decades each. This staying power can squarely be put down on the charisma of the marquee names involved.

Javed Siddiqi’s Urdu adaptation of Gurney’s text, Tumhari Amrita , with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh, was first performed in 1992. Sheikh’s untimely passing in 2013, just two weeks after a performance at the Taj Mahal, brought down the curtains on the production. Rage Theatre’s own version of Love Letters , with Shernaz Patel and Rajit Kapur, also took off in 1992, and remains the group’s signature piece.

This week sees the return of Motley’s Dear Liar , with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak-Shah, which premiered in 1994.

These are, what one may call Indian theatre’s soul-pairings. Sheikh and Azmi, gallant holdouts of the erstwhile parallel cinema, brought a regal gravitas and an unrehearsed spontaneity to their joint outing, with Azmi’s character modelled on the intense Amrita Sher-Gil. Patel and Kapur, well matched in terms of earnestness and vim, were the then bright young things eager to revitalise the city’s English theatre scene with a piece rife with conflicts and contradictions. The Shahs, of course, complement each other perfectly, and effortlessly evoke the volatile star-crossed quality so essential to Jerome Kilty’s 1959 play, which dramatises the written correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and his one-time muse, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a popular stage actress of 1900s England.

Tumhari Amrita has had spin-offs in Punjabi and Kannada, and even an ill-advised sequel called Aapki Soniya , in which Sher-Gil’s correspondence is taken over by her daughter after her death.

Patel has spoken about how performing Love Letters proved to be the classic example of living with a play. When she started out as a 20-something, playing a 40-year-old on stage meant assuming an elderly persona. Over the years, she was able to balance out the portrayal, as new layers in the play revealed themselves to her.

One of the two recent additions to this pantheon is Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan , Salima Reza’s staging of the correspondence between Faiz Ahmed Faiz (played by Banwari Taneja in the play’s latest iteration) and his British wife, Alys (Reza herself), during his incarceration in Pakistan between 1951 and 1955.

The other is Saif Hyder Hasan’s 2015 play, Ek Mulaqat , in which Deepti Naval made her stage debut as Amrita Pritam opposite Shekhar Suman’s Sahir Ludhianvi. Reza’s production, which opened in 2011, is based on a cachet of letters given to her by a friend. The play aimed to present Alys, so indispensable to her husband, as a writer and poet in her own right. Between the lines, lie echoes of the Rawalpindi conspiracy, an attempted Soviet-backed coup d’état against the government, for which Faiz was indicted as an alleged civilian conspirator. Hasan’s part-fictional showcase of Pritam and Ludhianvi is suffused with poetry and intensely personal letters, supposedly exchanged between the two writers in a romance that was, perhaps, never consummated.

The Indian outing of Dear Liar has been directed by the great Satyadev Dubey, and gives us a taste of turn-of-the-century theatre in Victorian London, where Campbell played Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion . Their tempestuous correspondence spanned 40 years, till Campbell’s death in 1940 in France. More than a love affair conducted long distance, it remains a chronicle of modern history itself, peppered with humour, emotion and the zestful dynamic conjured up by the Shahs.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic



When illuminated on stage, letters become far more than just relics of a bygone era




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