Bombay Showcase

One man, many characters

verybody loves Saadat Hasan Manto, but few have actually read him, says actor and director Mohit Sharma on the eve of his 42nd performance of one of Manto’s most famous short stories. Toba Tek Singh, an immersive and compelling tale, is typical of the oeuvre of legendary short-story writer Manto in the way it highlights the pains and pathos of the Partition with full-blown satire.

Set a few years after the India- Pakistan Partition, the story is about a proposed fictional exchange of the inmates of mental asylums on both sides of the border. The swap must take place on religious divisions, but the inmates, all of whom are certifiably insane, have surprisingly astute objections and are not easily won over to the idea.

What follows is a series of satirical arguments back and forth between the authorities on both sides and the patients as the day of exchange dawns. Among them, Bishen Singh demands to know the real-time whereabouts of his native place called Toba Tek Singh because that will sway his decision of whether to remain in Pakistan or India. It appears that no one has accurate information, and therein lays the challenge because Singh refuses to budge with a madman’s obstinacy until the issue is sorted out.

When read, Manto’s short story ends in a matter of 10 minutes. However, its adaptation into a performance takes an hour. Being such a popular story, it has seen been made into performances for both film and stage, but Sharma’s take on it is markedly different. His is a solo performance that is full of interesting characters, 18 in all, and that’s excluding the ironic voice of the narrator. Admitting that a performance like this is both gruelling and a ‘high,’ Sharma is quick to debunk what he calls the ‘myth’ of the solo performer, likening it to the legend of ‘the self-made man.”

It’s a powerful experience, as most one-man shows are. It has minimal frills to distract the viewer from the all-too-human tragedy unfolding on stage. The show opens with basic lighting effects, no real backdrop, no words, and just a few minutes of music, but the theme is lyrically apparent. The actor uses his arms as though he is wading through something and it is up to the audience to determine what that is. Is it water to symbolise what cannot be parted? Does the actor wipe his hands off with desperation later because he was wading through blood? Is he trying to part a mound of sand to distribute it evenly? All of these and more explanations can work in the context of the story.

What is striking about the economy of the solo approach is that the story feels both political and fiercely personal. The production has been 10 years in the making, since Sharma had done dramatic readings at multiple venues a decade ago. But at some point, Sharma found himself wanting to put dimensions to the characters, and using his body to understand the different moods of the story.

During the performance, the actor shape shifts with seeming effortlessness through the 18 characters. One moment he is a sardarji pleading to be left behind because he doesn’t know the language over the border. At another, Sharma is a Hindu lawyer in Lahore or simply an unnamed inmate who screams so loudly that he faints. The heart of the story rests with the protagonist Singh and his desperate longing for an almost mythical hometown that is lost in the rhetoric of partition.

The language is clean and elevated Hindustani but accompanied with enough body language and gestures to convey the meaning visually as well. For example, when talking about the lawyer in Lahore who believes that one day his ‘Ishq ke farman”, will be ‘kabool,” (messages of love will be accepted) Sharma raises his arm into a graceful salaam to embody the acceptance of the lover’s tribute.

During the one-hour performance (with no interval), Sharma wears a generic ‘patient’s’ outfit in charcoal grey. The music consists of two tracks by a Turkish Sufi music group called Himma.

The actor pushes his technique’s envelope. Instead of always transitioning from character to narrator, at least five times through the show, Sharma maintains the posture and body language of the character, while speaking in the calm, wry voice of the narrator, thus creating a sort of disconnect in the story world.

Sharma’s Toba Tek Singh performance is in keeping with a classic Manto farce, it is both hilarious and sad, but never grotesque, judgemental, or over-the top. At the end of the show, one comes away with the image of a bewildered man caught in a primordial silent scream. Few plays can present as captivatingly a reality that feels both personal and historical.

Toba Tek Singh: A Solo Play will be performed this evening at The Hive, Khar West. Time: 6.30 pm. Tickets are priced at Rs 500.

The author is a freelance writer

The actor shape

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18 characters

with seeming effortlessness

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 11:52:05 PM |

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