SUNDAY MAGAZINE

History reinterpreted

THEATRE

SONYA DUTTA CHOUDHURY

History on stage: A scene from Amir Raza Husain's "1947 Live".

History on stage: A scene from Amir Raza Husain's "1947 Live".  

OPEN air, under a darkening Delhi sky, is an extraordinarily effective setting in which to watch 200 years of history come alive. The towering lights poles of the Nehru Stadium on one side, the distant taillights of the cars and lorries on the Seva Nagar flyover on the other and history in between.

Amid giant sets of the ramparts of the Red Fort, the filigreed pillars of Mughal Emperor Jehangir's durbar room and the barred outlines of the Lahore Jail, "1947 Live", Amir Raza Husain's dazzling docu-drama seats its 750-strong audience at the very centre of the tumultuous sight and sounds of the country's conflicted past. And like his earlier productions, "The Legend of Ram" and "Kargil", this one too is on a scale both colossal and spectacular.

It is 1947 and Nehru's impassioned address to the newly born nation is shattered with the violence of maddened and murderous mobs. As the figure of Nehru vanishes in a white haze, Raza as the soulful sutradar takes over. Decrying the meaningless murder and mayhem, he voices the irony of "ghulam paida hua, marunga azad" (I was born a slave, but I will die free) for those millions who lost their lives.

Flashback 200 years to Sir Thomas Roe's application to the Mughal Emperor for a trading license, moving through Bahadur Shah's banishment to Rangoon and thence to Bhagat Singh and his trial for the bomb blast in Parliament.

But where the emotional rollercoaster of events really takes off is in the second half of the play with the arrival of Gandhi, and the famous Dandi March, brilliantly rendered in shifting light and shadow. Yashwant Singh's poignant portrayal of the Mahatma draws alternate laughs and tears from a moved audience, as he alternates between earnest sincerity, ironic humour and heartbroken emotion.

Gandhi, along with Mountbatten, ably and empathetically played by Martin Bishop and a suave and saturnine Jinnah superbly portrayed by Jasbir Malik, make the production come alive in a way that has the audience spellbound, tuned into every nuance of the tragic power play of the times.

The actors discuss the challenges of playing recognisable historical figures. "I rather enjoy it", says Jasbir Malik, "Jinnah in this country has been demonised somewhat unfairly, he was a nationalist and then things went wrong. Presenting a man this country doesn't particularly like in a manner which could be likeable has for me been a challenge." Rahul Karan Batra, who plays Bhagat Singh, confesses being "overwhelmed by the greatness of the historical character, also he doesn't have many recognisable gestures and habits one can work with".

Portraying Gandhi, for Yashwant Singh "goes much beyond getting voice, posture and movement right and lies is in following the very thoughts of the character, his human responses to the different situations the play presents". Singh credits Amir Raza's script for being able to tap into the various aspects of the human being, Gandhi's faith in God and religion, his love for his country and his sadness at Partition. The result of much bookish research, the script is indeed quite a star. Historically accurate, it is, however, in many ways the Director's personal interpretation of history, especially in its emphasis's and absences.

"It works," co-Director Viraat Husain explains, "because it uses real human emotion, humour and historical anecdote". These include Jinnah's decision to declare Pakistan's independence on August 14, also the day of his daughter Dina's birthday, the theft of Gandhi's 40-year-old watch, and its return.

The audience swivels between life size sets of courtrooms, jails and English drawing rooms, each an effective backdrop for the historic action being played out. At Gandhi's spartan Sabarmati ashram, Gandhi and Jinnah have an emotional conversation on the religious direction of the freedom movement and Jinnah's conviction that terms like `Ram rajya' are isolating the ordinary Mussulman. In another scene, representatives of the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League quarrel. Jinnah demands recognition and representation and the Hindu Mahasabha rave and rant over Mahmud of Ghazni and temple destruction, as Nehru struggles to keep peace. Gandhi and Mountbatten meet in an emotionally charged scene, in an attempt to avert Partition. "Make Jinnah the Prime Minister of a united India," says Gandhi. Gandhi's efforts fail and Independence is to be declared on August 15 giving Sir Cyril Radcliffe little more than a month to draw lines over villages, mountains and ravines.

So ends "1947 Live", the high drama and fire and fireworks action of the evening culminating appropriately (like "Kargil") in a standing ovation to the stirring strains of Jana-Gana-Mana.

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