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Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Naatak Knows. (Mela '19 by Naatak Theatre Company)

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Dark Tales of Desire. This was the theme of Naatak Theatre Company's Mela ’19, four short plays at the Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto, which I watched on Friday, November 22nd.

Two of the plays, “Lihaaf” (Quilt) and “Khol Do” (Open It), by celebrated writers Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto respectively, were banned soon after publication in the 1940’s, and their authors were tried in court on obscenity charges. The other two plays, “Shmashaan” (Cremation ground) and “The Confession” are original plays written by Naatak’s Anush Moorthy and Vikram Ramanarayanan.

Naatak’s plays are generally thought-provoking: they make bold choices in selecting what to perform. This is a notable collection, dealing with difficult topics and dark themes. The plays were performed one after the other, with no intermission, and brief, smooth transitions. This was a fitting format for the gripping plays.

Lihaaf,” highly controversial in its time, openly deals with female desire and sexuality, homosexuality, and unfulfilled desire. A Begum, young and beautiful, longs for a physical connection with her husband, who is occupied with young boys. She is left lonely and unrequited and becomes listless. Doctors say nothing is wrong with her. She comes to depend on her maid, Rabbo, for companionship, and massages. Through the eyes of her young niece, her search for intimacy and pleasure comes to light.

The scenes of intimacy are shown beautifully: though a backlit screen, the shadows of two women are seen dancing together. This is a terrific artistic approach, the beauty and joy of their movements contrasting with the frightening images conjured up by the imagination of the niece.

She pictures elephants swaying, trampling as she watched the quilt rise and fall. The occasional soundtrack to this play is “Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya…, a beautiful evocative ghazal on the inseparability of love and tears, made immortal by Begum Akhtar.

"The Confession," by Naatak’s Vikram Ramanarayanan dramatizes the events that led to the arrest of a Bishop from Kerala for the rape of a nun.

In the play, Bishop Jacob Varghese (Harshavardhana) denies the accusations, claiming they are conspiracies by those who do not wish to see him rise to the rank of Archbishop. “I have never laid a finger on a woman against her wishes,” is his sinister claim. Sister Jessy Kuriakose is played by Divya Pazhayannur and Dr. Sheeba Kutty by Sunanada Mukundan. Sister Jessy gives a heartbreaking response to the question from Father David Thangachen (Dhananjay Motwani) “Why didn’t you come forward before?” “I was ashamed”, she replied, “I had convinced myself that I had to serve this man to serve God.”

There are twists on the story at the end of the play, and while the last line by a priest “Father, forgive me for I am about to sin” evoked audience laughter, I felt that a silent prayer would have been more powerful. I enjoyed listening to the occasional Malayalam phrase, and was tickled by the comical, overwrought Malayalam-accented English affected by Dinesh Rao in his role as Justice Paul Mattancherry. Ayyo, too much ai poyi.

Naatak lightens the weight of heavy topics, even necrophilia, with humor, both physical and spoken. In "Shmashaaan" by Anush Moorthy, the character of Deepak is played by Snehal Pachigar whose body language, demeanor and delivery were pitch-perfect for the levity he brought to the repulsive scenes. This brought to mind the gallows humor of some friends when they were medical school residents: sometimes, to survive, we find ways to make ourselves immune to the pain we are forced to see repeatedly.

Rohit Dube is a sympathetic Rajesh. He and Deepak are Doms, caretakers of the cremations ground. His unlikely marriage to a beautiful woman from a high caste provokes the curiousity of Deepak, particularly on the question of consummation. Did it happen or not? Two alternative scenes are enacted, one where the bride rejects caste-based differences, and one where she describes a marriage of convenience. Where does the truth lie? The testing of Rajesh’s decency and resolve is accompanied by a stark drumbeat, increasing in intensity and tempo as the play reaches its shocking conclusion.

Khol Do is set during the Partition of India and Pakistan, and brings to life the heartbreak of loss, the trauma of violence and rape. Sirajuddin (Saurabh Paliwal) loses his daughter Sakina ( Geetika Shree) at a railway station. When I was a girl, once at the grand, expansive and breathstoppingly crowded Howrah Railway Station at the peak of rush hour, I walked out of my father’s sight. In a few minutes, not seeing him, I backtracked. I saw him standing on the ledge of one of the large columns on the platform, shouting my name as loudly as he could, the urgency and desperation chilling everyone who walked by, especially me. Now a parent myself, I know this visceral fear.

In the play, Sirajuddin desperately tries to find his daughter when he regains consciousness. Through the daughter’s ensuing trauma and the father’s relief at finally finding her, we witness anew the horror of Partition. Sakina’s mother’s dying words to her husband were “Take Sakina and go. This is not our country anymore.” A young man describes his dead bother’s body, covered with cuts: “As if the lines drawn across nations aren’t enough.”

On heading to my car after the impressive show, I heard a fellow audience member say to her companion, “I didn’t like any of the plays, they were too dark.”

I was reminded of Manto’s words, quoted by Anush Moorthy, in his introduction to the evening’s performance, “If you find these stories intolerable, it must mean we live in an intolerable age.”

Kudos to Naatak for a brave choice of plays, thought-provoking and superbly presented.

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