This weekend, when actors Deepti Naval and Shekhar Suman take stage during the Delhi Theatre Festival, they will bring to life the lyrical, unrealised love story of two of India’s greatest poets, Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi.
The play, Ek Mulaqat, is just what the title promises — the story of one fateful meeting between the two poets on Amrita’s terrace, laced with all the drama of unrequited love, touches of familiarity, a few taunts and a lot of poetry. “It is a fascinating journey exploring these two people enamoured by each other, in love with each other’s work,” says Naval.
Director Saif Hyder Hasan says that the idea of writing a play on the complex relationship between Amrita, the doyenne of Punjabi poetry and Sahir, the Urdu poet and lyricist struck him when he was looking for a script “closer to his roots”.
Though there were a few scripts on Sahir, his co-writer Somana Ahmed and he wanted to focus on the poet’s relationship with Amrita — she never hesitated to admit her love for Sahir, while he could never commit to her.
The result is a play that is carried by the conversation between the two, as they often recite lines from each other’s poetry in their raillery. “Sahir Amrita jahan ho wahan alfaz toh lazmi hai. Na who alfaz se dur reh sakte hain na alfaz unse,” Naval’s Amrita remarks at one point during the play.
Initially, both Hasan and Suman wondered whether there was an audience for a play that relied so heavily on Urdu and Punjabi poetry. “But the magic of poetry is such that even if you don’t understand every word, you get the gist of it,” says Hasan.
While the script has essentially remained the same, the only changes have been as the actors discovered more poetry and added it to the play. In fact, Hasan’s casting is rather inspired — while Naval knew Amrita Pritam personally and was familiar with her work, Suman had idolized Sahir since childhood when he was gifted a copy of Parchaiyan, a book of poetry by him.
“I had read Amrita ji’s works, but I had always set aside her poetry as too difficult because the Punjabi she uses wasn’t familiar to me,” says Naval. “This play took me deep into her poetry.”
Naval says she tried to stay with Amrita’s personality — demure on the surface, strong-willed inside. “She was so much in love with Sahir and she was always very forthright in expressing this,” she says. Suman on the other hand had the tough task of convincing the audience what lay behind the Scotch-drinking, rebellious poet’s refusal to commit to Amrita Pritam. “After one performance, a woman told me that she used to dislike Sahir purely because of how he treated Amrita. But after watching the play, she felt she understood him as a person,” says Suman.
The play teases all this out slowly, the human drama of two lovers meeting after many years over a game of cards. “The poetry is the second-most important feature of the play. The first is the banter and the equation between the two,” says Naval.
Ostensibly, the play looks minimal, just two characters on stage at all times. But behind-the-scenes, mood lighting and audio works to create a mesmerising effect. “We have retuned — not remixed four songs penned by Sahir for the play. My idea is that when the audience fits into a darkened auditorium, they should experience something exquisite — acting, sound quality, music,” says Hasan.
Audiences from Bangalore and Hyderabad to Singapore and London have been wowed by the play – Saturday’s performance will be the 72nd time Ek Mulaqat is being staged. But both Naval and Suman say they are always on tenterhooks before a big performance. “Theatre is the only medium where you have a two-way equation with the audience. You can see how they are reacting,” says Suman.
This is the first play Naval has ever acted in, so she says she has nothing to compare it against. But the part she finds most rewarding is the space theatre allows you to evolve. “I would continue to relive a shot in my mind long after we packed up. But in theatre, if you want to try something out differently, you can try it in the very next performance,” she says. “As you perform, the play grows on you, you grow into the character, your interpretation changes.”
Also at The Delhi Theatre festival:
A Walk in the Woods: This Motley production directed by Ratna Pathak Shah is the story of an Indian and a Pakistani diplomat who eschew the formal process of hard negotiations in favour of a ‘walk in the woods’ to achieve a breakthrough. In this retelling of Lee Bessling’s original play set in the Cold War era, Naseeruddin Shah plays suave Pakistani diplomat Jamaluddin Lutfullah while Rajit Kapoor’s blunt, by-the-book Indian diplomat Ram Chinappa is the perfect foil.
Barff: Directed by Saurabh Shukla and starring him, Barff is set in wintry Kashmir. A doctor goes to a friend’s house to treat his daughter but is shocked to discover that it is a doll he has been called to administer to, not a human. While it is not overtly political, Barff challenges the idea that there is only one version of truth.
What: Delhi Theatre Festival
When: A Walk in the Woods, 7 pm, April 29; Ek Mulaqat, 2 pm, April 30; and Barff, 8 pm, April 30
Where: Siri Fort Auditorium, Siri Institutional Area, Asian Games Village Complex.
Nearest metro station: Green Park
Buy tickets on bookmyshow.com