Lights on, fan off, camera ready. Start. Scene 34, take one…“Neela Devi aap chinta mat keejiye. Maine bhi Peshawar ka peshab piya hai” (Don’t worry Neela Devi, I’ve tasted the urine of Peshawar). Cut, cut, cut goes the director in disgust. The line was meant to be Peshawar ka pani.
The year is 1946 and the man behind the camera Ashok Kumar Ganguly, the first talkies star who turned director with Eight Days, after tasting stardom with Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya.
Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, in his avatar as film writer for Bombay Talkies, peeped into the lives of stars from another era in his memoir Meenabazaar.
Now, its eponymous theatre adaptation by New Delhi Players will recreate these brilliant portraits.
One of these, Ashok Kumar, comes across as a cinema idol who spurned the advances of his women admirers. Even on the few occasions he fancied a co-star, he could never summon the courage to express his desire. “Manto, yaar, himmat nahin hoti” (I don’t have the guts), he often said.
Manto, on the other hand, was spunk personified. For his audacity, running through 22 collections of short stories, a novel, five collections of radio plays and two collections of personal sketches, he was tried for obscenity six times.
“As a character he was as colourful as he was complex,” says Meenabazaar director Shuddho Banerjee, 44. “Apart from his association with leading men and ladies of yore, we are
recreating Manto’s Partition trauma at leaving Bombay and settling in Lahore after the riots — which subsequently drove him to a mental asylum and inspired Toba Tek Singh.”
At a time when many Indian directors cannot look beyond Bertold Brecht, Arthur Miller and Shakespeare for inspiration, this fortnight sees another production that pays a tribute to a sub-continental literary giant.
With Sharad Joshi Ki Yaad Mein… his daughter Baanee Sharad, a National School of Drama graduate from the class of ’82, makes a theatrical presentation of the satirist’s stories.
Joshi, the writer behind yesteryear laugh riot Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and new favourite Laaptaganj kept his family in splits with stories from his travels. “In real life, too, he had a quaint way of putting things across,” says Baanee.
Among the pieces Baanee will present at Akshara Theatre on Sunday is Olympic, which begins: “Olympic naam us jagah ka hai jahan Bharatiya team haarti hai” (Olympic is where the Indian team loses), a farcical plea to put a writer in the hockey team instead. Do Jooton Ki Katha is about a pair of shoes who live together for years and are separated when one is flung at a politician and joins a great Indian democratic tradition. In the outlandish Netritva (Leadership), the syllable Ta goes
missing from the life of a neta (leader). He looks to extract the ‘ta’ out of a taala (lock) but fails. The quest, you guessed it, ends with the joota (shoe).
And you thought the love-hate relationship between soles and politicians’ souls was a recent phenomenon.