Punjabi poetry’s grand dame Amrita Pritam was quick to discover talent and nurture it. So when a young Deepti Naval, still in her early 20s, was introduced to her by filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya, the budding poet hesitantly showed some poems to the senior. Not only did Amrita appreciate the poems, but also promptly called her publisher saying; “This girl Deepti writes very well, you must come tomorrow and have a look at the poems.” Within a year, Deepti’s debut poetry anthology ‘Lamhe Lamhe’ was in the hands of surprised readers who found that besides being a talented actor she was a poet to reckon with.
Deepti, who has recently been much appreciated for playing the role of Amrita in Saif Hyder Hasan’s play ‘Ek Mulaqat’ (A Rendezvous) was passing through the city this Friday on way to her studio-home near Manali. In a tête-à-tête, she fondly recounts this first encounter with the poet that was later to grow into a warm poet-to-poet bonding. When the offer came to play Amrita on stage in the story inspired by the Sahir-Amrita romance with Shekhar Suman playing the role of the famed lyricist, Deepti put aside other work to research and get ready for something close to her heart. Twenty shows of the play in Mumbai and one in Dubai, ‘Ek Mulaqat’ is creating ripples and is likely to go the way of Feroze Abbas Khan’s two-actor play ‘Tumhari Amrita’ with Shabana Azmi and Farooque Shaikh telling a story of unrequited love through reading of letters. ‘Tumhari Amrita’ ran into 300 shows across the world over two decades. However, whereas Khan’s play had the protagonist’s name as Amrita by chance, in Hasan’s play Amrita and her poetry have been brought alive by Deepti. The actor says: “Having known her personally, I always considered it remarkable about (Amrita’s) personality that though she had a lot of strength as a female writer – she was one of the key figures in Punjabi literature – she was a demure and gentle person. And that’s how I’ve tried to portray her on stage.” Last summer, I was on the Amrita trail in Delhi with Deepti as she braved the hot winds in an autorickshaw, gathering poetry books from the Rabindra Bhawn and the Sahitya Akademi godown near Birla Mandir. Deepti poured over the poetry not just of Amrita, but also of other Punjabi writers because she wanted to see the poet in true perspective. The labour of love paid. Deepti has brought out the essence of her poetry and personality on stage. Interestingly Shekhar Suman, whom television viewers remember for his comedy act, has played the great Sahir with intensity doing a fine job of the recitations. It is yet another tale of unfulfilled love that has won the hearts of the people. Well, the whole world loves love stories and the romance of the unrequited is always more alluring. The play should soon be coming northwards with shows being negotiated for Delhi and Chandigarh.
Deepti recalls that often Amrita would ask her, “You are a Punjabi girl so why don’t you write in Punjabi?” Deepti adds that she never had the heart to tell the lady totally committed to Punjabi that Hindustani and English came more easily to her as medium for expression. But Deepti has indeed given the return gift to her mentor, who encouraged her to write on by doing the recitations in the play completely in Punjabi. “I just did not want to take away the original feel by translating them into Hindustani. In Mumbai, some among the audience said they could not fully comprehend the Punjabi poetry, but they felt it in their hearts,” says Deepti. There were apprehensions on how the Punjabi poetry would go down in Dubai, but a large section of the audience was of Pakistanis who simply loved it. Certainly, the whole exercise has been for the love of it.