This weekend in Delhi: Actor Pankaj Kapur’s dramatic reading of a poignant tale
The sparsely-lit stage has only a few set pieces. A wilting tree with a kite entangled in its branches. A rocking chair, besides which, a paandaan (betel leaf container) is placed within easy arm’s reach; a stately desk, with cubbyhole and a lamp; and a single actor, theatre veteran Pankaj Kapur, bringing the story of a lonely old widow, Amma Bi, to life.
This weekend, audiences in Delhi will get to savour Dopehri, Kapur’s solo outing as part of the Delhi Theatre Festival. Kapur’s dramatised reading of the novella he wrote more than 20 years ago, is the tale of Amma Bi, a matriarch who lives by herself in the once-grand Laal Haveli, in the bylanes of Lucknow.
Kapur says he wrote the novella with the idea of an old woman and neglect. “I think it has to do with my concerns, the way I feel towards life, towards people, towards characters, towards society, towards relationships, towards the milieus in which we live,” says the actor-director.
Amma Bi’s only companions are her domestic help, Jumman, who comes to clean and cook every day and her late husband’s friend Dr Saxena, who visits her occasionally. Her family is abroad, and with no one to keep her company, Amma Bi’s days become long and Laal Haveli’s shadows become frightening. On the brink of moving into an old age home, Amma Bi decides to open her doors to a paying guest, the independent Sabiha, and in doing so, opens the door for her own transformation.
If the story is riveting, the treatment is more so. For all of its one-and-a-half-hour run time, Dopehri has Pankaj Kapur on stage, narrating the story from a paper. With deft change of tone and phrasing, and the story’s ebb and flow, he is, by turns, Amma Bi or Jumman, Dr Saxena or Sabiha.
Kapur describes Dopehri as an experience, “an evening in theatre”. “What happens in a play is happening. In a play, a few actors perform a few characters, and they need to perform those characters with a certain level of believability so that audiences can actually understand and see them as those characters. When a writer is an actor himself and he gives the same experience to the audiences in a different form, then it becomes a slightly novel idea,” he says.
Dopehri began as an experiment, but Theatron, the theatre company Kapur founded with wife and thespian actor Supriya Pathak, has already done 43 shows.
Dopehri is also striking in its moving portrayal of an old woman, whose stories are usually missing from our narratives of love, power or adventure. “When I was writing the novella, the thought in my head was about the older generation, especially women, who are almost lost in our society. I tried to create a world of her own around her. While living in that world of loneliness, how things move and she realises her own worth at this age,” explains Kapur.
Neither Amma Bi’s sharp tongue nor the Laal Haveli’s stateliness is enough to shield her from gnawing loneliness. The title, Dopehri, then, seems less about sun and warmth, and more like a long interminable afternoon stretching into eternity—something that changes with Sabiha’s arrival. Amma Bi gains a companion and begins a journey of self-discovery, finding the woman who was Mumtaz Siddique before she became a wife, a mother or Laal Haveli’s Amma Bi.
The strength of the play is the cinematic quality of Kapur’s words, which serves to fire the audience’s imagination. “Most of the theatre work that you see in India is very verbose and the visual is whatever you can create on stage. So this takes their imagination to create a play for themselves,” says Kapur.
The absence of characters or sets means that while Kapur’s narration draws an outline, each person in the audience fills in their own set of details. “Each person’s haveli, each person’s Amma Bi will be different. To me, that is the fun and enriching part of this novella,” says the actor.
Dopehri also marked Kapur’s return to the stage when it was first performed, after a hiatus that lasted two decades. During his time away from theatre, Kapur wrote, directed and acted for films and television, which left him no time for theatre. But it was also circumstance that forced him away from the stage, says the actor. “First, theatres were not available. And then the form in which I wanted to do it, most people did not understand what I was trying to do. Thirdly, the lack of commitment of co-actors was one of the reasons of picking up Dopehri as a single person read,” he says.
With Dopehri, Kapur wanted to be completely in-control of the production. But Theatron is already exploring other stories. In April, Kapur and Pathak, along with other cast members, will return to Delhi with two productions of Dreamz-Saher, a play about a professor’s chance encounter with a mystery woman in search of her sister. Dreamz-Saher is also based on a story written by Kapur, but according to the actor, most of his writing is meant keeping film in mind. “Even Dopehri, if somebody has a bit of imagination, the way it’s written, they will be able to see that it’s a screenplay with dialogues,” he says.
WHAT: Dopehri--Dramatised reading in Hindi
WHEN: 2pm, March 10
WHERE: Sirifort auditorium, August Kranti Marg
NEAREST METRO STATION: Green Park