I went to Padatik not expecting much—the director of Kāgaz ke Gubbāre, Anubha Fatehpuria, had informed me that it comprised dramatized readings, as the first episode of their new series “Writers on Stage”, and I don’t particularly care for this half-literature, half-theatre mode. However, the performers knocked me over, not with their handheld scripts, but with their full-fledged ensemble work that renders the scripts redundant (except the one essential as a prop for Ismat Chughtai’s role, played by Fatehpuria) and packs a solid comedic-feministic punch.
Not many Chughtai dramatizations have passed my way, but this one surpasses them all, even Motley’s hit Ismat Āpā ke Nām, which consisted of three stories (Chhui Mui, Gharwāli and Ghunghat). Fatehpuria doubles that count, all six sharing the themes of marriage and female “respectability”. She adds Kunwāri, about a girl’s romantic fantasies; Ek Shohar ki Khātir, where train passengers keep enquiring after a single (unmarried) woman’s marital ties; and Peshā, contrasting a teacher appalled by the tawāifs who have become her neighbours. Where Naseeruddin Shah had made Ghunghat, on an unconsummated marriage, quite tragic, Fatehpuria stresses its funny side, telling me that she can hear Chughtai chuckling in her stories. So she gives Chhui Mui (a begum on a train) and Gharwāli (Mirza wedding his maid) that sarcastic laughter too. Her directorial notes say that Chughtai exhorted women “to take charge of their lives and stop complaining about what society has done”.
As interludes for relief, Fatehpuria intersperses Chughtai’s repartees with Manto, clips of audio interviews of Chughtai, and a couple of songs which surprise us that all but one of the cast can sing so well, and that too to only percussion accompaniment, by the able Sukrit Sen. The six actors (Ashok Singh, Kalpana Jha, Karuna Thakur, Palash Chaturvedi, Titas Dutta and the director herself) do not correspond to each of the half-dozen stories but participate in all with equal gusto. If anything, their occasional unnecessary glances at their scripts to establish the format of “readings” breaks their otherwise strong impact. I cannot help but single out Ashok Singh, the seniormost, for the nuances that he brings to his characters in Gharwāli and Ghunghat (photo above).
Fatehpuria’s set also surprises, innovatively turning round the axis of Padatik Little Theatre by 180˚, converting the two thin gallery rows which normally hold the audience’s chairs into the main playing area. She writes that the narrow strips demonstrate how women can make the tiniest spaces work, while literally “walking a tightrope and pushed against a wall” (the back wall behind the top gallery resembles a stone rampart hemming them in, that some of them consciously press against). Equally novel, on stage left the small alcove that usually serves as a changing cubicle becomes Chughtai’s study with Fatehpuria sitting at her desk, writing away, watching her stories enacted, and sometimes entering them. Her eye for design includes the costumes. Inspired by Chughtai’s autobiography, Kāgazi Hai Pairāhan (paper attire), she dresses the entire team in white, the actresses in kotā saris that give the effect of starched paper.
I left Padatik wondering where they had hidden Fatehpuria’s directorial acumen for so many years!