A tribute to Ismat apa

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Hiba Shah, Ratna Phatak Shah and Nasseruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah’s theatrical production of Ismat Chughtai’s short stories draws standing ovations

By Nabiha Meher Sheikh

When I heard that Naseeruddin Shah was returning to Lahore to with his theatre production “Ismat Apa ke naam”, I jumped at the chance to watch it again.

I had seen the play – or rather, series of plays, based on the renowned Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s short stories – six years ago when it was first performed here. I looked forward to seeing it the second time around – Ismat Chugthai is an unparalleled writer, and I remembered how exquisite the performance and production were.

The theatre group from Mumbai, comprising Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Hiba Shah, performed at Lahore’s Alhamra Art Council on Dec 1 and 2, at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation, set up by the family of the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is equally beloved on both sides of the border.

“The love I get here, I do not have the words to describe that. I don’t feel scared at all here. It feels like… like I have come back home,” Shah told reporters after arriving to a warm welcome in Lahore.

Shah first came to Pakistan when he played a major role in the film ‘Khuda ke Liye’ (in God’s name) produced by Geo TV. He is also starring in the Indo-Pak feature film ‘Zinda Bhaag’ due to be released soon.

Passes to the shows went fast. The Faiz Foundation had invited student groups in and around Lahore including Chunian and Gujrat at subsidised rates, Rs 200 per student. “The students were ecstatic,” commented Salima Hashmi. “Their presence and response gave the performances an extra charge.”

The performances drew standing ovations on both nights, and Shah said that this was “the best audience” he had ever seen.”

The applause was well deserved. The performers outdid themselves in the three plays I saw on the first night – Chuee Moee (“Touch Me Not”) performed by Hiba Shah; Mughal Bacha/Gunghat (The Veil) by Ratna Pathak, and Gharwali by Shah himself (he didn’t perform on the second night but did introduce the production, which he had directed). Clearly, over the years, they have perfected their performances and reached a whole new level. Not once was I bored or felt like I was watching something repetitive. In fact, I was fascinated and hanging on to every word, laughing along with the audience.                                                                    Aman2

This was Chughtai’s work at her finest, presented in a way I read it in my head with the unique desi humour that allows us to mock ourselves, despite the heaviness of the subject matter. Her’s is a feminist voice focused on the plight of women, specifically the emotional toll of being a woman in a heavily patriarchal world.

Chughtai’s stories remain relevant even today, despite these different, more ‘modern’ times where feminist consciousness is far greater than before but the force of patriarchy continues to oppress us. This is what binds women across the Indian subcontinent regardless of different languages, cultures, religions and customs. Last year, Pakistan and India were found to be the third and fourth worst countries to be a woman in, according to a survey by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. Chughtai tells women’s stories in her trademark straightforward but cheeky manner that prevents them from being ‘heavy’. Shah shines in Gharwali as Lajoo, a woman who is unapologetic about who she is – everything a woman is not supposed to be.

Marriage doesn’t suit her, challenging sub-continental notions of woman as wife, sister and mother. I sincerely hope to see Indian actors, writers and artists in Pakistan more often. Our common culture and language brings us together seamlessly when we are allowed to meet.

It is good to hear that Naseeruddin Shah and family have committed to returning next year and I know I’ll be attending their show again.

Written for Aman ki Asha.

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