Go for this experimental mono-act if you have a strong gut and sensitive heart, says Anupama Chandra
Saadat Hasan Manto is a literary personality I have received as an uneasy legacy from many elders in my life. A controversial and prosecuted, though prolific, writer who wrote ‘unholy’ tales (read ugly truths in stark tongues) and died young and in penury, and prepared his own epitaph a year before his death to say “Here lies buried (Manto) —and buried in his breast are all the secrets of the art of story-telling,” is not exactly an ideal idol for a young mind.
While his sensitivity for and large-heartedness towards those sidelined is remarkable, so is his major pride and multiple fixations. Maybe his own foibles, his understanding of it and acceptance of the same are what lead him to write to such strange dark stories about such flawed characters.
This play is based on Manto’s “Hatak” meaning insult, one of the many studies of prostitutes that the author had conducted. “Bebaak Manto” takes you through the everyday drudgery of Sugandhi, a sex worker (Sau-gandhi or one who secretes hundred fragrances as she explains to her lover), and certain satellite characters portrayed single-handedly by Daksh Vashisht.
Starring in a deliberately shabby chawl-like drawing room, Daksh begins the play as a rather handsome Manto (the original was very plain; don’t believe me, search the net), who frankly (bebaak) asks the audience why is a woman who is part of the flesh trade looked down upon when a lady typist is not. His dialogue, he engages the audience ably, in unalloyed Urdu may be difficult for most to follow.
He transforms physically on-stage into Sugandhi who despite her occupation is yet open to the idea that true love exists, and falls in love with havaldar Madho from Pune, who in turn blatantly lives off her. Her pimp Ramlal suggests the same even as he solicits work for her and tries to shield her from the barbs of clients. The actor also makes you feel the presence of an invisible, diseased and hairless dog that lives under Sugandhi’s bed and reacts to her clients.
I watched the play at Clap theatre, Malad. This two and a half-year-old place can accommodate about 50 people and is a very intimate setting for this disturbing story. You cannot wrest yourself and watch the proceedings objectively at this venue.
Growth of the Characters
Solo performances are tough, and Daksh is brave enough in attempting this story with its myriad characters. The ziillaat (hurt) that Sugandhi experiences at a particular inevitable juncture of every woman’s life is also felt by the audience, thanks to the actor’s piercing shrieks and incomprehensible and emotional outburst. The hunchback of Ramlal is as distinct as is Manto’s sharp reserve and Sugandhi’s lilting walk than never borders on becoming a caricature.
In the play, the breakdown also allows Sugandhi to see her lover in a clearer light and its repercussion where Daksh manages to play and balance both parts simultaneously is commendable. Conversely, when Madho understands that the tables have turned on him and beats a hasty retreat, it’s quite appreciated by the audience.
About Friends and Foes
Mitr Rangmanch and director Anil Sharma deserve kudos for selecting a relatively lesser known play by the detested stalwart. It is very easy to pick up Thanda Ghosth or Toba Tek Singh, but to leaf through the collected works of this genius and select Hatak takes some hard thinking. This choice seems in line with the fundamental theme of social awareness that Mitr has worked with in most of its plays such as Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamiya Nai and Taj Mahal Ka Tender. You can feel the discomfort that Manto aimed for in his writings clearly in the play, and the layered narrative style works. The music by Rishabh Parashar supports ably as does the set, while the lights were throwing shadows on the actor from where I was watching.
The story is serious through and through, and not the right pick if you are looking for light entertainment. If a timeless, albeit realist, tale is what you seek, go for Bebaak Manto. The rousing performance by Daksh will move you.
Title of Play: Bebaak Manto
Director: Anil Sharma
Cast: Daksh Vashisht
Language: Urdu & Hindi