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Back to roots

In an exclusive telephonic interview to MetroPlus, Naseeruddin Shah says that he chanced upon the works of Ismat Chughtai and Manto

— Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Naseeruddin Shah: `They belong right up there as writers.'

SOME FIFTY years after a Lahore High Court issued a summons to Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hassan Manto on charges of obscenity for their short stories Lihaaf (The Quilt) and Bu (Odour), these two Hindustani stories are being staged as plays. Fifty years after Ismat, preparing her two-month-old baby's milk when policemen showed up at her door, initially refused to sign the summons. Fifty years after she suggested to the policemen that she should, in fact be arrested so she could experience prison life. Then finally handed the bottle over to the policeman while she signed. Fifty years after she and Manto sat on the benches outside the Lahore High Court learning from a friend how to suck the juice out of maltas (a citrus fruit), as their high-profile trial on charges of obscenity raged inside.

"They were such similar people in their zany take on life," says one of the finest actors of our times, Naseeruddin Shah, who is bringing four pieces by the two authors to Bangalore as theatre, in a telephonic interview to MetroPlus. "They were such close friends... even suspected of being lovers. It was a natural step from Ismat to Manto." Their writing is still relevant today although they wrote 50 or more years ago, he says. "They wrote on what took their fancy," he muses, "They had a great world vision. They wrote about small incidents that leave lasting effects; there's an amazing use of language. They belong right up there as writers."

Adapting Ismat

This is the second set of plays based on stories by Ismat that Naseer is involved with. He admits he hadn't read any of her work the first time he met her. He discovered her in a translation ("what I later discovered was a poor translation") and then, fascinated, searched out the originals. "Through her I discovered a whole wealth of Hindustani literature," says Naseer.

Ismat Chughtai, universally acknowledged as one of modern Urdu literature's foremost writers has been variously assigned labels of iconoclastic, progressive, and revolutionary. But she's also, simply, delightful. One of her more memorable essays is a light-hearted almost frivolous description of her summons to trial in Lahore along with Saadat Hassan Manto, which they eventually won, since the prosecution could not prove any obscenity.

Both stories for which they faced trial, Bu and Lihaaf as well as Ismat's recollection of the trial, are being brought to Bangalore and have been staged in other cities before.

Strong responses

"The reaction to Lihaaf has generally been warm and enthusiastic," says Naseer, "but some people have been offended by Bu. There was this gentleman with his teenage daughter who walked out of Bu complaining of `filth'. It's amazing because Bu was written in the '50s! This guy was reacting to a description of a woman's body here, but he lets his daughter watch MTV. The spoken word has a much stronger impact and gets more reaction."

Naseer has often talked about how his films support his, and his family's theatre. Now with some 150 films, many of them in mainstream Bollywood cinema, under his belt, you wonder whether Naseer is less inclined to compromise on his career and is returning to familiar idioms and landscapes. "I don't know," he admits, reluctant to admit such a simple return to atavistic roots. "Ismat has exercised a strong pull on me... she's evoked so much of my own childhood. The people she writes about are people in my own family, they belong to the same small town U.P. There's a sense of connection, but I don't know if it's a particular stage."

Films for theatre

Despite his later career not receiving the same recent adrenalin thrust as his contemporary Om Puri's (who probably spends more time out of the country shooting for a numerous films, crossover and mainstream, and has been awarded the O.B.E.), Naseer says he still does the number of films a year that he is comfortable with, about two. And working on adaptations of Chughtai and Manto can't be a cakewalk.

It helps that his family is involved with these productions; daughter Heeba for instance enacts Chughtai's story on lesbianism, Lihaaf. "It's completely professional," he says firmly about their working style. "It doesn't matter at all, except of course she's always available when I need her!"

Manto Ismat Haazir Hain, the stage adaptation of four stories directed by Naseeruddin Shah is being staged at Chowdiah Memorial Hall on Saturday and Sunday. Call on 25524192/25503481 for ticket details.

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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