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A life in letters

June 22, 2013

KARACHI, June 21: Javed Siddiqi's play Aap ki Soniya, a sequel to the critically acclaimed Tumhari Amrita, follows the same form, that is, two people exchanging letters over the course of their relationship. Only this time, the relationship is between an older man, a retired politician and lawyer, in and out of the hospital because of his failing health, and a young woman in her late 20s, living in Paris. The correspondence is initiated by the woman, Soniya, played by Mehwish Hayat, who wants to learn more about the relationship between the man, Nawabzada Syed Zulfiqar Haider, played by Sajid Hasan, and her mother. The mother, we learn over the course of letters exchanged between the two, had died a while ago in India, having left her daughter in France with the man Soniya believes to be her father.

Bitter at the mother's betrayal, as she sees it, Soniya claims to hate Haider, believing he is the reason her mother left her. Haider, meanwhile, had not known of her existence and takes a while to believe that his close friend and lover had a child she never told him about. Over the course of the play, Soniya's and Haider’s relationship transforms, gradually moving from hostility and suspicion to mutual dependence and grudging affection as they come to rely on each other's presence through letters received and sent. The beauty of the play, directed by Alyy Khan, is that there are no sudden shifts in perceptions and emotions; the evolution in the relationship is gentle and believable over the course of two or three years.

Hasan was clearly the stronger actor, able to infuse his dialogues with emotions ranging from amusement, disbelief and humour to longing and tenderness. The dialogues belonging to his character were also stronger, better written. Hayat's dialogue delivery was weak in comparison, and her dialogues often seemed better suited to an older character. Given that the reading of the letters is the only 'action' taking place on stage, a lot more work should have been put into getting it right.

At the same time, the play never becomes tedious, no mean feat when the set over the two acts remains the same, two writing tables and some books, and the characters for the most part remain seated, reading from their letters. In fact, the writer is able to generate a lot of curiosity about Soniya's hostility, a curiosity that is wonderfully mirrored in Haider, and where this unlikely correspondence is headed. The minimalist approach is also a pleasant change from plays filled with characters and busy sets.

For fans of Sajid Hasan, in particular, this play is a great and rare opportunity to watch the wonderful actor practise his craft live.

A few managerial shortcomings let the production down. The venue (Southend Club) was obscure and not suited to a serious production with noises from the lobby disturbing the performance every time the doors opened; the production could not start on time and people were not allowed to take their seats till just before the play started; and in the absence of a programme, an announcement was made before the start of the play about the actors, writers, technical support and sponsors — disturbing the perception of make-believe so essential to a good production.

With so many plays being put up and the audience being charged high ticket prices, it's time productions become more professional.