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A few years of formal training certainly makes a huge difference in honing creative skills, turning talented young aspirants into professionals we can be proud of. While this may not be true for each student who enrolls at and graduates from the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), the few of the alumni who were involved with the play Kamla — which recently ran for four days at the Arts Council Auditorium in Karachi — undoubtedly proved the above point.

The first time that Vijay Tendulkar’s play Kamla became popular across the border here was when its Hindi version reached us on our VCRs in the form of a feature film, made in the mid-80s. Deepti Naval played the role of Kamla, a Bheel girl from a village in Madhya Pradesh, while Marc Zubair and Shabana Azmi played a Delhi couple, an ambitious and egoistic journalist and his dutiful wife, respectively. Tendulkar is India’s best known and most prolific Marathi-language playwright.

The Napa Repertory Theatre (NRT) production of Kamla, under review, was translated from its English version by Asif Aslam Farrukhi — writer, translator and one of the founders of the Karachi Literature Festival. One must not only commend him for his flawless Urdu script, but also for bringing out the nuances of the dialects spoken by the different characters, who were either Delhi-based, from a remote village in Bihar or from Mumbai. But then Farrukhi has mastery over his craft, having penned an adaptation of Tawfiq alHakeem’s play Sultan Ka Faisla, two plays by Girish Kernad and an adaptation of Alif Laila (Aik Hazar Aik Thi Raatain) staged by Tehrik-i-Niswan who, he says, initially pulled him towards “this kind of work.”

The young director of the play, Syed Meesam Naqvi, was the biggest surprise of the event. When I met him at the end of the performance, Naqvi said that he graduated in 2009 with the second batch of Napa students. Having majored in acting, he had performed in Napa productions and also assisted directors Zain Ahmed (theatre) and Azfar Ali (television). These experiences, as well as directing Tendulakar’s Anji (first staged in Pakistan in 1985 by Tehrik-i-Niswan and performed by theatre stalwarts Sheema Kermani, Khalid Ahmad and others), gave him the confidence to take up Kamla when it was offered to him for direction. He has indeed come out with flying colours.

Perhaps the choice of the name ‘Kamla’ by Tendulkar also has some significance. Kamla is the powerful Tantric goddess of both material and spiritual wealth, worshipped for her power to eliminate poverty. The inherent irony cannot be missed when one is made aware of the plight of her namesake... the central character in the play. She is a poor, young tribal woman from a village near Ranchi in the state of Bihar in India, who is bought for a mere Rs250 by a Delhi journalist Jaisingh Jadhav, and used as a peg in his own scheme of things.

“The art lies in presenting the case, not the case itself,” Jadhav says to Shivaji Rao, a journalist of another vernacular paper, who is respectfully addressed as Kaka Sahib, and through him the playwright artfully raises some cardinal questions about journalistic values, ethics and professional morality. In the act of buying Kamla in a slave market to prove the existence of the flesh trade, Jadhav is seeking to climb further up the professional ladder by providing sensationalism: Kamla as living proof in a well-attended press conference in Delhi. He capitalises at the cost of the poor woman, and immediately disposes of her in a women’s asylum, without a care. “Mission accomplished,” he says with abandon to his editor on the phone.

The play presents a theme with an in-built contradiction: whilst Jadhav claims that he has a ‘social commitment’ behind the act of buying a woman and presenting her to the media, he is in fact sacrificing human value ‘in the name of humanity’ by feeding the media with sensational news. This of course helps boost the circulation of the paper (read ‘ratings’ of our many competing TV channels) and at the same time gets him promoted, with substantial increase in salary and status. Such journalists exist in every society and, close to home, several instances come to mind.

On another level, the play examines the man-woman relationship between Jadhav and his wife Sarita, who realises that her own life is akin to domestic slavery when she comes face to face with Kamla’s plight: accepting her master’s complete and unquestioning control over her body and mind. Moreover, Kamla naively assumes that Sarita too was bought by Jadhav. She goes on to sympathise with the master over a bad deal in which he has housed Sarita for the last 10 years, but who has failed to conceive and bear him a child. She suggests to Sarita that she, Kamla, would bear his children while Sarita may accompany him everywhere as his social companion.

Paras Masroor is played by Jaisingh Jadhav. He and Aymen Tariq as his wife Sarita come out swinging. Masroor is convincing and fits the role like the proverbial glove. Even in the last two acts when he is drunk as a skunk, his performance is credible, and the timing perfect. So is Tariq, a familiar face for most people who see her more frequently in television plays. Their highly emotional scenes are played out with perfection.

Saqib Sameer plays the role of a slightly envious friend called Jain, who frequents Jadhav’s house. Providing a bit of comic relief, the lanky, happy-go-lucky and alcoholic Jain is superb. Ovais Manglawala as Kaka Saheb, who is visiting his niece Sarita from the village where he brings out his own paper and leads a simple life, also does a great job. Something about his diction and manner, in particular when he mocks Jadhav on writing in English for just 20 per cent of the population, reminds one of the successful Hindi film actor Paresh Rawal.

Muzaina Malik as Kamla is subtle, but the other Kamla — Kamla Bai, the domestic help — is played by Afreen Seher, who gives a spirited performance. According to the director, Seher is an intern at Napa, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre from Smith College, USA.

A few words about the set, the lights, and the music of the play:

although the set was minimalist and the entire play was set in the living room of the house, the visual aspects of the environment were skillfully combined with practical considerations. Light effects were spot on, too. On the other hand, the same cannot be said about the live music. The duo of Gul Mohammad Hussain on sarangi accompanied by Waqas on the tabla were seated on the left of the stage and contributed almost nothing. Whilst in the opening act, when Sarita is speaking to Kaka Saheb, the music was a tad loud and almost drowned the dialogues, it became obvious as the play progressed that the music was not well integrated, and was a mere distraction.

In spite of this minor glitch, it was a remarkable production, and dealt with issues we should be taking more seriously than as mere entertainment. Last but not least, kudos to the young team for adeptly managing the entire performance, including backstage, to ensure starting and ending, exactly on time.