Saturday, 27 December 2014

Broken Images: Shabana Azmi at her best

There are such gifted playwrights and actors on the Indian stage (we are indeed very lucky to live during their times) – its hard to choose one best performance out of so many.

However if I had to choose the second ten best  – this would be one of them. (I think top ten would be hard for me... and just to rub it in - I just recently read Naseeruddin Shah's excellent memoir "And then One day" where in the photos section he lists the ten greatest performances on theatre he has ever seen - and each of them stellar actors. The closest I have come to the list is - to see a few of the actors live, or a couple of performances from other actors - not exactly fulfilling - close but no cigar...)

Broken Images is a play written by Girish Karnad and the English version directed by Alyque Padamsee and stars Shabana Azmi.


I had watched Shabana before in Tumhari Amrita where it was fairly staid and not really the best showcase of her talent (I think!).  But Broken Images is truly a testimony to her enormous talent.  Even better – it pits her, against herself.  So she’s competing with the very best – herself!!

Let me explain – the play explores Shabana in a dialogue with her ‘alter-ego’ that appears magically on a tv monitor in a tv stadio where she’s giving her interview. In the play Shabana is a national award winning author.  Even though she’s a professor in Hindi, her award winning novel is in English.

Without giving much of the story away, the play explores her personal life and the alter ego keeps giving her the third degree, grilling her on the reasons behind her success.

     Shabana Azmi in Broken Images, a play by Girish Karnad & directed by Alyque Padamsee

Why do we like the play? Well every reason I can think of is purely around Shabana Azmi, but lets also credit Girish Karnad for writing this play with an inventive device, and for Alyque Padamsee for directing the English version. (There’s the Hindi-Kannada version starring Arundhati Nag which is supposed to be equally outstanding – well someday...)

Ok Coming to Shabana – its hard to describe it, but its clear that her first love is theatre and I am not sure Cinema offers or uses her talents even a fraction that she uses in theatre.  This play uses a great deal of it (but her best, surely is yet to come – and we hope to see more of her in future)

The moment she walks on stage, she makes an impression.

You cannot help mistaking her for one of the ladies you might see in Delhi or Lucknow in Winter, at a social event. The body language, her tone (she speaks in Hindi for a few dialogues) diction, her mannerism, gait and even the way she keeps draping her shawl is unmistakably what you would see up North.

In real life, Shabana is a fierce, vocal, aggressive advocate of causes close to her heart and holds strong views. But on stage she transforms and shows the vulnerability that a middle class woman would have, the insecurities one would associate with them.

When I saw Broken Images the play had already been running for at least five years. So the recording  of her ‘alter ego‘ that comes on screen, and with whom she is talking through out the play, is at least that many years younger... and that much more thinner.  But it doesn’t matter.

And now for the real challenge – since the recording is fixed and plays at full length – at one go – the real life Shabana cannot go wrong, and NEEDS to remember the lines correctly and absolutely bang on. And to add to the complexity, Alyque makes Shabana walk around the stage – and the recorded version of Shabana follows and keeps her gaze on her – and its eerily accurate. But Shabana remembers everything.

There was actually one point in the play when you distinctly get the impression that the recorded version has forgotten her lines, she’s that good!

After the play, if Alyque and his daughter are around, they join Shabana on stage, and do an ‘impromptu’ discussion of the play. And knowing Alyque, this is not possible and it is clear when you see previous tweets and other social media feedback, that this is also part of the routine, and well practiced.  (The legend goes that for one of his appearances for an event, Alyque had ensured that the Elephant which would come on stage would leave some droppings behind at the right spot where folks could see the players clean it up – he manages to do it, perhaps its the old school at work here).
But this after-play discussion routine also reveals a lot.

Shabana talks about her conflict on how she had to portray and do justice to both the characters, and asks the audience which character did they like more – the heroine or her alter ego. Apparently when she’d asked Girish Karnad – he threw up his hands and said his job was to write the play and leave the audience to interpret it in their own way.

And since the play has been running for sooo many years and in so many different parts across the globe there are many incidents to share. Apparently in one corner of the US – Shabana disconnected the TV cable accidentally when she walks behind the TV. And the audience didn’t realise this as she continued with her dialogue and went behind the TV again to reconnect the cable.

In Rohtak, the local organiser called her before the show began and told her that there was one minor glitch – no one in the audience follows English very well, so could she, like, do the play in Hindi? And except for the recorded Alter Ego, Shabana would talk mostly in Hindi throughout the play.

It’s definitely worth watching again, and I did see it again, and began noticing and appreciating the small nuances used to narrate the story successfully, and how really hard this is to pull off.

Do see it – if it is playing near you. You will be thanking me....

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