The terrorists in Mumbai had just about been cleared from the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the Trident Hotel when Mujeeb Khan was ready with the script of his next street play. While the media was busy streaming live coverage from Ground Zero, Khan was poring over at least five newspapers in different languages, keeping track of the news channels and researching terrorism on the Internet. Three days and three rewrites later, on 30 November, he was ready with Ay Ab Bus Bahut Huwa…Teri To based on the attack.
Khan has been writing and directing street plays for 30 years and has a Mumbai-based theatre company, Ideal Drama and Entertainment Academy (IDEA), which stages Hindi and Urdu plays based on stories and reports culled from newspapers and news channels. He calls this journalistic theatre, having penned in the past plays such as Justice for Jessica, based on Jessica Lal’s murder, and Bilkis Bano, about the pregnant woman who was raped by 22 men during the Gujarat riots. “Our scripts are fact-based, yet emotional and impactful,” he says. “We have media coverage to back every fact in the script.”
Fast forward: Actors get only a few hours to rehearse before a performance. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Khan started writing plays while in school and his first big performance happened in 1980 when he was in class XII. For a competition organized by the Maharashtra Rajya Urdu Academy at Sydenham College, he wrote a play on unemployment. Eminent Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai was a judge. “She was shocked that a young person had written the play. She came up to me and said ‘Aapke naatak se meri aatma tadap gayi hai’ (your play has touched my soul),” he says. After that he remained in touch with Chughtai, who became a mentor of sorts for the young writer.
Now he also conducts acting workshops and makes documentaries. “You can’t run a home just writing for theatre,” says Khan who staged a play about the devastation caused by the tsunami in 2004, performing at schools, colleges and temples. “We collected Rs48,000 for the victims and are probably the only theatre group in the world to have done that.”
Ay Ab Bus Bahut Huwa… weaves themes from the freedom struggle with the present fight against terrorism, punctuated by the powerful poetry of Ram Prasad Bismil, the famed Urdu poet and freedom fighter. The narrative style and Bismil’s poetry will remind audiences of the 2006 film Rang De Basanti. In 25 minutes, Khan covers all aspects of the attack—the religious sentiment, the apathy of the politicians, the pain of the common man and the media blitzkrieg that followed the attack—just through dialogue. There are no props, no costumes and no lights; when required, the actors’ humming provides the background music.
At least 18 actors from his theatre company were part of the play that was performed last week in Mumbai. They come from varied backgrounds— some are still in college or have day jobs. Bali Sagar, 32, has a printing shop in Fort and is a movie stuntman; Shubh Joshi, 24, is in director Vikram Bhatt’s next film; and Junaid Handoo, a 25-year-old MBA grad, has a cameo in Ghajini, the Aamir Khan starrer slated for release this month. For them, this is a stepping stone to careers in the movies or television.
“It’s very hard to teach them to act. Mainly because we concentrate on diction and my plays are mostly in Urdu,” Khan says.
For someone like Ashish Chawla, 30, who left a corporate career for his true calling, theatre is a life choice. He played the lead role of Bismil, reciting weighty lines in Urdu. “The reaction that I got for this play is something I’ve never seen,” he says. “It’s such a burning topic, people were stunned and had tears in their eyes. This type of work has an objective, it’s not just entertainment.”
To join the IDEA theatre group, contact Mujeeb Khan in Mumbai on 9821044429.