Everything about it is filmi: the evolution of Mumbai’s seamy red-light district across half a century is spanned by A.R. Rahman’s flute leitmotif, Himesh Reshammiya’s mujra composition, a video backdrop of artist Chintan Upadhyay and Akbar Padamsee’s art on a spartan stage. Add to this James Ferreira’s costumes, puffs of smoke, choreography that weaves in jazz with classical Indian and even into the gestures of spoken acts, and Nida Fazli’s Urdu poetry, a contrast to prosaic Hinglish dialogue.
And yet, in an unlikely coming together of a life-long aesthetic, it harmonizes into a spectacle that is probably one of the most honest efforts in recent times for the stage. Perhaps because Khalid Mohamed is untutored in the restrictions of theatre, Kennedy Bridge, produced by Ashvin Gidwani for stage, breaks free of them.
Autobiographical, as all his previous works have been, it is the story of an eight-year-old boy, Jahaan, in a park who strikes a bond with a mujrevaali, Shehezaada, who is broken by her attempts to escape the realities of prostitution her own mother-cum-matron, Allahrakhi, inflicts upon her. As he grows up, Jahaan is deeply affected when she falls in love and marries, not realizing his growing love for her, leaving him with a sense of abandonment and a life-long inability to commit. The story follows their lives for half a century, when they meet again, through dramatic stagings of the kotha, the jazz clubs of the swinging 1960s, and the dance bars of the 1990s. It uses filmi dance numbers of various genres to punctuate the movement and video films shot by Bollywood director of photography Sanjay Gupta to bypass periods in time.
Lifelike: A still from Kennedy Bridge.
“I do not know how to write stories that are not true for me, and yet, having said it is autobiographical, there is a way in which a story must be told—I have added the dramatic element,” says Mohamed, admitting he turned to theatre when a film he had scripted (Rutuba) didn’t work out. He then spent two years discovering it is much tougher to write for the stage than for film. His eyes become moist as he watches his own life retold in a room replete with late buddy M.F. Husain’s unseen works, Upadhyay’s paintings, his own paintings, sky-high piles of jazz and Hindi film CDs, the room strewn with books of all genres—the aesthetic of the play seems inevitable. “In film, there are assistants and editors and producers, so the execution is not about one person. For instance, in Mammo, there was dialogue with Shyam Benegal that shaped the film. In theatre, the writer-director owns the story and is entirely responsible for it,” says Mohamed.
Upadhyay, who makes his theatre debut with the play, has spent more than a year researching areas such as Kennedy Bridge, poring over the script, lyrics and discussing the sets with the director. “I’m used to involving many people in my creativity, so I enjoyed the process; art only improves with others’ perspectives. Khalid wanted the sets to be invisible, so we used very few props. This crossing of genres was Khalid’s nod to Bollywood in a way,” says Upadhyay.
The play has a built-in structured complexity: It addresses issues of transgenders, the mujrevaalis’ place in a changing society, the ironic role of men in the microcosmic women-centric world of the kotha, Mohamed’s longstanding portrayal of Muslim women as protagonists, even the evolution of music through the decades against this backdrop. On their own, each strand of the weave—art, music and theatre—are metaphoric expressions of the story itself.
Traditionalists will slam it for bringing Bollywood to stage (and how); but in the Indian context of theatre that veers more towards pretensions of colonialism, it works. Though in places the dialogue can be simplistic, naked, devoid of artifice or construct, it never aims to be more than what it is—an honest, if public, soul searching that uses the language of everyday thought. And that makes for a connect.
“I have sat with the high rollers, the superstars and their super insecurities, Shehezaada’s story always lingering in the back of my mind... In the end, I am an average journalist,” Jahaan says in a monologue, “one who visualized every comma. I must tell my story if only to exorcize it.”
Kennedy Bridge will open at the Tata Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, from 14 August