Aaj rang hai: The colours of pop secularism

Aaj Rang Hai, from T-Pot & Aarambh Productions, is a delightful melodrama that has recently completed 25 performances all over the country with stopovers from Delhi to Trivandrum.

Film Impressions May 25, 2011 14:23:49 IST
Aaj rang hai: The colours of pop secularism

by

Vikram Phukan

Aaj Rang Hai, from T-Pot & Aarambh Productions, is a delightful melodrama that has recently completed 25 performances all over the country with stopovers from Delhi to Trivandrum. It is the story of two women, Beni and Phuphi, who struggle with fostering Hindu-Muslim amity in their locality in a time when more sectarian notions have rapidly gained ground. Set ostensibly in the 60s, the play has a contemporary resonance, even if it doesn’t quite address the reality of the parallel cultures that make up the modern Indian ethos.

The heavy lifting in the play is left to actress Trishla Patel as the ideologue Benia —  towering presence who props up the narrative with her tales of Amir Khusrau. She is a hardened woman who is almost didactic in the way she propagates her ideas of religious tolerance. In contrast, Phuphi (an award-winning turn from Ahlam Khan) is a study in vintage irascibility and wears her prejudices on her sleeve — a Muslim boy isn’t allowed to set foot in her kitchen— but her bigotry is rather superficial and at heart she is a woman welling over in empathy. The emotional core of the play centres upon a love story — that of Hindu girl Sharda and Fakhruddin urf Fanne, a young Muslim wastrel from the mohalla.

Although Aaj Rang Hai is an entertaining evening out, its politics hasn't been re-invented for the times we live in. It wears its secular credentials on its sleeve but there is a very subtle undercurrent of ‘them and us’ that seems to override the sensibility of the play. It’s almost like a window into ‘their’ world, through a house in which ‘we’ live. The women are grappling to understand this ‘other’. The parables are that of alienation. The Muslim bystanders who don’t want to play rang are upbraided for their close-mindedness. The love story of Sharda and Fanne is conflated with the tales of Allauddin Khilji’s unrequited and doomed 'love' for Rani Padmini of Chittor, and his son's acquisition of Deval Rani, in a manner that is less than convincing. Sometimes you can sense the slightest whiff of propaganda raising its head.

Aaj rang hai The colours of pop secularism

Amir Khusro surrounded by young men. Miniature from a manuscript of Majlis Al-Usshak by Husayn Bayqarah. Photo courtesy: Stage Impressions

In the play there is a call to partake in a shared heritage of language and music that wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for this mix of cultural strands that have made it richer over the centuries. Beni holds forth with her simplistic homilies of inclusiveness, and Amir Khusrau (played by Gagan Riar) is like a saint who has descended from the heavens, readymade in his beatification. Maybe his mystic ways did bring about a rapprochement between the two cultures. His legacy is celebrated— khari boli reflected well in the script; a rousing qawwali or two; and extended kathak vignettes that don’t quite aid the narrative.

However, Khusrau is almost a smokescreen for the times we live in. It’s fitting that for most of the performance he stays resolutely behind a thin curtain that separates the players from a live Qawwal troupe. The curtain is precisely a metaphor for the dissonance in this pleasantly musical play.

Maybe parallel cultures are the natural condition, and not this intermingling that the play advocates with much urgency. People are well within their rights to live in a parallel culture. Sometimes it’s very hard to let go of the inherent biases that have become so rooted that they creep in at the most unexpected places. Not even Beni is impervious, although she’s ever ready to keep up appearances, trying very hard to create the myth of a shared cultural experience, a common history. It’s hard to let go of such a bewitching notion. People’s characters are like clay. You can make them believe. The play is effective in bringing this flavour out almost unwittingly.

The easiest language is that of music, and that of colour. But when you try and mix in an ideology then there is a potent brew in the offing. Audiences will walk out with a bounce to their gait, but not quite chastened, because such plays, mired in levity and brightness, may not deal as potent a blow when asking you to look upon yourself, and your place in this variegated world. You can temper the discourse, you can engender a few ideas. Beni is always trying to finesse the situation, trying to make the ‘other’ identifiable, even if she has to do it by leveraging age-old fables with the proverbial sting to the tail. In a modern day context, she would be branded an appeaser of minorities, of course, not in that unexpurgated political sense. She is dedicated to the service of inclusiveness, to the service of a liberal agenda, to the service of political correctness. You cannot doubt her sincerity.

Colour is not sectarian, but the preaching of it is. Holi is a festival that is now being looked upon with some suspicion these days, it isn’t quite as evocative of plurality as it may once have been or so we had been led to believe. Modern festivals have a simmering violence to them. Basant is still celebrated in Lahore, but there is an undercurrent of intolerance, a dubious sheen to festivity, as if it is an open license to drink or fornicate or act as cultural bullies. This play doesn’t not exist in a world like that.

People can be reduced to a few emotions, most of them of an uplifting kind. The mechanics of reality doesn’t curry favour in a melodrama that needs to create a premise, simplistic as ever, and uphold certain notions, and live in a realm in which the so-called milk of human kindness is the driving force. The prime movers are the women like Beni and Phuphi, who are new-age preachers, springing their subtle ways upon an unsuspecting bunch of impressionable folk, whose identities can still be moulded.

This is a play in which the writer (Purva Naresh) quite visibly shows her cards. It isn’t a visceral experience but more a triumph of finding the right idiom to tell a tale, and the right mix of elements, whether it is in the music, in the dialect, in the costumes. There is energy and spirit, and vivaciousness, and pure unbridled joy. It works well, it works wonders. It is a perfectly functioning, well-oiled piece of populist theatre, that doesn’t stoop to the levels of commercial no-brainer masala fare. In some circles, ‘commercial’ is almost a pejorative word. Aaj Rang Hai is crowd-pleasing but it holds on to more than just a modicum of sensibility, never for a moment catering to the lowest common denominator. Something that is an experience to savour and remember as a kind of theatre that is always trying to push the right buttons and tickle you into submission. In its wholesomeness lies its triumph and also its failure.

Coming soon to a theatre near you. The complete essay can be read at Stage Impressions.

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