Begum, an enigma: A multilingual play honours the woman who opened her arms and home to trans people

Begum Mahal does not hold different meanings for different people – certainly not in contemporary history. For those living in Bengaluru, Begum Mahal is merely a nondescript bus stand, just like any other bus stand in an urban city. But behind the façade of robust activity at this spot is the forgotten history of perhaps an equally robust woman, who lived life on her own terms. Begum was a personality, and Begum Mahal a bungalow, but the bus stand holds no trace of either.

The play Freedom Begum seeks to bring this woman out of the cloak of obscurity. Scripted by Rumi Harish and directed by A Mangai, the play was first staged in Bengaluru on 30 July and later in Chennai on 4 August, as part of Reel Desires – Chennai International Queer Film Festival.

The play brings together various characters from different strata of society to paint a striking, powerful image of Begum. There are members of the trans community and working-class people who brighten up at the mention of her name and recall with fondness the openness with which she had embraced them. There is also a ‘suave gentleman speaking impeccable English’ who scorns at the mention of her name. After all, she was the woman who ruined the properties given to her by his father by throwing it open to people. “The actors were a mix of both – trans and non-trans persons,” Mangai says.

 Begum, an enigma: A multilingual play honours the woman who opened her arms and home to trans people

Freedom Begum is scripted by Rumi Harish and directed by A Mangai. Facebook/freedombegum2019

The play includes characters who knew Begum and those who did not know her; who loved her and who hated her; but not Begum herself. “We decided not to bring her on stage,” Mangai explains, “She is not a uni-dimensional personality who could be portrayed on stage through a single character.” Perhaps Begum’s persona is so overarching that the play has to go beyond human voices to depict a woman who was forever an enigma – in life and later. By employing a set of wide-ranging imagery, from the ‘jatre’ to the karagam and feasts including beef biryani, Mangai is able to achieve the task of introducing Begum to audiences just as she possibly would have been – inclusive and non-judgmental. “In the current scenario, Begum as a person who was inclusive and non-judgmental emerges more powerfully," she says.

The multi-lingual play also has some intense music by Sathya Sharath N and Bindu Malini, with a different score for every scene. From the chowdki to the urumi, many instruments were used to build Begum's aura on stage.

To Mangai, just as she would to anyone involved in the play, Begum was haunting. “I had not heard of Begum before working on this play. But yes, I cannot deny that she haunted me. At one point, it was scary. Things worked beyond logic.”

Freedom Begum was as much an accident as was her anonymity or disappearance. It first started as research by Sunil Mohan R, Rumi Harish and Radhika Raj. The team did a set of interviews with a range of people, including people from the trans community, labourers, scrap dealers, tea sellers, auto drivers in the area, people who have settled in huts in and around, and people from the nearby gurudwara, temples, churches and darghas. “The rich script reflects different perceptions about the Begum, her son and the Mahal. It also traces our journey in search of the Begum.”

But it was a sort of oral history that lacked evidence and couldn’t be published as an academic paper. “Since theatre was the only form we knew, we decided to tell her story through it,” Mangai says. Every interview by the research team that Mangai listened to was at once nostalgic and desperate. “People were speaking from their memories, and it was so poignant.”

For Mangai, who has worked in Tamil theatre for over 35 years and directed close to 40 plays, Freedom Begum came with its own set of challenges. It was her first full-length multi-lingual play. It had dialogues in several languages – Kannada, English, Hindi, Dakhani Urdu, Tamil, and Malayalam. Except for the narrations, every part of the play was an interview, and they had decided to retain the languages spoken by the original interviewees.

The play uses the karagam and intense music to paint a portrait of the woman who disappeared amid mysterious circumstances.

The play uses the karagam and intense music to paint a portrait of the woman who disappeared amid mysterious circumstances. Facebook/freedombegum2019

“I was the only bi-lingual person. Everyone else spoke three or more languages. So the script was transliterated and if anyone was absent, we would prompt with the script.” It was also Mangai’s first inter-state play, so there was a lot of travel involved. “I was exhausted, but only physically. I would come fully alive only when I was in the theatre. And Begum flowed seamlessly.” The team began work on the play in April and had at least 25 full-day rehearsals.

Using the karagam – a pot filled with rice placed on the head as part of dance sequences – was also a daunting task for the actors. “Most of the cast mastered karagam for the play. I even had an actor telling me how she walked around the house doing her chores with a karagam on her head. The karagam is not just a physical object, it also requires breath control and eye focus. I tell my actors that the karagam should also cooperate. If you do not treat it properly, it won’t treat you well.”

Of the actors, Saravana S knew Begum and often recounted stories of her warmth to the people around her. “During the course of working on this play, we tried to go in search of Begum. We tried to find out what happened to her. Nobody was aware of what happened to her in the end; she seems to have simply vanished,” Mangai says.

The play is haunting in that it attempts to find no major answers. To a viewer, it emerges as an unpretentious effort to remove the veil over Begum's personality without distorting her characteristic enigma. In doing so, Freedom Begum powerfully transforms itself into an experience that will linger on in the viewer's mind for a long time to come.

Updated Date: Aug 11, 2019 10:00:50 IST