Dearest Bapu Zeenat Aman

Director: Saif Hyder Hasan
Cast: Zeenat Aman, Arif Zakaria
Music: Ratnesh Bhagat 

There’s a beautiful moment in the play, Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba when Kasturba reads out a letter her spirit has written from beyond the grave. It is about the time she was released from prison in the early 1940s while Gandhi was still shackled. She says, “What do I do of freedom if it is to be had without you?” 

I moved a little in my seat, imagining the possibilities of such a line. If only this line had been told to Gandhi’s face, eyes locked, Kasturba holding him by his frail figure; I would have turned to a pound of gooseflesh. 

There’s such a lack of conviction in the director’s vision that within the first 15 minutes, you are more enamoured by the possibilities in your head, as opposed to the reality playing out on stage in front of you.

But that’s not nearly what happens. And I get that the job of directing a play is to do justice to the director’s vision, not that of the critic’s. But there’s such a lack of conviction in the director’s vision that within the first 15 minutes, you are already more enamoured by the possibilities, as opposed to the reality playing out on stage in front of you. 

The set-up, while visually striking, confounds: The whole play, Kasturba (Zeenat Aman whose return to the stage after 15 years betrays either her discomfort, or unpreparedness) and Gandhi (An adept Arif Zakaria as Gandhi that lacks the steadfast Gandhian myth, playing out listlessly.) are on opposite sides of the stage, each on an elevated platform, Kasturba writing/reading her letters, interspersed with Gandhi writing/reading her letters. Within the first 10 minutes, it stops sounding like a letter-exchange, and more like a conversation with Gandhi and Kasturba replying with immediacy, something letters don’t allow. The epistolary conceit fades, coming to life only when Kasturba ends her letters with “Love Kasturba”.

There are some interesting moments when Kasturba confronts Gandhi’s visit to the brothel, and his sexual experiments being part of the freedom struggle. She begins by sounding accusatory but ends up sounding acquiescent; it’s very uncomfortable watching these scenes play out.

Additionally, while reading the letters, Kasturba sometimes is writing, and reading sometimes, sometimes pretending Gandhi isn’t in the room, and at other times looking directly at him, acknowledging him as flesh-and-bone. The conceit of physical distance too begins to feel unnecessary. It was here that I thought perhaps, just having them move, and jostle might have added more virility to a limp runtime of about 90 minutes. 

There are moments where you don’t quite understand where the narrative is heading; the screenplay is disjointed, moving from Gandhi’s political activities, to their child marriage (an uncomfortable scene where the saath phere of the kids has been romanticized, playing out to Ratnesh Bhagat’s beautiful score) to Gandhi’s son’s disdain for him, to his experience with racism in South Africa, all of these separated by blackouts and images of Gandhi playing out in the background. There’s no tether connecting the scenes, it’s too unwieldy.

Saif Hyder Hasan, the director and writer, is clearly not a fan of the Show-Don’t-Tell maxim. Here, it’s Only-Tell. This is made very obvious when in a conversation with the director, Hasan told us that he wrote the screenplay like a novel.

There are some interesting moments when Kasturba confronts Gandhi’s visit to the brothel when married to him, and his sexual experiments being part of the freedom struggle. She begins by sounding accusatory but ends up sounding acquiescent; it’s very uncomfortable watching these scenes play out. There’s an odd mix of reverence, and docility in Kasturba, and Aman feels terribly miscast because of her confidence and posturing which feels odd given the lines she is mouthing. 

It’s a whole other matter that the writing itself is lazy, the first 5 minutes is Kasturba recounting the entire historical proceedings to Gandhi in a letter, whom she admits told her all of this. It’s unnecessary, hefty, and induces fatigue. Saif Hyder Hasan, the director and writer, is clearly not a fan of the Show-Don’t-Tell maxim. Here, it’s Only-Tell. This is made very obvious when in a conversation with the director, Hasan told us that he wrote the screenplay like a novel. Worse, on stage, it was being read like a novel, with Aman’s convent-school accent reading (and faltering frequently) the letters, giving me flashbacks of high school English lessons with the teacher reading out prose pieces, making little to no eye contact with children dozing off in the corner. 

There’s a beautiful moment when Gandhi sits by Kasturba’s slowly disintegrating funeral pyre, and when asked to leave, he says “Saath (60) saal ke liye saath rahe the, saath (60) minute toh baithne do.”

But what really hurts is that this is such an exciting experiment in theory: to have the stage populated by only 2 characters, (a static play, as Zakaria puts it while speaking to us) while the narrative sprawls continents from Durban to Porbandar, across six decades. The audience is meant to be transported. While speaking to Aman, she very eloquently put it: “Sometimes the imagination of the audience is broader than anything we can show.” I wondered then, why the experience was so inert. When Zakaria was promoting the play, he called the Gandhi-Kasturba love story, “couple goals”. I felt none of that cherubic delight. (There’s a beautiful moment when Gandhi sits by Kasturba’s slowly disintegrating funeral pyre, and when asked to leave, he says “Saath (60) saal ke liye saath rahe the, saath (60) minute toh baithne do.” It’s a great sentiment, but the joyless telling of the story renders such lines lifeless beauty.) Was it then, the failure of my imagination? Perhaps, that is so. But much more than that, it was the failure of my patience. 

Bookmyshow’s ‘The Great Indian Theater Festival’ has 50 plays travelling across 25 cities. Check out the listing on their website

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