The Mumbai Chronicles - 3: 'Theatre se Blog tak'

As part of my cultural exploration of Mumbai, I went to watch a play along with a friend this Saturday to the NCPA (National Center of Performing Arts) Experimental Theatre at Nariman Point. Our choice was a Hindi play titled “Pencil Se Brush Tak”, which was based on the life and art of M. F. Hussain (Maqbool Fida Hussain) drawn from his memoirs and inspired by his paintings. Directed by Nadira Zaheer Babbar with extensive involvement from M F Hussain himself, the play has been targeted by the anti-Hussain lobby, with threats made against the director and cast. That’s tragic, because the play in itself, does not contain anything that can even remotely be described as controversial.

The set (conceptualized by M. F. Hussain himself) was like a gallery of his most famous paintings, which itself was visually stimulating. The attempt of the play was to trace Hussain’s evolution over several decades, from his humble background, to his years struggling as a painter of movie posters in Mumbai, to being globally acclaimed as an international artist.

The play starts off with Hussain’s childhood, and except for his longing for his real mother, all was well. Hussain’s paintings of Motherhood (and even Mother Teresa) remain faceless, because he himself never knew his birth-mother. In spite of that, most of Hussain’s life, as depicted in the play, has been pretty uneventful, and unexpectedly pleasant. Most artists have torturous pasts and internal demons, which gives their paintings a discernable conflict that viewers can relate to. Not so for Hussain, whose paintings have a cheerful simplicity, and attempt to express the joy of beauty. Hussain’s fascination with beauty is undoubtedly the most commonly known theme in his works (his fascination with Madhuri Dixit is well known), and that fact is amply demonstrated in the play as well; from his infatuation with Jamna, (the village belle whose tragic life circumstances move him) to his housemaid Nadira, (who gets fired because of flirting with him), to his romance with his eventual wife, Fazila.

I think his childhood received too detailed a portrayal in the play than was needed. Apart from his deceased mother, he had a caring father, a loving step-mother, and a doting grandfather. A happy and normal childhood really.

I was personally very interested to understand Hussain’s motivations, the inspiration for his art, and the artistic influences upon him. While there is a short scene where Anup Soni battles film critics who pan his first film making attempt (A film titled “Through the eyes of a painter” made in 1967, and which won international awards), there isn’t much more exposition of Hussain’s philosophy in the play.

When his critics ask him what the logic in his film was, Hussain asks them why everything needed to have logic:
“Khane mein bhook logic, sone mein neend logic. Lekin khoobsurti mein koi logic nahi. Usey mahsoos karo, soncho mat”

Towards the last half hour of the play (its over two hours long), Tom Alters appears in the current avatar of M F Hussain. He meets his young self and his child self and they have an engaging conversation of how Hussain had changed over the years, how he has become almost a victim of his own brand. The younger versions claim he has forgotten them, but the older Hussain states that his greatest achievement was keeping his inner child and his passionate youth alive inside him. It is perhaps a vital clue to understanding the man and his work.

The acting was top-notch. While it is exactly what you expect from Tom Alters and Anup Soni, the rest of the cast too played their parts delightfully. The actresses, who were meant to be embodiments of beauty that inspired Hussain, lived up to their characters well, whether it was the innocence of ‘Jamna’, or the flirtatious playfulness of ‘Nadira’, or the practical earthiness of ‘Fazila’. But the best female character was the graceful ‘Shireen’, first as young Hussain’s stepmother and later as the Statue of Liberty. The only sore spot was Juhi Babbar’s Hyderabadi accent, which was jarring to a native speaker like me.

It is only in a play that you can look at people so closely, observe so intently every twitch of the cheek, every curl of the lip, and every glance of the eye, without feeling like a voyeur. In that perhaps lies the charm of theatre, of watching real live performances of living and breathing human beings, rather than the often hysterical melodrama on the glossed up projections of larger-than-life characters in an over-the-top manner that is typical of Indian cinema.

At the end of an immensely enjoyable two hours, I was left with a curiosity to explore Hussain’s works and understand them for myself. Many of my questions about his work are still unanswered, but this play wasn’t intended to be a crash course on his work’s philosophy. It was meant as an introduction, and I believe it achieved that goal.

This was also an introduction to the theatre scene in Mumbai, and I hope to catch several more plays during my stay here, subject to finding people to go along with.


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