Cast: Rajit Kapur, Faezeh Jalali, Karan Pandit, Ali Fazal, Neil Bhoopalam, Ashwin Mushran, Meher Acharia-Dar
Director: Richard Twyman
Playwright: Abhishek Majumdar
There’s something hypnotic about the note that introduces The Djinns of Eidgah, written by Abhishek Majumdar (winner of the Metro Plus Playwright Award 2008) and performed by Rage Productions:
A boy picks up a football
A doctor picks up a toy
A girl picks up a story
A boy picks up a shoe
A soldier picks up his gun
A boy picks up a stone
A vulture picks up a bone
A Djinn picks up from where he left off...
The thing with stories about Kashmir is, they’re easy to sell, but hard to pull off. Most people know something about Kashmir, and the ones who know a little more think they know everything about Kashmir. Worse, the ones who know nothing about Kashmir have a stronger opinion than most others. I’m not quite sure where I stand, but if you’ve been a journalist in Delhi, chances are that you’ve heard several perspectives on Kashmir – that of the privileged Kashmiri who writes books and columns, that of the Army, that of the Indian journalist who had visited Kashmir, that of the Pakistani journalist who wants to save Kashmir, and many more.
Abhishek Majumdar’s story focuses on four people – a psychiatrist, whose jihadi son lost his life to an enemy he didn’t see coming; a 14-year-old girl, who has lost her mind after witnessing the murder of her father; her brother, who dreams of winning a scholarship to play football in Brazil; a soldier, whose punishment posting could drive him mad. The characters are a mix of the stereotypes, the moderates and the realistic. There’s a soldier who prays to Lord Hanuman, complete with puja bells. There’s a soldier who advises him to keep his religion to himself, who finds it in himself to wave to a child who’s broken the curfew. There’s a doctor who’s thrilled that her eight-year-old son could scream Azaadi, looking straight at the ‘Indian’ soldiers; there’s a doctor who believes Kashmiris must “talk to the ‘Indians’”. There’s a man who recruits stone throwers. There’s a boy who would rather take care of his sister while she trembles to the sound of bullets and screams.
When one is somewhat familiar with the Kashmir narrative, it’s easy to guess the trajectory of the play. You know there will be a twist, where someone turns into someone else; you know whom the climactic scene is likely to take place among; you know there will be a conversation about Indianness and perhaps the centrality of Devanagari to it; you know the debate about religion will come into this; you kinda know who will die too.
So, the onus is on the production to make the play hit hard, and this Richard Twyman and his team do quite wonderfully. The dreamscape of the play is established through a curtain of translucent beads, which is utilised in various ways to achieve different ends – sometimes, it is the divider between house and field, indoors and outdoors; at others, between reality and imagination; at others, between interlocutors, both facing the audience. And this leaves us with vignettes that haunt us – a girl waving at what she believes to be a “happy djinn”, unaware that she could have been shot an instant earlier; of a boy trapped in an “in-between place”; of someone crossing a boundary he has created.
If the sound design, with its carefully chosen music and significant silences, gives us gooseflesh, and startles us into empathy, the lighting design makes us see things – bodies without feet; a boy writhing, stuck in molten plastic; a crowd of frenzied stone throwers.
There were some discordant notes – the dialogues felt written, rather than spoken, for the most part. In that context, a lot of credit must go to all the actors, especially Faezeh Jalali, who instantly won over the audience when she made her entry as Ashrafi, carrying her djinn-possessed-doll, Hafiz. All the actors, for that matter, were completely believable as the characters they played. Rajit Kapur, as usual, takes his lines as if he were making them up on stage. Karan Pandit, who plays Bilal (and unless I’m mistaken, was performing in another play in the same festival the next day), endears the character to the audience, and makes us relate to his selfishness. The scenes between Neil Bhoopalam and Ashwin Mushran, which provide most of the little comic relief in the play, went off well. Meher Acharia-Dar looks every part the self-righteous young Azaadi seeker, who doesn’t see why Kashmiris should negotiate with ‘Indians’. Ali Fazal, in a double-role, stands out for his body language, and for the haunting whisper in which he recites a verse of the Quran
There were also a couple of distracting factual anomalies in the script. The soldiers appear to be jawans, but refer to themselves as “officers”. While some lines and phrases were potent in their conciseness, others bordered on banal. A case in point is a particular ploy, which both the script and direction must have conceived together – that juncture of the story when the djinn in Ashrafi’s mind possesses a human being who will act out her desires. I felt the scene, which was brilliantly executed, may have been more effective if the dialogue had been more restrained. We’ve already understood what it says.
There is one particular turn I didn’t see coming, one which seems to brings home the idea that there is no good and no bad, or that everyone’s equally bad, in Kashmir. I can’t recall the last time I saw a violent play so realistically performed – the audience winced, ducked and jumped, especially during one scene of torment (not torture) and humiliation.
The play maintains its high intensity throughout, which may have prompted the audience to laugh at lines that were sinister, not funny. But I did think a play of this kind, with this subject, needed the intensity, and didn’t mind that my nerves were fried at the end.