March 28, 2020
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Playing On War

Flamboyant playwright Aamir Raza Hussain pays a belated yet extravagant tribute to Kargil

Playing On War
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Pants falling off, revealing bunny rabbits and carrots pinned on boxer shorts; jealous wives and raunchy lovers spouting double entendre; bungling cops and risque thieves: it’s all been there in the numerous sex comedies that Aamir Raza Hussain built his early theatre career on.

That was the naughty Eighties, when Raza was flamboyant, cocking a snook at the more serious ‘Shakespearean’ traditions of English theatre in the capital. Raza was content so long as the cash registers were set ringing, morality be damned. The Nineties changed that. First came the Legend of Rama, which he scripted and directed to give the two metros, Delhi and Mumbai, an experience they are yet to get over. Audiences and sets on moving tracks, scenes culled skilfully from the epic to keep the paying public firmly in their seats.

Now comes Raza’s most ambitious project to date. Its inspiration being the more recent Kargil war. The rather dexterous Raza happened to be in the right place at the right time. While the war was on, or to be exact the day Batalik was cleared off all the intruders, Raza along with Rahul Mahajan, had accompanied a chopper-load of filmstars to boost the troops’ morale. The experience there and the narratives of the soldiers at the Base Hospital led to the first draft of the play, titled The Fifty Day War.

The opening scene is dated April 15, 1999 in Pakistan, the day the Indian government fell in New Delhi. The Pakistani army is planning its operations in Kargil. Says Raza of his take-off point: "I have assumed that to be the date when the whole operation was planned. The conversations, the sequence of events in Pakistan, are all conjecture. The rest of the play is original. Who said what and when, I’ve retained to the last comma. I’ve added no character. I’ve taken no artistic licence." The scene moves on to the closest Indian army garrison at Darchik, which responds to the earliest reports of possible intruders in the region.

The plot proceeds in much the same way as the war did. The tales of untold bravery, of ghastly wounds and untimely deaths and of the permeating spirit of nationalism, are all deftly woven into Hussain’s two-and-a-half-hour script. Says Raza: "All that was reported in the media while the war was on was basically sketchy. Who were these people who died? What exactly happened? What did the commanding officer tell his troops to keep the morale high? I have tried to piece all that together to bring out the high points." Those there were plenty of. Like that of an officer who received a letter from his wife but which remained unopened because he died only a few hours later. Or that of the jawan whose arm was severed during action, but who walked down the hill for four hours despite the inhuman pain, carrying his own arm. Says Virat, Hussain’s wife and co-director of the play: "You meet these people. They are ordinary people yet they exhibited extraordinary courage. Where do they get it from?"

That the Hussains have given in to sentimentality is unquestionable. Yet, they are unabashed about it. Says Raza: "It’s our tribute. This is the only time the entire country came together, united the way it never has been since 1947."

The play, however, doesn’t rely only on emotions. It’s also banking on a Rs 1.5 crore budget for its month-long run. The trademark Raza gimmickry will be in full evidence. The audience as well as some of the sets are once again on tracks. The six-acre area in Mehrauli is dotted with mini replicas of the various peaks, made somewhat unimaginatively of gunnybags and woven grass. Fake helicopters will simulate the very real action that happened at Kargil. Gunpowder will do its bit to make the whole theatrical experience as real as possible.

But can the man who walked the Kamani stage in boxer shorts be taken seriously? As someone who is keeping theatre alive and kicking in the country? Or is he just a man on the make, using a contemporary subject to tap into people’s pockets and emotions? Says Raza: "I’m not interested in who takes me seriously. It’s how you treat your subject in the play. My attempt has been to do good theatre." Even if it means occasionally shedding a few clothes here or there.

 

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