Love or a lack of it, in all its shades and forms, is influential in everybodyâ€™s lives. So it was with Hema and Pritam, characters in a play, but through whom, a viewer may try to make sense of the chaos that is life.
Played by Neena Gupta and Anupam Kher, Hema and Pritam are a woman and man who meet twice on stage during the Hindi play Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha, written and directed by Rakesh Bedi. They are far from young and throughout the play, they refer to a life â€“ one they have lived and one they might have had â€“ that they carry around in their memories, and which they constantly show us.
Thirty-five years after their separation, Hema seeks Pritam out to lay to rest her curiosity about what really happened all those years ago, because she could not believe that he had let her down. They both marry other people and never see each other until the moment the play opens.
So it was, that they meet in a park bench in an area where â€śeverybody knows meâ€ť, as Pritam repeatedly reminds Hema. Both characters are sufficiently fleshed out â€“ one can anticipate Hemaâ€™s irritation with Pritam as he does something, or when he does a bad job of explaining himself.
The two characters are also an insight into men and women in general, crossing over into stereotype and yet remaining outside of it. For instance, Pritam tries to tell Hema that she has no concept of â€śanger managementâ€ť, in a half-hearted attempt at winning an amicable argument. But all the examples he refers to, are times when Hema says men either misbehaved with her, or she was molested. This is when one wonders whether she could not have been shown as being angry about something else.
But as Hema counters Pritam, it becomes clear that she did not wait around for Pritam to help her. Instead, she took matters into her own hands and dealt with such men as she saw fit. Pritamâ€™s character too, is thankfully free from hang-ups of being the savior of (fe)male honour. The whole exchange was delivered as normal, the banter of two adults who have known each intimately and want to remind each of that.
As is typical of two people who are meeting after a long period of time go, Hema and Pritam are constantly switching between the past and the present, between banter and relieving their pain, as they swap stories of the major events of their lives â€“ marriage, death, murder, children, loneliness, betrayal, satisfaction and pride.
To tell the stories of the past, the play makes use of pre-recorded film displayed on a screen in the first act of the play. Why this technique was discarded for the second half is inexplicable. In the second act, Kher and Gupta move away from the park bench where most of the play is set, towards the side of the stage to re-live scenes from the lives of Pritam and his wife Nigar.
While Kher plays a younger Pritam, Gupta has to switch over from being a Bengali-speaking Hema to Urdu-speaking Nigar, another character that Gupta brings to life. Although this is somewhat jarring, this technique also allows the play to employ humour in a unique way â€“ the audience finds itself looking at Pritamâ€™s imagination of his telephonic conversations with Nigarâ€™s brother, who is shown staring at Pritam.
Culturally, both Pritam and Hema have multi-layered identities â€“ Pritamâ€™s family came to Delhi from Lahore during Partition, and the audience is told a story of his motherâ€™s Hindu friend who married a Muslim man after she fell in love with him. But that story also reflects the many attitudes and reservations that Indians have with cultures that are not their own. Despite his bitterness over a marriage that was coerced for political benefits, Pritam finds that the only person who was on his side was also the woman who was at the root of his frustration â€“ his wife, Nigar. Perhaps this could have been explored a little better.
The audience sees Hema suffer an abusive husband who once tied her to a chair and burned her. From being an assertive woman, she goes on to perhaps making do before she could take it no more. one of the most beautiful dialogues perhaps in the play is when she tells Pritam â€śA womanâ€™s life is spent in the search of firm ground to stand on.â€ť
In the span of two hours, Mera wo Matlab Nahi Tha takes the audience through so many spaces â€“ poverty, Patrition, parental blackmail, love, humour, life in jail, Mirza Ghalib, the lanes of old Delhi, Shantiniketan, filial betrayal â€“ that would not be part of a masala love story.
A good story â€“ whether one about love or not â€“ would always leave the reader, viewer or listener with questions that are unanswered. Hema leaves Pritam, this time for good. She has found her answers, but Pritam decides not to leave it at that. The audience can imagine any number of endings to their story.
(The play was staged as a part of the Times Theatre Festival in Bengaluru on September 27)