Naribai: a monologue that explores what respectability is

The play did not have a brochure - it was a one-woman production, and the brochure didn't really mean anything.

I am overwhelmed, and must take time to draw breath, step back a little, and consider, before starting to write this review.

Quite an unusual thing for me; I usually have the ability to stand a step apart from the play I am watching, in order to give a more objective, less impassioned review of what I have seen and experienced.

But on Tuesday, 9th October 2018 at Ranga Shankara, Sushmita Mukherjee, the well-known film and television actress, took a firm hold of our eyes and minds, and yanked us off on an intense roller coaster ride. She held us spellbound, except when she wanted us to laugh; she paused, only when it would allow the pain and pathos of the moment to sink more deeply into our hearts.

The play was a monologue, conceived, and staged (or as the NCPA blurb says, written, envisioned, and enacted) by this talented thespian. Sushmita entered, indeed, as Naribai, raunchy even with a face covered by a veil, in the vigorous Bundelkhand argot. She disappeared behind a screen for a minute, and reappeared as herself; Sushmita, who slipped from reality to fiction, seamlessly, as she talked of her childhood friendship with Sunaina (with some well-placed quips on the ‘su-su” theme) who seemed to be Fate’s darling, married to a Supreme Court judge, with a palatial mansion, limousines, two exemplary children…the very ideal of a housewife. The housewife (well, homemaker, if you like)  dabbles a little in the literary arts, and is asked to meet Naribai, a “bedni” (sex worker) from Bundelkhand She does so quite reluctantly, in a third-floor tenement in Virar.

Sushmita  then became Naribai, in just a swift shedding of the shawl (after which she never retired to the screen to change her persona), and off went the rocket of Naribai’s life, abused as a child, initiated into the sex trade, with relationships that formed, blossomed and petered out; a child that she could not hold on to; and more exploitation from the men in her life, bringing her from a plush rural lifestyle to the sordidness of Virar.

As Sunaina returns home and finds her lollipop facade of respectability explode in the reality of her husband’s infidelity with her friend, and the topsy-turvy reactions of her family to her betrayal, she slowly comes to jettison her views on what constitutes a respectable woman and a prostitute. “We are all prostittues,” she says, “we only sell different parts of ourselves.” Shorn of the meaningless societal trappings, she comes to Naribai for comfort; and Naribai takes her into her arms and solaces her, singing of her own intrinsic worth.

Seventy-five minutes of scene after scene unfolding before us, studded with little and sure touches of humour… the audience truly did not know where the time went. The play built up to the touching denouement, and there was deftness in bringing it to its close as Naribai melted in Sunaina and then into Sushmita herself.

Sushmita  also designed the stage design, lights and sound, a truly multi-talented artiste. The stage design was fairly simple, some furniture such as a table with two chairs, a sofa with a table in front of it, bearing a laptop, a bottle and a couple of glasses, and a low divan, which became the de facto throne of the Rani who became Nari as a result of someone misspelling her name in childhood.

Her costume was what I call “block-print ethnic”, which suited both the earthy Naribai and the trendy Sunaina….and the actress-persona, too. She used no major props….”just a chair, an umbrella, a handbag and no specific lights“, says Sushmita in this interview, in the Times of India, where she’s shared something about herself, her life and her work.

The music was very evocative of the mood; a song from “The Sound of Music” both at the beginning and the end of the play, and raunchy tunes at others, set the tone of the moment.

Gunjan Kumar and Jagadish Joshi were the people who brought her vision of the lights and sounds to perfect execution. The symbolic red light that shine on Naribai, the highlights and the fading out of light…it was all extremely well done.

As Sunaina pondered on the facets of Naribai Devi,and her name: “Nari, because she’s a woman, Bai because she’s a prostitute, and now Devi because she’s so celebrated….” we, in the audience, also felt the complexity of the person that Naribai was, and is.

Sushmita earned the standing ovation that the audience gave her after the show. Let me also add that though this play did not have a brochure, the fact of its being a one-woman production meant that no brochure was needed. Sushmita carefully introduced the two people who helped her with the sound and lighting.

My grateful thanks to Shangon Das Gupta and her team at  Centre for Development and Learning, who ensured that we got to see this gifted artiste in a memorable play, before she left Bangalore,

Naribai, by Natak Productions

Written, envisioned, and enacted  by  Sushmita Mukherjee
Languages: English, Hindi,Bundelkhandi
Help on Lighting and Sound: Gunjan Kumar, Jagadish Joshi
Organized by Centre for Development and Learning, in its 20th year,on 9th October 2018, at Ranga Shankara
Duration: 75 min.
Tickets: Rs.250

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