Pankaj Kapur Shines on Stage With His Novella ‘Dopehri’
Veteran actor Pankaj Kapur makes a comeback to theatre with his play <i>Dopehri</i>
Veteran actor Pankaj Kapur makes a comeback to theatre with his play Dopehri

Pankaj Kapur Shines on Stage With His Novella ‘Dopehri’

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished as Pankaj Kapur takes his play, ‘Dopehri’ to Singapore.)

Give the elderly a reason to live
Pankaj Kapur

After two decades, the much-awarded actor, Pankaj Kapur, returned to his roots, at Mumbai’s Godrej Dance Theatre with his maiden home production, Dopehri, a dramatic reading of a novella he had written 20 years ago.

At first it would appear that the name of the novella is a misnomer as its protagonist, Amma Bi’s life is not all that warm or sunny. Living alone in a large mansion, in the nawabi city of Lucknow, with only a capricious, part-time, servant boy, Jumman, to tend to her needs, Amma Bi’s best days are behind her.

Her husband is no more and her son has migrated to the US with his family. The 1935 Austen, in which she was brought, as a young bride, to the magnificent haveli, is gathering dust outside, and a lone, leafless tree with tattered kites clinging to its bare branches seems, sadly, to reflect her own situation.

But, as the play unfolds, you discover that the sixty-five-year-old matriarch of Laal Haveli is a fiery soul, not to be weighed down by circumstances. Written and directed by Pankaj Kapur, Dopehri is a delightful tale of a woman in command of her life despite being past her prime.

It is a tale narrated by Pankaj Kapur, the sole performer on stage. Somewhere along the way you forget Kapur, as the characters he creates take over the stage. From the expletives-spouting Amma Bi to the cheeky Jumman and Amma Bi’s doctor friend Saxena, a world of colourful people enter and exit the stage through Kapur’s evocative story-telling.

The pathos of a cruel home for the aged, the humour of Jumman preening in his grimy shed of a home, the hauteur of Amma BiDopehri spans a gamut of moods and situations, though there is just one man on stage.

Pankaj Kapur narrates his novella <i>Dopehri</i>
Pankaj Kapur narrates his novella Dopehri

The stage itself is a masterful example of set design, also done by Kapur, reflecting the dual aspects of Amma Bi’s life. The bare tree in one corner is juxtaposed with a handsome bureau and beautiful lamp at the opposite end, and a carved, wooden, rocking chair at the centre of the stage. Complementing the props is the skilful lighting that bathes the stage with different hues, according to the varying moods of the story. From warm yellows to mellow blues, Hidayat Sami does an excellent job in lighting up various facets of Amma Bi’s existence which is lonely and lively in turns.

So though the afternoon hours stretch in endless solitude, the moment Amma Bi has company she towers over everybody as the imposing lady of an imposing manor. One snap of her fingers and Amma Bi has tailors and artisans scurrying to her door to make toys for Sabeha, the paying guest who is from her maiyke town of Jaunpur, to meet her deadline to buyers.

In Sabeha, Amma Bi finds the daughter she never had, and, through her, her own identity as Mumtaz Sidddique—a name that had got lost in a maze of relationships as wife, mother, grandmother and Laal Haveli ki Amma.

An entertaining production by Theatron, Pankaj Kapur’s recently-launched theatre group, Dopehri had the audience, which included Kapur’s son, actor Shahid, alternating between sympathetic silences and loud laughter.

What prompted the senior Kapur to weave a story around an ageing woman?

Pankaj Kapur joined the National School of Drama in Delhi at the age of 19
Pankaj Kapur joined the National School of Drama in Delhi at the age of 19
“I wanted to write about an elderly woman, neglected and lonely, especially in the afternoons, as I found this to be the plight of many a grandmother in today’s times. I wanted to get across the thought that we should give women like her a chance to have their own identities, and not just as mothers or grandmothers. Every human being has some ability, some individual worth which she should be aware of,” relates the enormously talented actor who joined the National School of Drama, Delhi, when he was just nineteen.

When asked if drama influenced the way he wrote Dopehri, he replies, “That had to be as I spent my most formative years in drama.” And yet, he did not stage it as a play with eight actors. Richly written, with a charming personification of everyday objects like the paan-daan chiding Amma Bi for neglecting it, the nuances of the written word come across because it is a narration. A truly innovative way to embrace theatre again…

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