For all its strengths, 1947 is an unfortunately named play. People in India are conditioned to think of this year either in terms of India’s independence from the British or Partition from Pakistan. But these events occupy less than five minutes of the play’s running time of an hour and a half. Instead, this is a work preoccupied with more symbolic partitions. Geography has parted Ghazanfar Hussain from his friend Mushtaq, death has parted him from his wife, and Alzheimer’s is in the process of parting him both from his long-suffering family members and eventually, from his conception of self.
Written and directed by M Syed Alam, who heads the Delhi-based Pierrot’s Troupe, 1947 is a running dialogue between Hussain, the sole protagonist, and several off-stage characters. Since we neither see nor hear any of other characters (though Hussain repeats some of their responses) we are privy to his views alone. These turn out to be less than reliable – one poignant moment sees his attempts to visit a friend fall through when he is reminded that the person is dead. To resist using Alzheimer’s as a plot twist is a brave move – it could have been used strategically to raise dramatic tensions, but this would have shifted the focus away from old age in general and to the disease, which is not what the play is about.
Still, it’s tough to resist the temptation to make your senior citizen cranky. Hussain’s situation gives him plenty to complain about. Family members keep foisting pills on him, the memory of his deceased wife haunts his days and his son corrects his anecdotes just when he’s in mid-flight. 1947 is strongest when it stays close to Hussain and his travails, and weakens when it strays into the realms of political and cultural commentary. Telling the audience about himself, Hussain shares his views on Bilkis Bano, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lord Dalhousie, the current state of Urdu and the possibility of peace with our neighbours. Like any experienced arm-chair critic, he has occasional bouts of insight (as when he discusses the narrow-mindedness of people who dismiss Hindi poets writing in Urdu), tempered by a sea of generalities and the odd incomprehensible pronouncement (“Urdu today flourishes only in India”).
Although the NDA-era references (POTA, the Indo-Pak bus service) are dated, the writing on the whole succeeds at evoking very different eras. We grow to understand Hussain as he addresses the various off-stage characters differently – boasting of past glories to his daughter-in-law while bickering with his less patient son. The play is written in Hindustani, country cousin of Urdu, but a Hindi-speaking audience shouldn’t have trouble understanding it. The sparsely populated stage is lit dimly, as if to suggest the dual interiors of a lower middle-class household and a brain that is slowly shutting down on itself. With the exception of some attempts to bridge the fourth wall, which created the uncomfortable feeling of a lurching gear-shift into a different theatrical genre, 1947 proceeds smoothly – an anti-thriller of the mind, as it were, its secrets laid bare in the beginning.
Ultimately, though, one-man performances must sink or sail through on the prowess of the one man in question. In 1947’s case the man is Saleem Shah, a 45-year-old playing twice his age. That may sound audacious, but it’s a decision that paid off, especially because Shah circumvents the clichés associated with “acting old”. Ghanzafar Hussain is testy and loud, a raconteur with the worst possible affliction. Shah wisely avoids letting him become too endearing; his voice and mannerisms are arthritic and ungainly, his manner querulous. In the end, he retains our sympathies not because he is charming company, but because he is, in all his struggles and insecurities, and in his embodiment of what Charles Dickens called “poor dreams”, every man.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi