A play set in violence-ridden Kashmir, and you know what to expect. Or do you? Rizwaan is an unusually told story of a boy Rizwaan – literally, keeper of the Gates of Heaven – whose life and family are torn apart by insurgency in Kashmir. Rizwaan might be anybody in the news reports from the valley we read about in the papers every other day. When our lives are untouched by first-hand experiences of horror, we might take their narrations with a sub-conscious sense of detachment. Rizwaan, in a very quiet way, shakes you out of that detachment.
In the mould of Abhishek Majumdar’s earlier work Lucknow ’76, the narrative moves back and forth in time. We know at the outset how it will end and gradually fit in the jigsaw pieces. Smaller segments too don’t reveal themselves linearly. We are taken aback when a girl begins to chatter cheerfully of her father’s death by a bullet shot and it takes a while to understand why.
To add to the mix is the constant shift in actors’ roles. Rizwaan, his mother, his siblings are played by different actors in different scenes, at times more than one actor speaking the lines for the same character. In one sequence, six mother-son pairs carry out the same scene in tandem – mother1 says a line, mother2 adds another and son3 replies. I’d last seen something like this in And Sunshine Follows The Rain and then, as now, had marvelled at how difficult this must be to pull off.
Darkness pervades the atmosphere. The actors wear black, stagelights are used sparingly. The play is also very muted, so much so that dialogues spoken at conversational volume ring loud, hit hard; the gurgling sound of a man underwater (a water-filled vat with coloured paper boats stands for the lake) is audible when the play closes. The lines are often abstract and delivered with ironical blandness. Characters speak matter-of-factly about pain and death, about heaven and permanence, about carrying their addresses in their pockets so that if they are killed their bodies may be delivered home. Not once is the word ‘Muslim’ said aloud in the play but religion is written large across the people’s faces.
Rizwaan is less story more poetry, and here’s why– it is based on The Country Without A Post Office (1997), Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems about Kashmir. The dialogues demand evocative, beautiful voices from the actors. This wasn’t uniformly there with the cast but the makers have chosen well to give the largest segments to those who spoke best. A lovely touch in the play was the sense of motion the actors created – a swing, two-wheelers – without any props.
Rizwaan is not a happy play. It requires attention and – even at the short 60 min run-time – patience to be appreciated, and it leaves you discomfited. Go for it if you’re up for an intense, lyrical play-watching experience.