Writers, dramatists, poets, respond to life around them in their own manner. When Mumbai-based playwright and critic Shanta Gokhale read about Irom Sharmila from Manipur, and her fast-unto-death against the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), she felt that she must tell Irom’s story to the entire world through a play. Thus was born Menghaobi: the fair one.
The story of Irom Sharmila
Irom was on fast for nearly 16 years, and was force-fed by the security forces. And when on 26th July, 2016, she broke her fast, Gokhale was ready with a play on this theme to show her solidarity with Irom. Gokhale had to relook at her play in light of this development and also some subsequent developments like Irom contesting and losing an assembly election, and her marriage to her British boyfriend.
It is well-known that after breaking her fast, Irom contested assembly elections in her home state Manipur, in which she got less than 20 votes! This sent shock-waves among her fans all over the world. She got married in August 2017 to her British boyfriend, and today, the Iron Lady Irom is married and is settled down in South India.
Gokhale situated her play in a middle-class home in Delhi where a middle-age woman is blissfully unaware of Irom, her struggle, and the atrocities heaped by Indian armed forces on the hapless people of Manipur. This woman happens to be elder daughter of an army colonel, and was brought up to believe that Indian armed forces can do no wrong. This lady represents the middle-class India, happy and safe in their cocoons. She is visited, probably in her dreams, by a story-teller from Manipur, who tells this lady the story of Irom and her fast of 16 years! Her younger sister Sheela also visits her and shakes her out of her middle class complacency and ignorance. This creates a highly dramatic situation where the siblings find themselves on different sides of the ideological divide, the younger one pleading for the cause of justice to the Manipuris, and the older one taking the side of the armed forces and establishment, in general. The debate and the reality presented through this debate, opens the eyes of the senior sister, the Delhi-based homemaker.
It is more than obvious that Gokhale penned a political play with the undertones of conflict between freedom and desire to maintain the system. In such a situation, one automatically becomes a hero (in this case Irom), and the other villain (the armed forces/ Indian government). This is too simplistic a treatment to an immensely complicated socio-political situation.
This English play has been produced by the Playpen Performing Arts Trust, and is directed by Mahesh Dattani, who has written some of the most widely staged English language plays. He finds directing someone else’s text perhaps more creatively liberating and inspiring. Dattani has extensively used songs and dances from Manipur to lend credibility to the presentation and the theme. This, though very attractive, works against the theme of the play, which is quite serious in intent. The visual and audio impact of the song and dance makes the play visually appealing and pleasant to watch, but it also takes the audiences away from the plight of Manipuris living under the dreaded AFSPA for many decades now. Consequently, the play does not touch the audiences with the tragedy it is supposed to portray.
It is quite tempting to compare Irom with Antigone from the Greek tragedy as both these women fought heroically against the might of the state. The comparison should end just here as there is nothing more common between them. Irom fought against the AFSPA which has been in force in Manipur from 1980 onwards! In other words, it has been there for the last 38-odd years during which the country was led by the likes of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, A.B.Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and now Narendra Modi. None of these honourable prime ministers thought it fit to revoke this Act as it is so needed to keep peace in Manipur. The play just does not take this aspect of the story into account, and as a result, it becomes a highly one-sided affair. It is not a bio-drama, nor is it meant to give an account of what has happened in her life.
The play has an impressive cast with Padma Damodaran playing the role of the elder sister. Unfortunately, she does not fight fiercely as could be expected from an army officer’s daughter, when her younger sister argues against the army rule in Manipur. This was the moment in the play where first class ideological conflict could have been presented to the audience. Without such ideological clash, ‘Menghaobi’ reduces itself to a story of well-meaning woman, who fought and lost.