- Shuchita Goel and Shivpriya Gurtoo
“History is not a web woven with innocent hands.”
Riot, one of the most highly anticipated and widely talked about cultural events on campus this year, successfully concluded today. A stage adaptation of Shashi Tharoor’s novel by the same name, it was jointly directed by Akansha Seth, Akshat Srivastava, Devanshi Saxena, Harshit Kohli, Ishan Patnaik, Jahnavi Singh, Parul Madan and Rangashree TK whose efforts bore fruit as they, alongwith their entire cast, received a standing ovation by the author himself.
The excitement started to build with Dr. Tharoor’s arrival on campus. The play began shortly thereafter. The opening song by Devanshi Saxena, gave to the first scene a sombre mood as we were introduced to Zalilgarh, a fictional town, rife with communal tension, set against the backdrop of the call for Hindutva in 1989. The story commenced with an extremely morose Fatima (Malavika Parthasarathy) being consoled by Priscilla Hart (Sonna Subbaiah) over her helplessness in her household and lack of control over her own body, and being helped by Kadambiri (DVL Vidya) and Shankar Das (Anant Ram Mishra).
Priscilla is an American student at New York University who is visiting India for a population-control awareness programme and to gain information about a culture she has never been exposed to previously. She is introduced to the suave and well-read District Magistrate of Zalilgarh, Lakshman, a civil servant played by Arpit Gupta, who works hard to keep communal tension at bay and simultaneously helps her capture the essence of Indian society. Initially, he serves as her guide to explore the dichotomous nature of India, one that actively contributes to propagate divisive and communal ideology; the other that professes Western liberal thought.
As the story progresses, his witty nature as well as a propensity to quote Oscar Wilde, wins her heart and they become lovers. They spend time together at the kotli, enjoying each other’s company alongwith that of the bougainvillea and gulmohar, basking in the light of the dying sun. As every love story is wont to be doomed however, Lakshman is a married man with a daughter, highly disliked by the Hindu fundamentalist forces in Zalilgarh for the “excessive concessions” he gives to the Muslims inhabiting the area.
With this, we are introduced to Ramcharan Gupta, played by Umakant Tripathi, the local Hindu preacher who incites the community to violence against Muslims and also to Prof. Mohammed Sarwar played by Dhruv Sharma, whose calm and cool demeanour is the complete anti-thesis of Ramcharan Gupta’s character. He comes in between different scenes to explicate the position of Muslims in India and logically tries to explain the dynamics of the discrimination they face, which has become so entrenched in society, that the notion of their inferiority due to their numerical minority is perpetuated on a daily basis.
On the other hand, Lakshman is torn between his responsibilities towards his family and the unconditional love he harbours for Priscilla. He is in two minds, and considers leaving his job and his world behind for her but then SP Gurinder (Siddharth Sharma) convinces him otherwise, with the argument that the country requires dedicated civil servants like Lakshman to save them from themselves. Lakshman tries to explain this to Priscilla, who is angered by his vacillating position regarding their relationship. She flounces off and the play nears its end when she sends him a letter, bursting with emotion that conveys to him the news of her imminent departure and implores for one last opportunity to say goodbye in person.
While this is happening, Kadambari goes to Ramcharan Gupta and informs him of the existing relationship between Lakshman and Priscilla, and their frequent meetings at the kotli. Ramcharan Gupta seizes this opportunity to send Lakshman a message and sends his followers, burning with zealotry, to the kotli to intercept Priscilla. They surround her and her dying screams are heard as the curtain closes.
Some characters who deserve special mention are the Hindu fundamentalists, played by Debaranjan Goswami, Kaali Prasad, Prashant KP, Somil Garg and Kanishk Aggrawal whose naare-baazi sent chills through the audience and garnered round after round of applause. The light and sound team, comprising Jahnavi Singh, Ishaan Mishra (who also played Mitha Mohammed), Rakesh J and Manan Jain, also deserves special mention as does the little one, Sabhyata Singh who played Lakshman’s daughter, Rekha.
There was a general consensus among the audience as to the brilliance of Umakant Tripathi’s performance as well as that of Debaranjan Goswami’s. As a member of the audience put it, “This Bengali completely lost his accent and sounded like an effing Allahbadi”. The protagonists, Sonna and Arpit, when indulging in romantic conversation about their future, drew much laughter and applause. All in all, it was a powerful performance and a great team effort on part of the entire cast.
As the evening came to its regrettable conclusion, Dr. Tharoor made explicit his appreciation, congratulating the team on a job well done. To quote him, “It was better than I dared imagine”. He expressed his admiration for the way the story was adapted and dramatized, and congratulated Harshit Kohli for his determination in pursuing this Herculean task till the very end.
In conclusion keeping Professor Mohammad Sarwar’s lament in mind, that we don’t read Iqbal any more, here’s a pertinent couplet we found. “Firqa bandi hai kahin, aur kahin zaatain hain, kya zamaaney main panapnay ki yahi batain hain?” (You split yourselves in countless sects, in classes high and low, think you the world its gifts will still on such as you bestow?)