It all started on September 18, 2011 — the day Ahlam Khan and Zafar Karachiwala tied the knot. Mumbai-based playwright Ramu Ramanathan, who had worked with Ahlam since her post-graduate days in 1999, went to their reception without a gift. But, he did know what he could present them with — a play. This is how the new stage production, called The Diary of a Word or How I Proposed to My Second Husband on the 321 Floor came about. It now premieres on Saturday, at Centrestage, the annual theatre festival of National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai.
Now, the couple spends its evenings rehearsing the play till late. However, neither of them seems to mind that. Ahlam, who is the daughter of iconic actor Amjad Khan, calls herself a “theatre purist”. She has wholeheartedly embraced theatre as a career after dabbling in film writing for a few years without much satisfaction. Zafar, who has been doing theatre since 1993, also loves his association with the stage even though it’s television that made him popular in shows such as Hip Hip Hurray and Pal Chhin. There is also the responsibility of running his company that keeps him busy during the day.
Their love for stage notwithstanding, what makes this play interesting is the genuine chemistry that the two actors bring to it. It is a modern love story set in very unusual circumstances, even as it highlights the issue of vanishing languages. The play unfolds very much like sharing a fireside chat between two not-so-young lovers. The narrative is conversational and rambling, looping back and forth between an imaginary world of words and a real world.
Writing this play made certain demands on Ramanathan. He revisited the works of Jose Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Borges, apart from doing research on the state of languages and dialects across India, after which, he has woven the startling facts regarding the loss of language, dialects and words into its narrative. Though the play will have two actors, the director uses animation, audio-visual projection and puppets to aid the process of storytelling.
For Ahlam, theatre is a way of staying close to her father, who passed away in 1992, when she was very young. In fact, her earliest memories are related more to theatre than films. “My uncle Imtiaz Khan used to direct plays and my father used to act in them. I used to sit through these rehearsals on the terrace of our home,” she recalls. Zafar went through the rigours of theatre under the guidance of Hima Devi while studying in college. Later on, he became a regular in Rahul da Cuhna, Vikram Kapadia and Lillete Dubey plays. In 2010, he formed Orchid Room Experiment with Devika Shahani-Punjabi, his co-star from the hugely-popular play Class of 84. The Diary of a Word is the third production under its banner after Bombay Talkies and Pereira’s Bakery at 76 Chapel Road.
“We formed Orchid Room Experiment with the aim of doing plays that are not driven by commercial concerns,” says Zafar. However, they have found a way of staging plays without sponsors though profit might still be a far cry. Plays such as The Diary of a Word can be staged in small auditoriums, keeping the cost low. This play is likely to travel to festivals and auditoriums across the country in the coming months. Next year, Zafar wants to direct a play for his group.
As for Ahlam, who has nearly 10 active productions with different Mumbai theatre groups, she is happy being a production hand for Orchid Room when not acting in their plays.
Zafar says the play will also be performed in Delhi later, either at Kamani Auditorium or at the India Habitat Centre.