Catalyst for conflict

Faezeh Jalali’s new play is a farcical take on Mumbai’s ‘cosmopolitanism’, says Vikram Phukan

Rounding up a not insignificant bouquet of three top-billed stage productions (out of five) based fully or partially on works by women writers at this year’s Prithvi Theatre Festival, is a new play written and directed by the prolific Faezeh Jalali. It comes at the heels of Annie Zaidi’s award-winning Untitled 1, directed by Danish Husain, and Hindustan Chhod Do, a Motley compendium helmed by Naseeruddin Shah that features Nanhe Munne, a story that extends the legacy of the redoubtable Ismat Chughtai.

Polarised milieu

Jalali’s play is an outing with her theatre outfit, FATS theARTS, and rather self-explanatorily titled Bone of Contention in Cosmopolitan CHS. It is an ensemble piece with 16-odd players, several of whom have worked on previous Jalali ventures like Shikhandi: The Story of the In-Betweens (Meher Acharia-Dar, Abhishek Chauhan, Srishti Shrivastava and Karan Desai) and A Farming Story (Junaid Khan and Abhishek Deswal) — works that have displayed a dynamism of presentation that is now considered her hallmark.

The play began life as a 45-min piece Jalali had mounted with students at her alma mater, the J.B. Petit School for Girls, earlier this year. The seed of the idea came from a personal memory from the time her family lived in a Mazgaon bungalow with Parsi and Irani occupants, alongside which a conservative Hindu housing cooperative with a strictly vegetarian policy came up. Chicken or meat bones retrieved from trash by errant crows, and dropped across the proverbial fence, resulted in an atmosphere of mistrust, in what was already the polarised post-riots urban milieu of the mid-1990s. “Incidents like that appeared to come with the turf. It prompted me to write a farcical take on the situation, on what our belief systems are, and how prejudices tumble out,” says Jalali. The catalyst for conflict then might have been a measly bone, and it persists, perhaps unwittingly, as agent provocateur in this new production.

Written more than 25 since the riots, Bone of Contention in Cosmopolitan CHS is still regrettably relevant in a world whose fissures have been radically exposed in recent years. The eponymous CHS is represented in the play by four households, with a motley crew of archetypal characters who, in their sheer diversity, might well have made a case for a new status quo that is inclusive and respectful. In reality, the ‘cosmopolitanism’ is skin-deep. Stringing the narrative together, and serving as a counterpoint to the shenanigans, is Kalpana, the domestic help from Nallasopara who works in all the households. Played by the gifted Marathi stage and film actor Parna Pethe (with Shrivastava as understudy), her presence blows the lid off the psychological hang-ups and class hangovers of the upwardly mobile, even as her own surprisingly open-minded life choices provides an embodiment of the kind of syncretism that we aspire to in our so-called liberal bubbles. “In many ways, it is through Kalpana’s gaze that we look at the housing society and its denizens,” explains the director.

Organising chaos

While Jalali entered rehearsals with a pre-written script that the production has largely been faithful to, her collaborative processes contributed substantively to the shape the play finally took. “Most of my work has been semi-devised, and even here there have definitely been minor edits and restructuring on the floors, taking actor inputs into consideration,” she elaborates. Certain interludes that seemed skeletal on the page acquired flesh and blood during the making. For instance, a general body meeting in the play in which every character participates had to be worked out minute-by-minute to draw out its dramatic potential and satirical tenor. “Organising the chaos in the script, and tempering the physical loudness of an ensemble, were challenges to be worked through,” says Jalali, even with her considerable experience with large casts. In the end, of course, a robust play has likely emerged ready once more to regale audiences.

Bone of Contention in Cosmopolitan CHS will be staged at Royal Opera House at 7 p.m. today; see

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