Tearing Down Walls
When Prithviraj Kapoor, who criss-crossed the country with Prithvi Theatres staging powerful plays, performed Deewar in 1945, the audience was so overwhelmed by his tale on colonialism that they scrambled onto the stage to become a part of the story. Would the story have the same impact today?
That is the question posed at the beginning of Sunil Shanbag’s reboot of the classic play, which premiered on November 3. The opening work of Mumbai’s 40th Prithvi Theatre Festival, the new Deewar begins with two youngsters arguing heatedly about what they should perform. Rishabh wants to stage the original Deewar that moved his grandmother to tears 73 years ago. But Lekha says it’s too emotional to be objective and out of touch with the times. Finally, they resolve to incorporate both emotions and objectivity in their version, and the 2018 story begins.
The zamindar brothers, Suresh and Ramesh, are presiding over a utopian Diwali celebration—like Ram-rajya with a generous maalik and a contented praja—when two conniving foreigners arrive, claiming to be in desperate need of help. The brothers welcome them and agree to hire them to manage the estate, replacing the old, loyal deewanji. In no time, the foreigners influence the brothers to adopt western mannerisms and attire. The lackey Ramu, played by Rishabh, starts dancing to their tune. But the brothers’ wives and Ramu’s fiancé, Lekha-turned Laxmi, are not taken in. In a 2018 twist, the women are shown to be more perceptive, and it is to them
The 40th Prithvi Theatre Festival opened with a rebooted version of the iconic Deewar
that the peasants of the land appeal when they find their granary being depleted by the outsiders.
In 1945, two years before Partition tore the country asunder, Kapoor’s tale, passionately enacted, struck a chord with his viewers. More so when he ended it happily, with the two brothers making amends and breaking the wall they had been tricked into building to separate their property.
To that original ending, the 2018 version adds a second one with a democratic flourish. In it, Lekha convinces the peasants to tell their masters that henceforth, they will periodically choose their sarkar. In the finale, the jubilant farmhands and the zamindar family celebrate with a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem, Hum Dekhenge, tuned to music, which looks forward to the day when thrones will be brought down.
The balancing of the old and the new can be tricky. Though shorter than the four-hour 1945 version, the 2018 version seems long drawn, and the anachronistic costumes and hairstyles of the women actors clash with other elements meant to situate the piece in the pre-Partition era. However, Kapoor’s plea for communal harmony is relevant once again, given the contemporary political climate.
Deewar will be staged at the Prithvi Theatre in January, and at the Royal Opera House in February.