Over The Rainbow:
There was a time, not too long ago, when live-in relationships were considered the height of boldness, and people talked in subdued tones about homosexuals. Now, there is a whole new vocabulary to describe the many shades of non-binary gender identities. Instead of the commonly used ‘he’ and ‘she’, the preference today is to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
Faezeh Jalali’s new play Strictly Unconventional, takes a humorous look this social phenomenon, in six short pieces, bringing together, as she states in her note, “the conventional in the unconventional, and the unconventional in the conventional relationship.”
As it invariably happens in such compendiums, a couple of pieces work better than others. In Strictly Unconventional the one that stands out is Transitions/It’s So Confusing, in which a talk show host (Vvansh S. Sethi), invites a transgender couple—both of whom are called Shakti—to talk about their lives together. One of them is a male (Junaid Khan) who is transitioning to becoming female, and the other is a female (Devika Shahani) going the other way. By ‘normal’ standards they make an odd couple—a tall, strapping female in a glittery churidar-kameez, and a short male in a suit—but they are in love and obviously don’t care.
The host, who is actually curious about their sex life, but does not know how to come out and say it, ties himself up in knots in his attempt to be ‘woke’ and is quietly decimated by the Shakti couple. The hapless host could be standing in for everyone in society baffled by this ‘different’ relationship,and being accused of being insensitive when they get it wrong. The host, of course, lets his prejudices show when he assumes that the Shakti working in a hospital must be a nurse or receptionist; because how can a transgender be a doctor? The actors in this piece are pitch perfect—Junaid Khan looking totally relaxed in his flamboyant outfit and wig.
Bi-Time is about two women (Devika Shahani-Suruchi Aulakh), who live together, dealing with mental health issues. One of them is pacing about agitatedly, while the other tries to explain her bi-polar condition, but there is a twist in the end. Good Night Sweetheart/What About Me, takes up the issue not talked about much—a woman (Suruchi Aulakh) in a sexless marriage with a man (Vvansh S. Sethi) who is suitable in every other way as a husband, except in bed. In conservative societies, a woman is expected to just put up with this, because her sexual well-being is not even considered a ground for breaking up a marriage.
The disappointing piece was I Hate Her acted so well by Abhishek Saha, that he gets laughs for his misogyny—an old man bitching about his wife of 50 years, with whom he had an arranged marriage. Unhappiness and suffocation in such marriages is common, but probably felt more by women who are trapped at home looking after the family, while the men go out to work and fantasize about the long-haired beauty, who got away. Without the wife’s point of view, this piece is incomplete.
The remaining two are passable—one about a gay man and polyamorous woman in a marriage of convenience, which actually seems hypocritical, and other about a self-proclaimed “perfect couple” that is anything but, if the slightest breeze can topple them over.
Unlike, Jalali’s last few plays, this one is almost sedate in its staging— the movable props take on different functions, and transparent screens are wheeled about so that the erotic bits are done with deft shadow play (lighting design by Deepa Dharmadhikari.)
Jalali must be commended for picking subjects that reflect changing attitudes of contemporary society (even the mythology-based Shikhandi; she is observer, chronicler and sharp commentator rolled into one, which is why watching her plays is so rewarding.
(This piece first appeared in mumbaitheatreguide.com)