When we talk of gender issues, it is invariably about the suffering of underprivileged women, as if to say educated, rich women with supportive families are spared any pain.
With Love, Aap Ki Saiyaara, written and directed by Juuhi Babbar Sonii is different, because the protagonist Saiyaara Ali, also played by her, is not a docile woman. She is the pampered, only child of wealthy parents (they appear on a screen and the stars who play them are a delightful surprise), given the best of everything. Still, like the young heroine of a bad romantic novel, she falls in love with an older, married, professor. He converts to Islam to marry her, and then she has to endure, not just the suffocation of a scaled down lifestyle, but also the indignity of abuse from his family and his increasing unease with the situation. For this self-centred man, she broke off with her parents, and after a nasty divorce, rushes back into the fold.
With her father’s encouragement, she becomes a high-flying entrepreneur, and marries a charming doctor, whose sophisticated façade hides the conservative, who starts resenting his wife’s ‘modern’ ways—her western clothes, her social drinking, her travelling on business. He tries to rein her in, but has no qualms about carrying on extra-marital affairs. This marriage also ends in a particularly vicious triple talaq.
Though Sonii does not underline the character’s religion, and in fact, breaks a few Muslim stereotypes, she does convey that the simple wedding ceremony and easy divorce allowed in Islam, do adversely affect women of every social stratum. Saiyaara is a South Mumbai memsaab, with a sharp tongue (she decimates an over-familiar journalist), a wicked sense of humour (the way she lampoons a supposedly sympathetic matron), but also the sensitivity to appreciate poetry and old Lata Mangeshkar songs. She uses the lockdown period to write her memoir, which turns out to be a bestseller (that is a bit of a cliche).
Juuhi Babbar Sonii has written this play around a character created by Nadira Zaheer Babbar, and it has become their group Ekjute’s 40th anniversary offering; she has ably accepted the baton from her mother to keep the show running.
The set of an antiques-studded apartment with a terrace garden has also been designed by Sonii and the ‘plants’ arranged all over Prithvi theatre make the space look pretty and welcoming.
She is mostly on stage alone, the other two actors play her employees, and could actually have been dispensed with, because she has the acting chops and a fine talent for mimicry to bring to life characters she encounters. The screen serves to display photographs of the people she mentions, and that leaves the audience to imagine the encounters… including the funny ones of men hitting on a divorcee they imagine as an easy target.
The story is that of a woman who has seen the good, bad and ugly side of life, and Babbar Sonii plays Saiyaara with a joie de vivre of one who has the ability to take blows on the chin and move on. To alter that famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote, no woman can be turned into a victim without her consent.
(This piece first appeared in mumbaitheatreguide.com)