A love affair that is all in the mind

Shekhar Suman (right) as lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and Deepti Naval (left) as novelist Amrita Pritam in Ek Mulaqaat.
Shekhar Suman (right) as lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and Deepti Naval (left) as novelist Amrita Pritam in Ek Mulaqaat.PHOTO: TEAMWORK PRODUCTIONS

Stage show tells of Indian literary star's one-sided adulation of a popular poet

Well-known Bollywood actress Deepti Naval takes to the stage for the first time in her four-decade career, to play her mentor, the late novelist Amrita Pritam, in Ek Mulaqaat (A Meeting).

The two-man play also stars Indian actor Shekhar Suman as poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, for whom Pritam carried a torch.

Ek Mulaqaat will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre on April 29 and is co-presented by Teamwork Productions and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

Performed in Hindi and Urdu with English surtitles, it will travel this year to the United States and Australia after a well-received 50-weekend run in Mumbai.

Naval, 59, made her reputation as a character actress in the late 1970s and 1980s in Bollywood films such as 1981 low-key comedy Chashme Baddoor (a phrase used to ward off the evil eye) and the drama Ankahi (literally "unsaid", about superstitions and the influence of astrology on Indian society).

Unlike her peers, such as Shabana Azmi, she stayed clear of theatre work.

  • BOOK IT / EK MULAQAAT

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: April 29, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $50 to $170 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: In Hindi and Urdu with English surtitles

"I always thought I wouldn't do well on stage," she says in a telephone interview from Mumbai.

"I don't have a large voice, I don't have that kind of projection and I always thought I would forget my lines."

She changed her mind two years ago, when playwright-director Saif Hyder Hasan asked her to play Pritam in his new work co-written with Sumana Ahmed.

She adds: "I became completely enamoured of the idea that I would play someone I knew personally. I was a little scared as well. I had to be careful I didn't misrepresent her."

Pritam was one of the literary stars of post-World War II India and much-decorated for her writings in Hindi and Punjabi, such as the 1950 novel Pinjar (Skeleton). The book detailed the savage religious clashes and violence against women during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. It was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name in 2003.

Ludhianvi, two years Pritam's junior, was a popular poet who became even better known from the 1950s until his death in 1980 through the lyrics he wrote for film.

Some of his songs, including the 1970s hit Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein (Sometimes, In My Heart), have been set to new music by composer Parivesh Singh for Ek Mulaqaat to put the focus back on Ludhianvi's lyrics - an act that even actors Naval and Suman initially decried as heresy.

Naval begged a film director for an introduction to Pritam in 1980 and continued to visit her in Delhi until the older woman died in 2005.

The actress even read her poems out to Pritam for criticism before her collection, Lamha Lamha (or "moments"), was published in 1981.

She remembers Pritam as "very gentle on the surface, very strong on the inside". They spoke a few times of Ludhianvi, whose writings captured the writer's heart back in the 1940s. "She had this huge admiration for him, but it was unrequited," Naval says.

"It wasn't a love affair like we know it. It was all in the mind."

Pritam and Ludhianvi interacted mostly through writings and letters and the rare meeting detailed sensually in the novelist's memoirs. She describes, for example, smoking the stubs of Ludhianvi's cigarettes or unconsciously covering a sheet of writing paper with his name.

"Her real-life love story was with Imroz Sahib," Naval says, referring to the artist who was Pritam's partner of 40 years.

However, when the lyricist died, Pritam was reportedly heartbroken, saying: "Today, my god has died."

Naval says: "Her adulation for him never diminished. This kind of devotion doesn't exist anymore, that you would spend half your life in love with somebody and you never even see that person. One or two meetings is enough."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'A love affair that is all in the mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe