Main Hun Yusuf

The most striking thing about Aasakta and D For Drama's I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother, directed by Mohit Takalkar and staged at the Prithvi festival last Thursday, was the practically bare stage. Followers of this director's work  are accustomed to seeing a stage design that intrigues the eye. In this case, there was just a table at the beginning and a low white 'rock' later, that also served as diverse seating arrangements. As the stories of the characters unfolded, the starkness of the stage became part of the meaning of the play, reflecting the fear, confusion and misery that was invading their lives.

The play is located in the small village of Baissamoon in post-1947 Palestine. The land has been severed in two by a United Nations resolution. The temporary rule of Palestine by Great Britain is about to end.  The personal story that plays out against this troubled political background is of Ali's ill-fated love for Nada. The two young people yearn to be together but are severed, like their land, by Nada's father who will not allow her to marry Ali because his brother Yusuf is "odd" and the oddness might run in the family. How Yusuf becomes the village simpleton is one of several stories woven into the rich fabric of the play.

Once the British Mandate ends, and Rufus, the representative tommy returns to his beloved Sheffield, the Israeli half of Palestine begins to eat into the Arab half. There is further trouble for the lovers when Nada's father is killed for being a collaborator and she suspects Ali of the crime. While Baissamoon is ravaged, and the villagers run helter-skelter, not knowing which way to go or whether to go anywhere at all, Haifa the dream place to which Ali intends taking Nada is also occupied. Meanwhile, Yusuf continues to live in his own happy world where his only fear is of losing Ali, to whom he is doggedly devoted. Ali's reckless pursuit of Nada ends inevitably in death. As Yusuf watches him dying, already dead refugees in brown hooded cloaks do a macabre dance around them, waiting for the moment when he will be one of them.

In one of the most darkly humorous scenes of the play, Rufus enters with a radio over which the UN voting is broadcast: "Soviet Union: Yes. United Kingdom: Abstained. United States: Yes...". So it goes on till the partition plan is carried. Rufus in high glee hands over the radio to Yusuf, who holds it aloft and giggles with delight.

There are poetic passages here of remembrance and regret that add depth to the play, fluidly translated by Salima Raza from Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi's Arabic original, into Urdu-Hindi. Wisely left untranslated, are haunting Arabic songs, sung in a pure, ringing voice by Ipshita Chakraborty accompanying a line of women in black dresses, heads covered with white scarves, crossing the stage with  water pitchers. This is an eloquent symbol of life persisting even as it is being systematically destroyed. Another poignant symbol of loss is the man from another village who carries a whole tree on his shoulder like a cross, to ensure that it will provide neither fruit nor shade to those who have robbed him of his land. 

Most remarkably, the play is free of anger. The playwright is not blaming anybody. He is only recording stories about what life means even in the midst of death. It means love-- Ali's for Nada, Yusuf's for Ali, a young village maiden's for Rufus, old Nada's for old Yusuf.

Takalkar responds to the fluid structure of the play by keeping his characters moving through quick-paced encounters. He  deploys them in such a way that, aided by the lighting design (Pradeep Vaiddya), they often do what a set would have done -- divide the stage into multiple acting spaces. Another element that adds to the visual effect  of the whole are Rashmi Rode's unfussy but highly effective costumes.

The performances are resonant and full-blooded, marked by stylised speech patterns and uninhibited physicality. Mrinmayee Godbole as Nada is an intense will-o'-the-wisp. Jitendra Joshi's Ali is passionately articulate. Ashish Mehta's older Yusuf matches the younger perfectly, and Ipshita Chakraborty, besides having a magnificent voice has a magnetic stage presence. Towering above them all is Ajeet Singh Palawat as the young Yusuf, a remarkable instance of an actor becoming a character.

I Am Yusuf... is a play that leaves your sensibilities tingling even after it has ended.

Published On : 18-11-2015