Flashback: Shobha Yatra

Deepa Gahlot

Shafaat Khan's popular play, SHOBHA YATRA, still retains its satirical bite. The Hindi adaptation, directed by Ganesh Yadav, can be watched online on Zee5.

The comic potential of a bunch of dishonest people playing freedom fighters for an Independence Day procession sponsored by a gangster is tapped by playwright Shafaat Khan in his satirical play, ShOBHA YATRA. The two-decade old play has proved to be so popular, it has been performed on stage several times in over six languages.

If at all the sharpness of the play is blunted it is because the socio-political situation is much worse than what any writer could have imagined a few years ago. Even so, a lot of it is perfectly relatable-the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A gangster with political ambitions organizes a shobha yatra (pageant) on Independence day. His white-clad henchman (Ganesh Yadav) has collected a group of people, put them in costumes of freedom fighters, given them famous lines to mug up and settled them into a warehouse to wait for the ‘chariot' in which the tableau of great leaders will be taken around the vicinity.

The line-up of historical icons include Gandhi (Chirag Vohra), Nehru (Ayaz Khan), Rani Laxmibai (Mansi Multani) Netaji Bose (Nikhil Ratnaparkhi) and Tilak (Anand Alkunte)-the last leader everyone has trouble remembering, even though his immortal line about independence being his birthright, is taught to school kids. The offstage “Bhai's” loyalist plays Babu Genu, and the tea boy who brings them refreshments and news of the outside has no clue who they are supposed to be; for him survival is more important than a parade.

The wait for the vehicle keeps getting longer, the characters whine and bicker and their unsavoury stories emerge. They are strutting about wearing the costumes of great nationalists and parroting their lines, but all of them are corrupt and opportunistic. Netaji, who takes his role rather too seriously, is Bhai's unscrupulous lawyer! The only character who is needlessly forced into the smoothly-flowing plot is Barbie (Altamash Shakreen), a mini-skirted American photographer, who clicks pictures and flirts with the men. The playwright cannot think of a crisis for the other woman in the play, except marital discord and a pregnancy, so the history teacher playing Jhansi Ki Rani, when she is not rehearsing brandishing a sword, is seen either moping or knitting a sweater!

Outside the warehouse, there are problems with the cops, a riot erupts and a hitman is on the loose (actually walking about waving a gun!) assigned to kill one of the characters.

The two underprivileged boys see no future for themselves and look up to the gangster to help them make anything of themselves, even if it is just a goon-for-hire. Khan makes the rather obvious point that our leaders fought for independence from the British, only to have the country fall into the hands of scamsters and criminals. The play is funny and thought-provoking, but needs some editing to make it less repetitive; also with all the upheavals that take place in the enclosed space and outside, the flag-waving climax seems flat.

The play continues to be very relevant, however, and the Zee production has a fine set and excellent performances, especially by Chirag Vohra, who slips in and out of his Gandhi persona with impressive ease; perhaps the acting could have been toned down a bit for the screen. Even with the clutter of programmes on various platforms, SHOBHA YATRA is worth a look.

(Deepa Gahlot is a journalist, columnist, author and curator. Some of her writings are on deepagahlot.com)

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