Direction : Faezeh Jalali
Writer : Annie Zaidi
Cast : Sukant Goel, Aadya Bedi, BM Vyas, Anuja Lokre, Trimala Adhikari, Arun Mohare, Sumeet Vyas, Jaswinder Singh, Mangesh Bhide, Abhishek Gautam, Debtosh Darjee, Arun Vinayak and Hitesh Malukani

JAAL play review

Aditi Sharma

JAAL is not your run-of-the-mill whodunit comedy-thriller. And thank god for that! There is something refreshingly exciting about the collaboration between director Faezeh Jalali and playwright Annie Zaidi. Faezeh plays with stage/auditorium space and Annie brings the fringe into focus - for a regular theatre watcher this is the perfect reason to leave the auditorium bearing a wide grin, leave alone the fact that you've just seen a rather macabre play.

Essentially, the play is about Constable Gopal's paid vacation to his village. The long-awaited leave is sanctioned only so that Gopal can help the police investigate the disappearance of an engineer working with a large corporate entity that wishes to build a dam on the local river. The river is a source of livelihood for the villagers, who oppose the project. So, on one hand there are authorities, who support 'development' in the area and do not want to upset the corporates and on the other are villagers protesting to hold on to their way of life. The situation reaches boiling point after the engineer's disappearance. He is last seen near the river so every villager is a suspect.

The villagers clam up and refuse to reveal any details of the occurrences of the day. Gopal being an 'insider' is sent to the village to investigate the case to its logical conclusion. The sincere constable, despite his limited means, menacing villagers, and constant pressure from seniors, tries to do his best. Even though the play has a prominent subplot of a love story, the tension builds with every scene, reaching a crescendo towards the end.

Pulling off a thriller, with a believable story line is no easy task but Annie and Faezeh do a super job. Annie focuses on the real. With a plot like this - powerful, influential capitalist pitted against poor, helpless villagers - the play has the potential of taking on a didactic tone. Thankfully, JAAL does not go that way. In an interview Annie has said that the play is about the "decisions taken in our name or on our behalf by larger forces but we don't know how to combat them." Accordingly, she concentrates on what happens to the villagers once they are brought under the microscope. Gopal's character as the insider-yet-outsider acts as the bridge across the river, quite literally. Characters from the other world - the inspector and the journalist - are used to portray the other aspects of the story.

Casting for the play is near perfect and age appropriate. For a change, young actors weren't wearing salt and pepper wigs to appear old and that makes a huge difference. Even those actors with minimal dialogues leave an impression with their body language. Sukant Goel as Gopal, Trimala Adhikari as his younger sister and Aadya Bedi as Gopal's lady love Jharna are noteworthy. Jaswinder Singh is fabulous as the small town scoop-hunting journalist and gets his share of applause as well. Only Anuja Lokre, who plays Gopal's mother, ups the melodramatic quotient a bit too much. With everything else falling into place, Lokre's performance seems jarring.

Faezeh has done a great job using space, light and music to build the air of suspense. Yes, there will be inevitable comparisons to the film 'Peepli Live'. But Faezeh's treatment of the script makes the play stand apart. Faezeh has built a solid reputation as an energetic and honest actor, now her directorial ventures will be on my must-watch list too. On the day of the performance, Faezeh had warned her cast not to call her on stage for the curtain call. I'm glad her cast and crew did not listen to her. The entire team deserved the standing ovation they received.

*Aditi Sharma enjoys watching theatre and writing about it.

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