Naseeruddin Shah making Lahore feel pre-1947

Published: December 6, 2012

White-haired and elegant, Shah’s crisp Urdu diction (peppered only with an occasional smattering of Hindi) distinguished itself immediately. PHOTO:FILE

Naseeruddin Shah received a standing ovation from the Lahore capacity crowd at The Alhamra Art Centre, on Saturday. This was before he started performing. Those pouring into Alhamra’s Hall No 2 since 5:00 to watch he ‘Naseeruddin Shah plays’  knew little more than that they were dramatistions of the great Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s short stories and that Naseeruddin Shah was performing in them. The latter was enough for most.

A documentary on Faiz Ghar began the evening exactly at 6:00, as stated on the invitation card, after which the Bollywood star strode on to the Alhamra stage to great applause, cutting a charismatic figure. White-haired and elegant, Shah’s crisp Urdu diction (peppered with only an occasional smattering of Hindi) distinguished itself immediately in a country officially the flag-bearer of Urdu in the sub-continent but with an urban population increasingly indifferent to the language. Heeba Shah, the first of the performers walked on to the stage, coffee mug in hand to begin narrating ‘Chhui Mui’, the tale of an upper middle class shareefzaadi ‘s protected upbringing that renders her nature so delicate she is incapable of taking her pregnancies to full term and providing her in-laws with a much-desired heir. Bhabhijaan, as she is called by the young but precocious narrator, is juxtaposed with a wretched harlot who gives birth to her child in a train compartment with an ease and unabashed pride that horrifies the shareef khaandaan looking on. Bhabhijaan is so affected by the spectacle that she miscarries once again. The performance and the writing blended so seamlessly it was difficult to say you hadn’t just witnessed a play with an ensemble cast instead of a short story recited by a single person. This sense of the stage peopled with a variety of
characters and not just a single narrator only grew with subsequent performances. Ratna Pathak’s narration of ‘Gori Bi and Kaley Mian’ turned out to be a virtuoso performance, restrained and mellow. Pathak allowed Chughtai’s words to take centre stage, letting them weave a web of their own without permitting imposed theatrical compulsions to interfere with the narrative flow. The injured pride of a dark man married to a fair woman finds release in a refusal to consummate the marriage unless the bride lifts her marital veil herself, an unheard-of travesty in the strictly mannered mughal setting of the story. Chughtai’s sharp reveals the psychological wounds society
inflicts not just upon women but also men who do not fit into prescribed norms of beauty, and the fallout of such societal attitudes on individual lives.

In the last and longest performance of the evening, Nasseruddin Shah starred as a lonely, middle-aged nawaab fighting hopelessly against the charms of Laajo, a generous and promiscuous young woman who comes to work at his house. Shah took the crowd along on a raucous jaunt of irreverence and lasciviousness with obvious personal delight in the portrayal of the nawab’s sexual yearnings, kept from degenerating into bawdiness by Chughtai’s refined, literary Urdu. Marriage sounds the death knell to romance in this story; the nawaab and Laajo’s state of romantic Eden destroyed by the shackles of an institution for which Laajo is singularly unsuited. Once the unhappy interlude of marriage is gotten over with, however, and the nawaab divorces Laajo, they return to their happy state of coupledom without many qualms.

The largely upper-middle class, English-educated audience that shows up for such events reveled for two evenings in the dexterity of the Urdu language. I felt a pride I rarely feel these days about anything indigenous. For two days The Faiz Foundation made Lahore feel pre-9/11, pre-Sri Lankan cricket team attack, pre-Rafi Peer Theatre Festival closure, and within the confines of the theatre, perhaps even pre-1947.

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Sabahat Zakariya

Sabahat Zakariya

An English Literature teacher at Lahore Grammar School who freelances for various publications. Her personal blog can be accessed at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jat

    Great write ! I got lost in your narrative…Recommend

  • Pakistani in US

    Good blog. But why end on a pessimistic note?Recommend

  • aaaaa

    I was there and I have to say that the last two performances stood out more than the first. For Chhui Mui, Heeba Shah relied more on her actions than the nuances of tone of voice. The narrator’s and the character’s voice was also not differentiated to a great degree. I would put Naseerudin Shah’s performance above Kalay Mian, mostly because I enjoyed that story more, although the acting of both Shah and Ratna was almost on par with each other. Loved the show overall, would go again in a heartbeat, even if it was the same three stories again.Recommend

  • shuja ul islam

    thumbs up..!!Recommend

  • Anoop

    I see what you mean when you say pre-1947 Lahore.

    Lahore was the movie-capital of pre-partition India. The land of basant and colourful kites. With the migration of Hindus and Sikhs the city looks like it lost its vibrant part of its soul.Recommend

  • Anas Tanveer

    I have been lucky enough to attend the second evening, and it was evenly outclass. The narrations of AMAR BAIL and NANNI KI NANI were superb. I felt proud to be a part of that enriched literary culture. The narrators outclassed the superb writings.Recommend

  • Anas Tanveer

    Anoop, for your kind considerance, basant has been celebrated in Lahore till 2004-05 roughly, way after partition. It is requested not to colour each and every blog out here in India VS Pakistan. I dont find a reason for such a comment. Pity, all what I can say.Recommend

  • Sadaf

    This was a lovely post. I really enjoyed reading it.The last paragraph was necessary, so often Pakistan is seen through the lens of such incidents that we forget who we really are, what our culture really was. Recommend

  • Rehan

    Amazing performances!! Never experienced stage performance like this one. The trio was outstanding. Recommend

  • Anoop

    @Anas Tanveer:

    In a blog titled pre-1947 Lahore, I commented about how Lahore seems to have changed. I couldn’t care less for your pity. This is the Internet.

    Basant was banned about a decade ago, yes, but it was still banned. Films died long time ago.

    Not everything is about India and Pakistan, but this case is.. In 1947, Lahore was India, now it is Pakistan. Hint: There is more meaning to the above statement than the obvious.Recommend

  • gp65

    Naseer, Shabana, Farooq Sheikh – seeing these people on stage is a privilege and pleasure. I have seen all of them perform in the cosy Prithvi theatre and can understand why the Lahore crowd loved Naseer. I have not been fortunate enough to see Ratna on stage…some day!Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    pre acid-serving to blind cricketer era … May I add humbly !!!

    BTW do we have such talent this side of the fence ? ya saray hee nikammay hain …. just wondering …. Recommend

  • Fehmida Khanoon

    Wait a minute.. Is this article really admiring Shah’s Urdu diction? I know us Pakistanis are capable of a lot of delusion. But, this one is takes the cake.

    Urdu is native to UP in India not Pakistan and derives from the Khariboli diaect of that region. In fact, it has nothing really to do with people native to Pakistan, except that we cling to it to the detriment of our own languages (Punjabi, Seraiki,…) for the past 65 years.

    Another hint for the clueless: “Shah is native to UP”.

    So, if anything, he should be admiring our fluency in Urdu, not other way around!!

    Where do we go next? Admire the English fluency of the Queen of England?Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    Why are we on about ” Shah’s Urdu diction”!!!! It’s his mother tongue and he makes millions for it. You should remember that Urdu is not mother tongue of 92 percent Pakistanis. They speak Urdu(and we ought to be grateful to them) BUT they love their mother tongue more.
    Rather confused blog.Recommend

  • anwar suhail

    @Fehmida Khanoon:
    Agree with you 100 percent.Recommend

  • prabhjyot singh madan

    Maam, i am a Punjabi and fluent in the doabi dialect of punjabi and I can read and write in Punjabi too. Please commend me for it too. Shah is from Uttar pradesh. But a good article in a overall perspective. Keep it up. Sat Sri akalRecommend

  • Rani

    Oops, I accidentally clicked the recommend button.Recommend

  • Anoop


    Its alright @Rani, I’ve got the highest number of recommendations. Yours won’t make much of a difference, would it. Cheers :)Recommend