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Living it with letters



HIGH DRAMA Despite clichés, Aapki Soniya survived bravely

A sequel is always a dubious prospect, especially if it follows a hugely popular original, and Aapki Soniya was a particularly problematic sequel. The play, brought to Bangalore by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) stars Sonali Bendre and Farooque Shaikh and follows the story of the original, Tumhari Amrita which played to full houses and starred Shabana Azmi and Farooque Shaikh.

Both plays follow the same format: an unobtrusive set, providing the background for two people who, seated at their desks, read out their letters to each other over a period of time. In Tumhari Amrita, Shabana Azmi and Farooque Shaikh, both mature, accomplished actors, revealed their many hued, layered relationship through their unwavering correspondence. The play followed their marriages to other people and their subsequent family life, but left subtly undefined their own nebulous relationship with each other. As both actors and characters, they established a rounded, multifaceted relationship mellowed with time, age and understanding. In striking contrast, the sequel Aapki Soniya was fraught with tension, accusation, suspicion and distrust. For audiences lulled into the beauty of Javed Siddiqi's language in Tumhari Amrita, this play was unexpected in its harshness. Described by its producers as a story of hate just as the earlier was a story of love, the play is implicitly a difficult one.

Emotional

The first half of Aapki Soniya introduces Sonali Bendre playing Soniya, based in France, writing to her mother's friend Zulfiqar Haider in India, played by Farooque Shaikh. She has little idea what relationship he shared with her mother, and it's clear she has little idea of who her mother Amrita really was. The play pitches high in terms of emotion right from the start with a somewhat prolonged exchange of letters during which Soniya tries to extract as much information as she can from the elderly, mellowed Zulfiqar. Her thin understanding of her own family and minimal contact with her mother from whom she was separated early on, have made their mark on her character. Their correspondence goes on long enough to dilute the growing tension between them and the play really begins to unfold only in the second half.

A genial, dry humoured Zulfiqar is forced to question his own relationship with Amrita as Soniya demands from him precise answers; a far cry from the gentle meandering of the letters in Tumhari Amrita where love and belonging were expressed in poetry and blunted memory. Much of the reason for Soniya seeking out Zulfiqar and unearthing her past is understood to have originated in her quest to unravel mysteries about her own unhappy childhood. But in the second half, Soniya finds a pile of loving letters written to her by Amrita, which also reveal that Zulfiqar is her real father, thus the play arrives at its dramatic, if painfully clichéd denouement, which at once puts Soniya's insecurities and ambivalent feelings towards her mother to rest. The somewhat steadied correspondence is again thrown off balance by this revelation, which comes as a surprise to both characters, if not the audience, and again they teeter to find a balance within the changing equations. Zulfiqar dies before he can meet Soniya, leaving her only with the wealth of the letters that were exchanged through the various protagonists of the two generations. If predictable, the play was rescued by the same strengths that made Tumhari Amrita so much more memorable; its lilting, rounded language and measured pace. Dissolving into a coalesce of cliches and high drama at the end might have rendered faintly ridiculous any other play, but Aapki Soniya survived bravely: restrained acting by Farooque Shaikh played off Bendre's weeping final lines and the winner in the end was the poetry of Javed Siddiqi's language.

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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