'Was delightful to discover Faiz's impish humour, tenderness and humility'

Salima Raza dons many hats — that of an actor, director and compere — and has been associated with theatre, radio and television for over the last 50 years. Ahead of her upcoming play, Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan, which is based on the letters exchanged by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his wife Alys when he was imprisoned in Pakistan in 1951-55, she talks to Shweta Sharma about the revolutionary poet, the relationship he shared with his British wife, and how she finds his philosophy and works relevant even today.

Excerpts:

When did you first read Faiz’s letters?
During the Faiz Centenary Celebrations, a copy of the printed letters of Faiz and Alys were provided to me by (theatre artiste) K K Kohli for the performance at India Habitat Centre. This was a big collection of letters (1951 to 1954), and required a lot of editing. (Playwright) Danish Iqbal took up the task of editing the Urdu letters of Faiz, and I, the letters of Alys in English. The performance consisted straight readings of the edited letters — Faiz’s (in Urdu) and Alys’s (in English).

Why did you decide to conceptualise a play around them?
Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a drama festival ‘Jashn-e-Zabaan’, and it was then that we decided to design a play based on the letters using Faiz’s poetry, recitation and rendition by famous singers, and with the use of sets, properties and lights. I also realised that there was a great dramatic element to be explored. They were not just brilliant prose but brought forth poignant, passionate, tragic, and often humorous element of the lives of these two outstanding people. The fact that these letters are intimate and unabashed helped me to put them together in a play form. Even the deep philosophy of their shared commitment needed to be shown.

What kind of research went into the play?
I have been acquainted with Faiz’s poetry, but had to read up on his and Alys’s personal life. To quote from the biography by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, “It was at Amritsar in 1938 that Faiz met his future wife, Alys, a British woman. Alys had come to India to visit her sister but had been stranded here with the outbreak of World War II.

She was also a committed progressive who had worked for the Free India Movement in England. Alys and Faiz had opposing temperaments. Alys was fiery and brave, never shy of expressing an opinion. Faiz, on the other hand, rarely spoke during a gathering, preferring to listen. Both Alys and Faiz had in common the ideal of freedom and a love for humanity.”

Also, I wanted to incorporate Faiz’s poetry seamlessly, making his verses almost a continuation of his emotions in
the letters.

Have you met Faiz’s family members?
It has been amazing meeting up with Moneeza, his daughter, for the first time while we were presenting Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan on the occasion of 23rd Urdu Drama Festival at Shri Ram Centre, Mandi House, and then in Lahore where we went as guests of Faiz Ghar on the occasion of his 102nd birth anniversary. The family has greatly appreciated and continuously supported our effort, especially as the play provides a well deserved honour to Alys, her mother. Moneeza quoted her grandmother as saying in Punjabi, “I know Faiz has name and fame but nobody talks about Alys. Had she not been by his side I wonder how much of it he would have got.”

Did you discover anything interesting about Faiz during research?
Faiz was beyond doubt “poet of the revolution”, but reading his letters it was delightful to discover his impish humour, tenderness and humility.

What was the most challenging bit?
To walk the fine line of narration and acting, sitting almost immobile, reading text and being able to invest the dramatic elements of movement, and convincing the audience that the characters before them are actually living.

Have you incorporated anything new to the play to make it relevant today?
No, Faiz’s correspondence with Alys is a rare literary treasure. It is complete in what it sets out to do — that is to give voice to the commitment of two soulmates and to the struggles of the common man. Faiz’s philosophy and poetry is still so close to us that we find it relevant even today.

Produced by Wings Cultural Society, the play will be staged at Epicentre at Apparel House, Sector 44, Gurgaon, on September 25 at 7.30 pm.

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