Archive for January, 2013

Motley Musings: Ismat Apa, Naseerudin Shah, and Reading Feminism in Lahore

January 21, 2013

 “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.” Rebecca West, English author, journalist and literary critic


Some years ago, a friend was teaching a course on feminism to university students in Lahore. The class comprised mostly English-speaking pretty young things, the kind Monty Python good-naturedly referred to as upper-class twits. At one point, one of the young women turned up her nose and declared in a bored voice that she didn’t believe in feminism. Said friend, who had been speaking of feminism as a tool to be employed rather than as an ideology per se, was perhaps understandably puzzled and felt compelled to enquire why that was so. The student said that ‘the implementation’ (!) of feminism would in fact result in women losing out on a lot of privileges. My friend, now truly intrigued, asked her to name one. Well, the young woman replied, for example we wouldn’t be able to get in front of the line at the bank, we’d actually have to wait our turn like everyone else.


Which would be, like, SO not cool.


I was reminded of these pearls of wisdom about the dangers of feminism as I watched Mumbai theatre troupe Motley’s production of Ismat Apa Ke Naam and Kambakht Bilkul Aurat, six performance pieces based on short stories by Ismat Khanum Chughtai, directed by legendary actor Naseerudin Shah and performed by Heeba Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Lovleen Mishra, Seema and Manoj Pahwa, and Shah himself. In Lahore at the invitation of the Faiz Foundation Trust, over the course of two nights Motley thoroughly mesmerised the crowds with their recitation/solo enactments of Ismat Apa’s powerful, inimitable prose. All six stories were directly related to the feminine experience in the Indian sub-continent, and indeed Chughtai has often been referred to as a ‘feminist’ author, ironic though that is since she produced much of work in an era when feminism was not yet a formalized social, political and intellectual movement. She wrote with alarming honesty and fearlessness about how women (and men) grappled with the vagaries of a patriarchal (and stubbornly hypocritical) society, and was often vilified by a people who saw her acid pen as a threat to the status quo. But the author was hardly one to be bullied easily, standing up with fierce resolve in the face of all sorts of harsh criticism, including a legal writ charging her with obscenity upon publication of perhaps her most notorious story, Lihaaf (The Quilt).


“Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

–  Pat Robertson, Conservative American Chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network


At a small gathering  at the HRCP auditorium one day after the performances, Naseerudin Shah spoke of how Motley had been known largely for their English language productions before delving into Ismat Apa Ke Naam, one of the first of their more recent work in Urdu/Hindi. “The six stories you saw performed here were the first six I read by Ismat Apa,” said Shah, who acted alongside Chughtai in Shyam Benegal’s 1979 film Junoon. Greatly affected by the power of her writing, he knew nevertheless that he didn’t want to do a traditional theatrical adaptation of the stories. Rather he and his team wanted to present the stories as is in their entirety, which is what brought them to employ the storytelling method wherein the actor takes on the role of both narrator, and interpreter of character and conversations.

Answering a question from the audience on whether the choice of Ismat Chughtai as the inspiration for this very successful production indicates his own feminist beliefs, Shah smiled and said simply that, like Chughtai, his view is that feminism is humanism, and women’s rights are human rights.


“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions.. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”

Dale Spender, Australian feminist scholar, teacher and writer



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