Written and directed by Saurabh Shukla
Bauji, the character played by Sanjay Mishra in Rajat Kapoor-directed 2014 film Aankhon Dekhi, refuses to believe in what others claim to be the “truth”, until he can himself sense or witness it. So much so that he will not believe that a tiger roars until he has heard the roar for himself! In contrast, the character of the rationalist Dr. Siddhant, in Saurabh Shukla-directed play Barff thinks that truth is perceived independent of sense experiences.
Written by Saurabh Shukla and produced by Ashvin Gidwani, Barff deals with such questions: is truth what we experience collectively or do we all have our own different truths? Does truth lead to belief or is it belief that constructs truth? Does Truth even exist?
Set against a wintry-snowy night backdrop of Kashmir, the play is a throwback to the ’90s, when the towns of Kashmir saw death and destruction from so up close. With the onslaught of armed conflict, locals were shifting to safer places. Most towns wore a deserted look. The events of the play occur in one such ghost town, inhabited by a lone local family, which, despite counter-insurgency operations, has stayed back to guard their home.
A medical conference which brings Dr. Siddhant Kaul (played by Vinay Pathak) to Srinagar has been called off due to attacks at Lal Chowk. Before returning home, he pays a visit to a remote town to treat an ailing child – the town buried in snow, marked by a deathly silence in an almost self induced curfew for survival. Travel to this god-forbidden town is a picturesque but cruel one. Cut off from the outside world by its mountain ramparts, losing signals is still rife even though electric street lights and postal office have made their way into the Valley.
Relieved to see the doctor accompanied by her husband (played by Sunil Palwal), the desperate mother (played by Sadiya Siddiqui) rushes to greet them in. It is told that the child has not been responding for the past few days. As Dr Kaul steps into the child’s bedroom, he can hardly believe his eyes. What the mother has been nursing for so long is a doll. Caught in the whirlwind of conflicting realities, the audience is witness to a barrage of altercations that take place between the parents and the doctor on stage.
Dr. Kaul (true to his name, Siddhant) claiming to be a man of principles, is enraged at the audacity of the parents for duping him into their tomfoolery. As a man of science, he takes it upon himself to make them understand the medically-established ‘truth’ that the mother is a clear case of schizophrenia who is under a false perception that the doll is her child. The husband, on the other hand, tells the doctor that for a poor local Kashmiri like him who has chosen to stay back in his own land despite state terror that had led to the miscarriage of his wife, autonomy in his homeland and autonomy of beliefs is what makes them find ‘life’ in the ‘automatic Made-in-China doll’. Perhaps, the artist’s way to address the issue of Kashmir’s right to self-determination.
The stagecraft is pretty neat with machines used to capture the vision of snow falling. Little details like the use of copperware in the localite’s household (the famed copper industry now almost defunct in the Valley) gives one a feeling straight out of Bollywood representations of Kashmir in the 50s and 60s as ‘the Switzerland of the East’.
The play has Vinay Pathak and Sadiya Siddiqui in the lead. A rarely explored genre in India, Barff is one of the few Hindi thriller plays that has not only enjoyed a grand attraction at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in the National School of Drama this year but was also a huge crowd-puller at the Kamani auditorium in Delhi (although many in the audience behaved in the most unerudite fashion, to the point of being quite annoying, as they hysterically laughed away over some of the most bone-chillingly dark satirical scenes).