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Indo-Pak diplomacy

Woods are diplomatic, dark & deep

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A FRIEND REQUEST: Ratna Pathak Shah with Rajit Kapur (left) and Naseeruddin Shah

It's fortuitous timing. Just as India and Pakistan announced their decision to resume playing cricket, Naseeruddin Shah's theatre group, Motley, is out with a new play about an unconventional sort of Indo-Pak diplomacy.

A Walk in the Woods is an adaptation of Lee Blessing's 1988 Cold War drama, in which an American and Russian diplomat slip off into the woods for some frank bilateral talks. The play is based on real life. In 1982, two negotiators, the American Paul H Nitze and the Russian Yuli A Kvitsinsky left a meeting in Geneva to stroll through the woods.

Motley's adaptation situates the play in the tumultuous relationship between India and Pakistan. Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapur play diplomats who leave their official meeting to wander off into Geneva's woods. The play is also Ratna Pathak Shah's directorial debut. "Person-to-person contact between India and Pakistan is something I feel strongly about, " Pathak Shah says. "This unnecessary enmity is holding our countries back. "

Motley has been working on A Walk in the Woods for a year. Naseeruddin Shah was introduced to the play by theatre director Salim Arif a few years ago. "The references seemed too alien, " Shah says. "It was written in time of cold war so the references are about nuclear paranoia. I wasn't sold on it. " He realised it would work well as an adaptation after several visits to Pakistan to act in the local film Zinda Bhaag. Shah says he met a number of young Pakistani actors who had a "tremendous admiration for and a certain amount of grudging interest in India. I was very affected. We are too fat and happy and smug about ourselves. We're condescending and that's not the attitude of youngsters on that side of border".

The drama is particularly meaningful for the Shahs because Partition featured prominently in their lives. Pathak Shah's family moved to Delhi from further north during Partition and spent some time in refugee camps. "I remember we used to have a cook when I was young, " she says. "He had been on one of the trains (that shuttled between India and Pakistan). I remember being horrified when he talked about the journey in graphic detail. I also remember the Bangladesh war which had a huge impact on me. I was horrified at the absolute venality. "

Several of Shah's family members crossed over to Pakistan. "Three brothers and two sisters of my mother went to Pakistan. And two of my father's brothers went to Pakistan. We heard horror stories, of course, like every child in the '50s. It was too close - all the blood-letting. "

The play was adapted by actors Randeep Hooda and Faisal Rashid. Shah was meant to direct it and Hooda and Rashid were meant to play the diplomats. But it occurred to Shah that they are too young for the parts. Rajit Kapur, one of the triumvirate that runs Rage Productions (Rahul da Cunha and Shernaz Patel are the others), was roped in. Shah recalls acting with Kapur 26 years ago in Janak Toprani's version of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid. "It was a colossal failure, " he says.

In order to ascertain how realistic the conversations are between the two diplomats, Shah and Pathak Shah visited Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta in Delhi as well as a few diplomats. How plausible is an unofficial tete a tete between an Indian and a Pakistani diplomat? "It's not unheard of, " Shah says. "The hook of the play is that all said and done diplomats serve a decorative purpose. Their personal beliefs have nothing to do with what they are discussing. It's a pessimistic picture of diplomacy. But I look at it as a picture of a friendship that could have been. "

The play will be staged at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai on July 21-22 at 6. 30pm

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