Kin in the crossshairs

Published on 16 May, 2015 in BLink 

Veteran director Feisal Alkazi’s stage adaptation of the Nanavati murder case turns the spotlight on factors that make or break present-day families

IMG_8984Sensational court cases are rarely forgotten in a hurry. The many twists and turns scream out from newspaper headlines and the common man stays riveted. Myriad such cases have been dissected both inside and outside the courtroom, but one of the oldest and most intriguing is the trial of Naval Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, charged with the murder of his wife Sylvia’s lover, Prem Ahuja.

That trial has inspired several stage and movie adaptations in the past, and the latest is by the Delhi-based theatre director Feisal Alkazi’s Ruchika Theatre Productions. The Kambatta Case not only recreates the Nanavati murder case of 1959 but also scrutinises factors such as gender discrimination, expected loyalties and class-consciousness that make or break present-day families. Post-performance, Alkazi talked about his fascination with court trials and the different angles that fuel his ideas for their stage adaptation.

Why recreate this case?

This is among the most extraordinary cases to have captured my imagination for a long time now. Nanavati was a naval officer, and heaven and earth was moved for him to be given an acquittal, though he may have committed the crime. I find this moral ambiguity extremely interesting. And then there are the back stories, about what happens to the family after the trial. How does the family get together? The officer’s wife, Sylvia, is still alive and must be well into her eighties. It’s so interesting that all these questions stayed at the back of my mind. I was also intrigued by something I read about six years ago called Bombay Fable written by the historian Gyan Prakash. It brings together different facets of Bombay — mill workers, the media, the cinema industry — and the Nanavati case is a part of it.

What’s your take on the media’s perspective in such cases?

In Bombay Fable, the way the author treated the case from the media angle was very interesting to me. The media trivialises the situation and makes it look horrible. The way they treat people is outright nasty and this is the case even today. They’re not bothered about the person undergoing the trial and trauma, or the families involved. I wanted to put these two perspectives side by side — the media’s ruthless take on the case, fetching bonuses from the greasy circulation of their publications at the cost of a family facing incredibly tough times.

How much of the play is imagined?

I started working on the characters a couple of years ago, when I was in San Francisco directing another play of mine called Noor Jahan. The plot remains the same — an Indian naval officer being tried for the murder of his British wife’s lover — but most of the characters are imaginary. Rosy, who plays Sylvia, has been shown to be 41 years old, but in reality she was only 26 when it all happened. And then I’ve thrown in a bit of modern perspective by showing both Kambatta and his wife in their second marriages.

Do you feel present-day relationships are growing more fragile?

We all know the complexion of families is changing completely, and certainly in India this is happening to a great extent. I think it’s a big, invisible question mark that hovers over every family; the tension is apparent. We can see it in our lives. So many people in their thirties and forties are into their second marriages and, mind you, they’re happy. I have been a counsellor with Sanjeevani for 35 years and I’ve been up close and personal with such couples on a weekly basis. One can’t help but see the crazy numbers of couples who are getting divorced these days.

What’s your opinion on the government’s plan to simplify gun licensing?

I am against the whole freedom of gun possession; we’ve seen what it does. In the last scene of the play, it is made clear that people in a fit of rage shoot in all directions — the sky and the floor and everything. That’s really what happens in real life and it’s not okay to make lethal arms easily available to people.

(The two-hour long The Kambatta Case will have repeat shows today and tomorrow, 7.30 pm, at the Epicentre, Gurgaon.)


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