“Aansoo nahin, aah hai Dilli”: A review of the play City of Djinns
A eunuch weaves through the audience demanding money. An incense bearing Sufi blesses us. The qawwals sit atop the expansive set, breaking into music now and then, as the drama of the city unfolds with Sufis, sadhus, snake charmers, calligraphers, kabutarbaaz together creating a grand, exotic vision of the city’s past..
I thought Dalrymple evoked the city’s past brilliantly; yet Dalrymple’s
The same goes for the play-the snake-charmers and kite sellers, Sufis and eunuchs, Qawwals and Kebab-wallahs all make for a charming atmosphere, but the performance itself leaves you indifferent. The sprawling set and a cast of 50 people promises a lot in terms of spectacle but delivers little. Action happens in small pockets, the protagonist constantly dashing in and out of them, exchanging notes and sharing jokes. This might have been interesting if the seating was better organized. There are 3 price-ranges: 500, 300 and 200. The seats, however, are not on a gradient and hence for most part of the play I found myself staring at the turban of the Sikh gentleman sitting in from of me. Although, I skipped rows later and promptly sat in a few empty Rs. 500 seats, God forbid you find yourself with a Rs 200 ticket on a full night.
Tom Alter is brilliant and carries of the performance single-handedly with his stage presence. He jumps, whoops, dances and dashes- enthusing the play with a dynamism that is otherwise missing. The supporting cast, on the other hand, is disappointing. The action looks too dispersed and the dialogues lack impact. Some characters like Olivia, William’s wife, are redundant, serving merely as props. Entertaining characters like Mrs. Puri, William’s landlady lack the same appeal that they had in the book for want of good acting. The exception is Balwinder, the taxi-driver, who is by far the most believable and well acted. Zohra Sehgal effortlessly steals the show in the second half, in a much-publicized 5 minute cameo as Nora Nicholson, an eccentric Anglo-Indian.
The most enjoyable thing are although are the Qawwalis- Sabri Brothers classics, sung by qawwals sitting, djinn-like, high above the stage and giving the play that enchanted aura. Add to this the open air theater and the night breeze and maybe you could delude yourself into believing that you are watching a Qawwali-pantomime musical. Watch this play just for that.