The Ali J Show

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A play that converses actively with the audience, invigorates the public conversation about the identity of the Indian Muslim and doesn’t flinch from drawing Jinnah into the discussion
Many a play breaches the fourth wall—the imaginary wall that separates the audience from the players—by acknowledging the audience. But Ali J, in the eponymous play performed recently at the NCPA Centrestage festival, speaks explicitly to the audience throughout. In one scene during the 50-some minute play, Ali J is in his death row cell, telling the audience in his hammy manner that India leads the world in the number of custodial deaths, when he stops to ask if he’s repeating himself. “Yes,” replies more than one voice from the seasoned theatre audience, aware that this is a different sort of interactive play. Many in the audience keep time by clapping when Ali J sings, at times laughing loudly, making sure that performer Karthik Kumar is able to hear them.

Ali J is a one-man play that deals with that most charged of subjects: a Muslim man conflicted about his Indian identity. The story is about how a phoren-returned, “well-settled call centre go-getter” gets involved in the Godhra riots.

Rich in visual and textual metaphor, the set consists of a square of upright poles which represents a death row cell, next door to Amir Ajmal Kasab’s. As Ali J recounts the tragic story of his life—how he wanted to become an actor once, had a failed love affair with a Hindu girl, went to Ahmedabad to find his grandfather’s origins and got involved in the post-Godhra riots—he mimes, performs nautch steps, hums snatches of song and weaves rope through the prison bars, entangling himself in the process.

He almost always accompanies this weaving with a warm intimate story or a darkly funny joke. All death row prisoners hallucinate, he tells us—many see plates of biryani or beautiful girls floating in the air—and the captive audience in front of him is his delusion.

A call centre employee, an actor manque and a disheartened lover, Ali J was educated in London, where he revelled in breaking his religion’s food taboos. He was quite taken by the European concept of individualism—which, for Ali J, meant people kissing in public matter-of-factly. Now behind bars, awaiting the noose, he wonders how he could have picked up a stone in the Gujarat riots.

It’s not as if he’s a devout Muslim, goes the soliloquy. But he was called ‘Paki’ in London, and upon his return to his homeland, was treated like The Other. His call centre colleague G Mohan has said patronisingly how wonderful India was now that “a Muslim like Ali J could become a Team Leader”. The father of Bharati, the Hindu girl he loves, spat in his face when he proposed their match. The final straw was Gujarat, when Ali J saw a colleague’s sister gang-raped, men killed, women lying headless beneath their burkhas. Fuelled by personal humiliation and the bloodlust of the time, Ali J joined the rioting and killing, setting a few houses on fire—presumably with their occupants inside.

It had become possible for him to channel his understandable anger into unjustifiable violence without any thought of the multiple houris (in the context, ‘nymphs’) he would find in heaven. The play makes the audience wonder why he did it—a tribal loyalty, a collective ‘infection’ of feeling, or the chance to be non-powerless, to strike out against those who would deny him his right to belong?

As he embraces religion in prison, Ali J evokes the archetypal figure of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a non-pious man upon whom was forced “the masthead of Muslim identity”.

Karthik Kumar, who is also the co-producer, says that playwright Shekinah Jacob and he pored over biographies of Pakistan’s founder. “Jinnah’s dream was to be an actor and perform ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ at the Globe Theatre [in England].” Even in his career, Kumar says, “Jinnah loved to orate. He loved to say what the audience [wanted] to hear... [We thought,] let’s take the bare facts of his life and shadow them onto [Ali J].”

The script evokes the many rifts within Indian communities today.

The girl Ali loves, Bharati, evokes one facet of India, and Ali’s romantic rival G Mohan, whom Bharati ultimately marries, evokes the archetypal figure of Gandhiji.

When that revelation strikes the audience, the cage around Ali, festooned by gallow rope, acquires another metaphor: besides Ali’s tragic life, the cage may also represent Pakistan, a country that has now forgotten its founder’s once-upon-a-time secularism, and the beseiged state of minorities in India, which was founded on lofty slogans of unity-in-diversity.

“[The playwright Shekinah] is Christian, so she understands what it is like to be [part of a] minority,” Kumar reasons. Ali J is a ham actor, influenced by Shah Rukh and Salman and Aamir Khan, so he deliberately over-emotes. He is engaging without being harrowing, no easy feat for a 50-minute performance. Sometimes he only just manages to stop short of grating one’s nerves, no doubt intentionally.

Far from being a demon, Ali J is a ‘normal person’. He parallels the character of Javed in Mahesh Dattani’s Final Solutions. Like Javed, Ali J harboured childhood ambitions of becoming a larger-than life character, of mattering. And, like Javed, being hated for what faith he was born into led Ali J to violence.

This is not to compare Ali J with the classic Dattani play. But Kumar hopes that he has managed to delve deeper into the reasons for a young man’s descent into violence than Dattani’s famous play does.

Another play that explores rationales for violence in the context of the Kashmir azaadi struggle is Djinns of Eidgah, written by Abhishek Majumdar, which was performed in June last year at the Prithvi theatre in Mumbai. There, too, the character of Bilal sees his playmates in the mortuary and tosses away his football and dreams to pick up a stone. Dattani’s classic uses one of many Indian Englishes, whereas Ali J’s language veers for the most part towards ‘standard’ English.

Watching lovers kiss on a London street, he muses: “They were eating each other’s mouths… savouring each bite...” This is counterposed with the furtive encounters back home, with “... reluctant body parts... under a hijab.” The writing could have been from anywhere in the world.

This may be because this particular play is international—it debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival earlier, where a Tamil or Kannada-adorned English would be hard to understand. The standardised idiom perhaps lets Indian plays in English travel easily across borders while retaining their message.