Friday, July 22, 2016

Mein Hoon Yusuf Aur Yeh Mera Bhai: The Story of a Real People

Maithreyi Karnoor (Maithreyi writes reviews for The Hindu, and can be reached at
An earlier version of this review was published in The Hindu, April 29, 2016.

Ethnic violence on a gargantuan scale happens in another continent; a huge war is fought whose victory doesn’t undo the death and destruction on either side; mythology is invoked; meetings are held by a few powerful men in closed rooms in a far away country and a ‘solution’ is found by which you and your family will pay for the damage by giving up your home – your land, your loved ones, your dreams.

When one cannot explain the occupation of Palestine to a six year old convincingly, without losing one’s own convictions in the process, it is stupefying – shattering – when a six year old tells you this story himself.

All Yusuf, wants to do is play with his older brother and experience an innocent joy and warmth in the intense love story between his brother and his lover Nada. He wants to eat chocolates and let his brother fill his eyes with dreams of the future – in a home full of warmth and love. But Yusuf is flung violently in a story framed by colonialism, world wars, partitions and migration. People are forced out of their homes, many lose their loved ones. Yusuf’s brother is killed and Yusuf spends many years meandering through refugee camps living a life of confusion and pain, until he is found by Nada, a woman who would have been his sister-in-law in another destiny. What follow are emotions resonating with tenderness – mixed with the pain of loss and nostalgia – that tell a gripping story of the futility of war.

Toru Dutt, the much published but short-lived 19th century Indian poet, had a very interesting observation to make on literature. “Novels are true and histories are false”, she is supposed to have said—clearly stating her preference—when someone asked her sister Aru, why they liked novels over histories. If we extend this idea of novels to mean fiction in general, it is easy to see what she means after watching Mein Hoon Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai . While mainstream history is the story of the conqueror, subaltern fiction—which although not real, can nonetheless be true—has the capacity to subvert it in beautiful ways.

Mein Hoon Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai, Salima Raza’s Hindi-Urdu translation of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play, directed by Mohit Takalkar and performed by team Aasakta of Pune, has been making waves since it bagged the META Awards 2016 in five categories: Sound Design,  Light Design, Lead Actor Male, Best Director and  Best Play. It played in Ranga Shankara recently and left audience spellbound.  

The play is set in 1948 Palestine, when the British mandate ends and the UN led partitioning of the country results in a war – the first of many – where people become refugees in their own land. The story narrated mostly through the point of view of Yusuf, a grown man with the psychological capacity of a child, is that of love, betrayal, separation and forgiveness – and hope in the middle of despair. While the political situation is the subtext, it seeps in subconsciously as the audience laughs and cries with the characters playing out their lives. This story of war is the story of the people; people that are not numbers or mere collateral damage in power-games, but are real people with real concerns, strengths and weaknesses.

There is no questioning the actors’ talent. Yusuf tugs at our heart strings with his innocent grasping of the happenings around him; Nada and Ali’s love would invoke personal memories of longing and loss, and the pathos of destroyed lives that the others portray is very palpable. Replete with symbolism – such as that of a man fleeing persecution, carrying an uprooted tree in the hope of planting it again someday – the experiments of representation in the play are certainly novel!

The award-winning light design was every bit an alive being in its own right. Its skilful artistry created temporal and spatial illusions recreating history on a wooden platform. The minimal set — a wooden bench in the beginning and the end, and a rock in between — ensured that the focus of the play remained on the actors’ prowess, which they carried out with aplomb.

The older Nada comes in singing with a robust voice after every poignant scene. Her woeful singing, albeit in an alien language (Palestinian Arabic?), ensured that only the stone-hearted in the auditorium were left dry-eyed. The play exhibits keen involvement in its eye for detail. The successful rendition of the rather ambitious Yorkshire accent of the British officer, for instance, was proof of the team’s professionalism.

A more niche piece of information that Yusuf’s relationship with his sibling is inspired by the biblical Yusuf/Joseph, son of Yaqub/Jacob, adds depth to the already deep plot. The play is so gripping that it would take hours to get out of the thoughtful mood it puts you in. One cannot help admire the team’s power in reaching deep into the minds of the audience .

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