Taking a trip through Ratna Pathak Shah's debut play 'A Walk In The Woods' Satyen K. Bordoloi fantasies about the 'peaceful' day when the play shall become redundant
It can be a trick question for political science students – what can be more important for two diplomats than saving the world from nuclear annihilation? In theory nothing can be as important. Sadly, in the real world, while dealing with politics that excels in delaying solutions to contentious issues, theory does not apply.
This art of political expediency that politicians are masters at, the seasoned Pakistani diplomat Jamaluddin understands. His Indian counterpart, Ram Chinnapa who is in Switzerland with Jamal to eek out a peace treaty, does not. His inexperience makes him naively optimistic. Thus, as he walks with Jamal into the woods in Switzerland, while taking a break from discussions, a pairing of opposites becomes the perfect set up in Ratna Pathak Shah’s debut play, 'A Walk In The Woods'.
It is not that Jamal does not want peace. He is a man who has lets his imagination rest on the horrors of war, and wants nothing but peace between India and Pakistan. Yet, as a seasoned veteran, he does not share his 'serious' Indian counterpart's enthusiasm. He knows that even if a perfect treaty were to be made by God himself, both their political bosses would sacrifice it to political expediency.
What emerges is a hilarious, witty, sarcastic, political and deeply heartfelt two-hour play, enacted by two brilliant actors - Nasseruddin Shah as the Pakistani diplomat Jamaluddin and Rajit Kapur as his Indian counterpart.
The humour is delivered by the protagonist’s opposing natures. Ram is focused and serious while Jamal is wayward and frivolous. Ram is optimistic and enthusiastic; Jamal is optimistically enthusiastic about everything but his job of a peace negotiator. Jamal wants to be 'friends' but Ram wants to be 'professional'. Ram's virgin inexperience is contradicted by Jamal having negotiated with two previous seniors or Ram. Jamal takes 'serious things lightly and light thing seriously’ while Ram holds the 'sacred' responsibility entrusted by his government like a prophet holding on to God's commandments.
Despite their differing natures, they do share common ground. Firstly, neither buys the patriotic jingoism of their citizens that screams war at the slightest provocation. More importantly, both have a conscience that makes them see through the hypocrisies of their countrymen and politicians, allowing them the foresight needed to reach a peace agreement. Both are aware that the treaty they create might be the only thing that will stand as a deterrent to nuclear warfare between their countries someday.
The truth about politics, something that is not taught in political science courses, is that it is practiced as a divisive and not a uniting force.
As the seasons pass, Jamal manages to make Ram loosen up while Ram infects Jamal with his optimism as he genuinely starts believing that they can make a difference. They design a treaty that would be agreeable to both countries. But Jamal's earlier pessimism was right and it is shot down by their political bosses.
Disgruntled with repeated failures and finally losing more of himself than he thought he would, Jamal decides to step down from his post even as his 'friend' Ram tries to dissuade him, breaking away from his own stiff upper lip and stolid, staid demeanour to enjoy a little Swiss rain.
'A Walk In The Woods' is adapted by Faisal Rashid and Randeep Hooda from a play of the same name by Lee Blessing. Incidentally Blessing's play was inspired by a real incident when a Russian and an American diplomat went to walk in the woods from a Geneva Convention and emerged with a breakthrough agreement that was promptly rejected by both their countries.
The play thus asks some important questions. What roles do individuals play in the larger game set in motion by their governments? What is our collective fate in a world armed with nuclear weapons and governments more interested in one-upmanship rather than peace and security of their countries and citizens? Do logic and common sense have a say amidst the jingoistic insanity of war and political brinkmanship? Can you truly have open discussions in closed rooms?
Can conflicts truly be solved without those negotiating about it being friends?
The answers to these lie hidden in the play - in plain sight for those who can see between the movements of actors and read between the lines they speak. And the answers, if you find them, are not very pleasing.
Debutante director Ratna Pathak Shah sprinkles the play with deft directorial touches that show her command over both her medium and the material available to her. In a scene where Jamal is trying, once again, to break the ice with Ram using his frivolousness, he attempts to light his pipe, only for it to go up in fits and starts making a visual metaphor for what is happening literally between the two men.
Jamal, a seasoned hand is particular about not littering and you see him put every matchstick he lights, back into the match box. In another instance when the two have coffee on the bench, Jamal not only takes up his own plastic coffee cup and carries it off in his bag, but he also picks up the one carelessly left by his Indian counterpart. If you're observant, you will see these things, but wonder what they mean i.e. till the end when it becomes obvious.
This cleanliness of a country that has not seen a war in a thousand years contrasts the filth and squalour of the two countries both diplomats come from, countries that have been at war ever since independence. And the end is a scene rife with multiple metaphors as Ram casually drops a chewing gum wrapper on a street only to be sternly reprimanded by a policeman and everyone around as if he had actually run over someone. Can you truly have peace in a noisy, perennially clamouring country that hasn’t yet understood this level of cleanliness and order? Can you and would you really be in a hurry to reach a peace agreement in a peaceful country where war has always been a million miles away?
'Light up RDX below the negotiating table and see how fast we reach a peace agreement,' rues Jamal to Ram.
The dryness of Jamal's eyes is the dryness of an ageing and exhausted man. He has perhaps cried so much that now he has to artificially moisten his eyes.
It is the mise-en-scene created by these little things, these invisible movements that give the play a sense of seriousness and poignancy and creates the many similes that make it seem longer than its stated two hour runtime.
Nasseruddin Shah is a perfect embodiment of opposites - age and youth, optimism and cynicism, childishness and maturity, honesty and frivolity, reality and triviality – that his character demands.
Naseer makes his body a vessel to carry and then show you the pain, extreme hurt and deep wounds that his character carries in his heart. Virtually unchallenged lately in his films, he is in his full elements and proves himself to be every bit the master that he is regarded in the world of theatre.
Rajit Kapur as Ram is what he is supposed to be - controlled and quiet, but gets to show his brilliance in the end where he explodes in a rage and fury you didn’t expect in his character, yet which was always there.
For the lover of wit and humour, there are moments and observations that will leave you in splits. For the lovers of cerebral stuff there is an inexhaustible supply of exciting one liners. Sample a few: 'history is nothing but geography over time' or 'we spend so much to be ready for war, how much do we spend being ready for peace' etc.
One of the greatest irony and strength of the play is that it is based on an American play of the same name inspired by a real incident involving two diplomats of two other historically warring nations – USA and USSR. That it could be so easily contextualised into India-Pakistan politics, talks about the interconnectedness between humans beyond the divide of race, geography and religion. All of us, after all, are not so different from one another, even as we vehemently fight to highlight and enforce our differences.
At another level, 'A Walk In The Woods' also becomes an ode to the love between two human beings and their common loves – peace. It is an ode to the greatest male bonding possible. It is a paean to the true love of two men for their nation and their countrymen.
It’s a very topical play. And the greatest fear anyone interested in peace in the world can have, is that it will continue to stay topical 50, 100, 200 years from today. If 50 years later we read the play and wonder about the mad world in which such a play could be based, that would be the greatest success we will achieve as an intelligent, thinking race.
Today, however, one can look at the play as an ode and an invitation to that beautiful peaceful day between the two countries - 'Woh Subha Kabhi To Aayegi…' (Someday, that morning shall arrive).