Owing to the demands of entertainment, I often find myself skimming through pages of the local daily hoping to stumble across a play that’ll peak my interests. I understand if this may seem to be a quixotic scenario given the expanse of unwatched movies, Netflix series and YouTube videos at my disposal, but bear with me. Being grossly uninformed about the local troupes, I indulge in a game of roulette, where I pick a familiar or interesting title of a play and silently pray it won’t be a complete waste of my time. But watching a play, for me, is an experience like none other. Probably because it is such a rare art these days and that I don’t have to dread terrible CGI ruining my immersion, but mostly due to the fact that I enjoy the history connected with plays in general and the influence they possess, years after their inception. Textbooks would show that for centuries, plays were the primary sources of entertainment. For a general audience that is easily impressionable, playwrights, in their pens, held the power to plant thoughts in the minds of the vast majority with skilled narration and acting.
This was further evidenced as I revelled in the delightful exploits of Tughlaq (by Girish Karnad). Muhammad bin Tughlaqs’ endeavours encaptured my thoughts and a piece of my sanity as I delightfully struggled to understand the light in which he was written, all the while putting a damper on my history class flashbacks from high school that strongly contradicted my discernment of the said king. It will forever remain as one of my treasured experiences owing to its simple exhibition of power-play, disastrous consequences of unsolicited vetos, betrayals, treason and my personal favourite, frailties of human nature all written into a historical account with abated comic reliefs. Contrary to usual preferences, you’re painfully hoping that success would befall the protagonist who was a deviously intelligent king and yet betrayed by his own inhibitions and lack of conviction, so much so that he went down in history as an embodiment of bureaucratic failure; a man of faith who struggled with his moral compass as a ruler, a disciple of a religion and as a human; a victim of hauntings of the ghosts of his past (quite literally so), as he reaped the outcomes of actions he took in the name of the position he held as a friend and a son; a usurper weighed down by his bejewelled turbans, as he watched his kingdom crumble before his eyes while resorting to less than ideal ways to save what was already lost. The portrayal of a character who was infamous for his mercuric tendencies to do the unthinkable in a sense that he was acting more out of reason and less out of spite has a way of connecting the audience with their own natures like never before. Watching (or reading) such plays often leaves a ‘what would I have done?’ sentiment as every scene unwinds into a visual and mental treat.
As such in the territory of short-comings in mortal beings, there have been a great number of playwrights who preferred to paint these very natures in hues that were different and often contrary to the beliefs of the society. Generally expecting the countenance of human substance to be binary i.e. good or evil, it is only natural for the expectations of said ‘good’ to be unreasonably high and those of ‘evil’ to be equally low. A fine example of a perpetually grey character would be Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The entirety of Shakespeares’s ‘Hamlet’ revolves around the prince as he struggles with the right and wrong. It mostly simmers down to him avenging the death of his father, as is a moral duty of a son, but to do so would require bloodshed which stands against every prayer he has ever whispered. Giving the readers and audience a chance to play God where they are given an open seat to judge Hamlet’s character, leaves us in this state of ambiguity and no closure. Would you excuse murder if it was done for the right reasons? If so, how are such reasons ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Is any reason good enough to take a life?
Boiling down to be the literary equivalent of the “will you press the button” challenge, such plays tend to test the strength of one’s own principles by handing over a metaphorical mirror that magnifies the cracks in personalities which are often overlooked or subdued as a result of constantly pursuing something that only manifests in the form of ideas. In a world where heroes are believed to always do the right thing and leaving the clauses of what’s ‘right’ in an insolent state of haze, most are adept in following the conventional path. Hardly ever found to tread in a road less travelled by, they often lose themselves while following the milestones laid by the ideas of something that was once deemed great. For such, these sort of plays double up as a comfort cushion and serve as a reminder of our fibres in being human: in being grey.