Part Bollywood romance, part social commentary on the
after-effects of the partitioning of India, this perfectly pitched play by Shekinah Jacob, produced by Evam Theatre, never lets the weighty issues it tackles overshadow a heartfelt personal story.
Ali J, an Indian Muslim, is on death row having been accused of being a terrorist. His prison is made of poles and nooses; in 24 hours, one will be used to end his life. Before Ali got here, we see how he was imprisoned in another way – by his family and their expectations of him. Rather than making milk sweets in his father’s struggling business, Ali wants to be an actor. He’s also in love with a Hindu girl and, in that classic Bollywood set-up, cannot be with her – something else that makes him feel trapped.
A delightfully structured story skips back and forth through time, with a masked Ali playfully using acting techniques such as “exaggerated mime style” and “interactive Indian street theatre” to portray harrowing or tragic moments leading up to his imprisonment in a way that makes them all the more pertinent.
The writing is rich with humour and humanity, and TK Karthik’s engaging performance brings Ali’s warm and welcoming character to life. Through one man’s everyday observations, we get an insight into what it’s like to spend ten years in prison, trapped in a small room, but also trapped in time. For Ali, everything stopped when he was jailed. His family refuses to see him and the only friendships he can hope for are from mosquitoes and a spider he’s named Hamlet. Ultimately, Ali is a victim of circumstance, and whether he’s found guilty of the crime he’s supposed to have committed, and whether he lives or dies, depends upon the politics of the day.
A wider picture emerges of a part of the world divided by more than just borders. As Ali’s time approaches, Muslim fanatics give him the adoration he has hungered for elsewhere. Disowned by everyone else, the question now is: how will he fill the gap?
Written for The Scotsman