Becoming Bhagat Singh

Meaningful theatre can not only impact the audience, but also transform the actors

A few years ago, I was offered the role of Bhagat Singh for an Ajoka Theatre play “Mera Rang Day Basanti Chola”. I did not know much about the man but accepted the challenging offer. The director told me that I had a lot in common with Bhagat Singh, including my appearance. I was intrigued, so I started researching in order to better play my role. Thanks to internet, a lot of information was available. But to know Bhagat, I needed much more. I found some books in Urdu and more in English and some valuable information from Indian political activists and Bhagat Singh researchers. But most inspiring were some films made on the man, including ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’. But they were as expected, melodramatic and projected Bhagatas a one dimensional super hero. A film which I could relate to more deeply was Amir Khan’s ‘Rang Day Basanti’, which juxtaposed a modern day story with that of Bhagat Singh. Then there were songs written about Bhagat during his life and after his execution by the British colonial regime. I was now ready to take the plunge.

Bhagat was a young man, and a simple one at that. Like all teenagers, he fell in love — not with another person, but with an ideal: Inqilab, the Revolution. He was introduced to ‘inqilab’ by his family, who were well known and revered freedom fighters and revolutionaries. His grandfather, father and uncle all had fought against the British raaj and were either arrested or exiled. His uncle wrote a play ” Pagri Sambhal Jatta”  which Bhagat Singh presented as a studentat the Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore. He and his socialist comrades were keen on mobilizing the youth for revolution.

Baghat Singh grew from an activist to a revolutionary after witnessing the oppression of the Indian people by the colonial government and the betrayals of the Indian politicians. The 1919 massacre at Jalian Wala Bagh had left an indelible mark on his consciousness

Bhagat Singh’s vision and ideology evolved with the passage of time. He grew from an activist to a revolutionary after witnessing the oppression of the Indian people by the colonial government and the betrayals of the Indian politicians. The 1919 massacre at Jalian Wala Bagh, Amritsar, had left an indelible mark on his consciousness, strengthening his belief that swaraj or freedom, will not be truly achieved by just defeating the ‘gora sahibs’. The Indians ‘kathe sahibs’ (the fake sahibs) had to be defeated too. He believed that the system had to be changed and a socialist revolution was the only way forward. He did not endorse violence but was of the view that freedom is not given on a platter, it has to be taken. He took part in some violent actions in response to British brutalities. According to him this was ‘revolutionary violence’. The main case against him was of throwing a bomb in the assembly hall in Delhi.The bomb did not hurt any one. The purpose, according to him was to make some noise. “You have to shout to make the deaf hear”, he said. Bhagat and his comrades’ trial was a sham as expected. But more disappointing was the betrayal of the ‘gurus’ of the freedom movement like Gandhi and Nehru. Surprisingly, our own MA Jinnah came out forcefully in Bhagat’s defence. “We agree with the goal but can not endorse violence”, said the Mahatma before signaling to the British that the hanging should be done before the forthcoming Congress meeting.

Ahinsa or Hinsa, Bhagat was at peace with himself. He spent his last days reading books and went to the gallows singing revolutionary songs, firm in his belief that he had contributed to the cause of freedom and revolution. He was hanged on March 23, 1931, at Lahore Central Jail, (where the Shadman Market stands now). Baghat’s death anniversary was observed with enthusiasm in Lahore before Pakistan Day replaced it.

Yes, there were things in common between us.Bhagatwas executed when he was 23. I was 23 when I first performed the role. He was also disgusted with the opportunist politicians, like me. He also had a romantic view of revolution, so didI.  And he also acted for political theatre, like my work for Ajoka Theatre.

Soon Bhagat became my friend. As the rehearsal process progressed, our friendship deepened and I started ‘becoming’ Bhagat Singh.  I was fascinated by his writings while writing for his execution, his undying thirst for knowledge, his unwavering commitment to revolution and freedom. When I got on stage, I would be a different person. Like in Amir Khan’s Rang Day Basanti, I was Nirvaan and Bhagat at the same time.

At every performance, I became more Bhagat than Nirvaan. The audience would come to me and say ‘You are so like Bhagat Singh’. I gained vigour and my performance improved with every performance, gaining new energy from the audience’s warm applause, both in India and Pakistan. I was particularly satisfied that through the play and my performance, there was more awareness about Bhagat Singh and his ideals, particularly among the Pakistani youth, who have so far only known the jihadi version of ‘inqilab’.

Yes, meaningful theatre can not only impact the audience, but also transform the actors. My appreciation of our heroes and my concept of revolution has become much deeper. I can distinguish between the fake ‘inqilab’(of the MQM, PML, PPP , PTI varieties) and the Inqilab of true revolutionaries.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness on socio-political issues through theatre

Published in Daily Times, January 21st 2018.