The trailer of Ali J starts ominously — a wooden mask dangling on a pole, with an aura of loneliness around it. That aura, perhaps, signifies what Chennai-based theatre company Evam’s Ali J is all about – searching for an identity in a country that tries to constantly label one into one category or another. It explores a Hamlet-ian dilemma, but does Ali’s fate mimic that of Hamlet?
Performed by T M Karthik (With ASAP Production’s Amit Singh as the second cast), Ali J will be the only Indian play to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – a festival with 400 venues and more than 3,000 shows per day. Premiering on July 31, the play will be showcased on all 25 days of the festival. And quite rightly, the director of the play and co-founder of Evam Entertainment, Karthik Kumar is quite psyched about it. “It’s like being the man on the moon for us. And to be the only Indian play in a festival of this scale is a huge honour,” says Karthik.
Ali J could be about Pakistan’s founder father, Ali Jinnah. Or it could be just about a boy named Ali, who is serving a death sentence in an Indian prison. “At the heart of it, the play is about being Muslim in India. And more importantly, it’s about becoming a Muslim,” says Karthik. “And one of the most important persons in the history of the world, Jinnah, was more British than Muslim. But over the period of his political career, he was said to have become so staunchly Muslim that he ended up asking for two separate nations – which, on his deathbed, he is said to have realised was his biggest mistake. So we’re exploring that perspective from the point of being Muslim in India today. And hopefully, the India of today will be of interest to the world. ”
The path to Ali J started when the lead actor T M Karthik (fondly referred to all and sundry as TMK) wanted a play on Jinnah. After a collaboration with scriptwriter Shekinah Jacob, who eventually ended up writing the script for Ali J, the story that came out turned to be a search for a Muslim identity within a secular country in the current political climate. “In prison, he is sandwiched between Kasab and Babu Bajrangi, the man who was sentenced to life for his role in the Gujarat riots. He is literally in the middle,” adds Karthik.
The play, designed for long tours, with a one-man cast and a set that can be erected by one man, will be showcased at Mumbai’s NCPA theatre festival and Delhi NSD theatre festival after its run at the Fringe. Will Chennai get to see Ali J soon? “We will be coming to Chennai, but it will be sometime during the Jan-Feb season – primarily because of a lack of venues,” says Karthik, who goes on to add that with September being the 10th anniversary of Evam, they have a whole host of activities planned for the year ahead.
“We also have a play called Bollywod Kheema coming up in the same Jan-Feb season, celebrating 100 years of Bollywood. It’s a very Evam-esque comedy, so watch out for that,” he signs off.