Review: Betaali Prem Katha, a mesmerising adaptation of an Indian folklore story, definitely isn’t for children

The play is currently running quietly at NAPA in Karachi and is well worth the price of admission.
Updated 19 Aug, 2022

A tale of demons, deceit and carnal desires is running quietly at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi…though it shouldn’t have been (more on that in a minute).

Embracing the minimalism of its story by dividing the sets between lights, shadows and meters of blood-red, maroon and black drapes, Betaali Prem Katha, directed and written by Fawad Khan, is a mesmerising adaptation of one of the stories from the Indian mythological folklore Vetala Panchavimshati, simplified as Baital-Pachisi — the 25 Tales of Baital, or Vikram-Betaal.

Like many surviving folklores that have been reimagined and re-mangled since who knows how long, the premise has legendary king Vikramaditya carrying a demon-like entity called Betaal on his back through ill-omened woods while he is told a story. Betaal, like others of his ilk, thrives on mischief. He hangs upside down on a barren tree in the middle of charnel grounds of a crumbling village; however, unlike his devilish brethren, he possesses (no pun intended), a sagacious attitude.

The stories he tells Vikramaditya — though mostly superficially with an anticlimactic culmination — have a bamboozling riddle at the end; one Vikramaditya is always able to answer. ‘Betaali’, by the way, is a play on the words Betaal, the demon, and Betaali, which roughly means without a head or a tail.

Betaali Prem Katha, however, deliberately leaves the interpretation and answers of the questions open for the audience if they so wish to ponder. The end of the play has a ghoulish epilogue on one very open question; it plays like a mid-credit scene of a Marvel film.

One logic that gives credence to this decision for open deliberation, I gather, is the absence of Vikramaditya, the voice of reason and the manifested representation of the audience. It is hinted that this particular story is unfolding live, set years after Vikramaditya’s passing.

Unshackled from Vikramaditya’s shadow, which might have given it a more biddable tonality — or, perhaps, in my mind, the idea of ‘Vikram Betaal’ still reminds me of the family-friendly feel of the Doordarshan adaptation that the starred noble-looking Arun Govil’s as Vikramaditya — Fawad’s version ramps up the perverseness of the original story, metamorphosing the narrative into a human drama of identity crisis and bi-sexual philandering.

Yes, you read that right — this play isn’t for children.

The plot enmeshes a sexually-charged tale of a princess, Chandra Prabha (Erum Bashir), falling in love with a Brahmin named Prem (Muhammad Rahil Siddiqui), who is given an enchanted ‘gutka’ that will turn him into a woman, ie. Prem-Lata (Shabana Faizan), so that he can infiltrate the royal household as one of the princesses’ aides, and make-merry right under the king’s nose.

In one of the many twists Fawad spins into this version, a minister (Samhan Ghazi), whose sexual urges are triggered by Prem-Lata’s flirtations, pleads with the king to give the girl to him in marriage.

The drama escalates when Sita (Ifrah Khalid), the minister’s wife — now living through a miserable, sexless marriage — learns about Prem’s enchantment and begins an affair of her own while her husband is away.

There is a preamble about staying away from Prem-Nagar — that’s the name of the land, by the way — whose residents can unreservedly be labelled as pent-up deviants. While the sexuality is prevalent in the story — how can it not be? It is everywhere — the depiction of adultery is masked by a rip-roaringly glib script that wears a seemingly family-friendly vibe. Emphasis on the word ‘seemingly’.

Now, I may have liked a little more emphasis of Hindi in the dialogues — one hears a smattering of Urdu, perhaps for the benefit of the public — but there is no doubt that the play engages you from the get-go, and runs faster than most theatre plays and Pakistani feature films. In fact, by the end of this two-hour long story, you may wish it was a little longer.

Fawad’s story asks a lot of questions about willing changes of gender one undertakes, repressed sexuality and the aftershocks and complications of its liberation. One dogged question Prem/Prem-Lata contends with time and again is the bourgeoning confusion of his soul’s sexual orientation when he transforms back and forth between a man and a woman. By the bewildering climax — bewildering in a good way — Prem all but loses his mind asking himself who he is inside.

The audience laughs hard at his dilemma — and they should. The tone of the play is breezy with uniformly excellent performances by the ensemble cast. The actors play well into their characters, carrying exact, telling nuances that would differentiate their posture and beliefs to the audience.

Fawad’s play also tones down on the theatricality, with just enough creative decisions to not overwhelm the audience. The colours on the stage, for example, are splashes of red and black; when viewed in context, they are emblematic of the darkness and dangers of the character’s predilections and their eventual actions.

Like Betaal (Sunil Shanker, who also plays the king and one other role), who acrobats high in the air with the help of long red drapes, lit by unfiltered light from below — one can’t help but applaud his upper body strength— the audience are willing spectators in a dastardly tale of repercussions, eager to consume the entertainment spawned from the stupidities of these characters’ actions. Witnessing their entanglements is worth the price of admission, and then some.

Betaali Prem Katha is written and directed by Fawad Khan, with music by Ahsan Bari and Bhagat Bhoora Lal. The cast includes Sunil Shanker, Erum Bashir, Muhammad Rahil Siddiqui, Shabana Faizan, Samhan Ghazi, Kiran Siddiqui, Naveed Ahmed Kamal, Fahad and Rao Jamal Singh Rajput. It is running at the Zia Mohyeddin Theatre at NAPA, every day until August 21. Show timings are 8pm on Aug 19 and 4pm and 8pm on Aug 20 and 21.