August 1947. Long-awaited independence for India and Pakistan, and the end of British rule. But it wasn’t a cause of celebration for everyone: there were many deaths, and mass migration ripped friends and families apart as people struggled to find where they belonged in a changing world. Santi & Naz is the story of two friends growing up in an Indian village in the 1940s, initially unaware of the events that will soon change their lives forever; it’s a small and intensely personal tale, which effectively conveys the confusion and suffering caused by global events.
On entering the theatre, we see two girls lying in relaxed poses on the stage. A small stone ruin and the sound of crickets evoke the setting well, though the shrill cricket calls do start to grate as we wait for the play to start. It opens with a sense of separation; Naz enjoying the rain on one side of the stage, while Santi narrates her memories of their childhood, addressing her words to Naz as she writes in a notebook. Then the scene swirls back in time to show the girls larking about together by a lake near their village. They joke and play, unselfconsciously physical with one another, young and carefree.
But there are quickly hints of more at play. Naz asks innocently, “What does revolution mean?” The teasing they exchange about not wanting husbands has an edge of foreboding to it, and Naz’s evident jealousy of Santi’s interest in a visiting writer speaks of conflict yet to come. The girls talk about the political situation, doing ridiculous impressions of prominent figures and expressing their confusion about what the coming changes will mean. Seeing politics through the eyes of children is a clever way to convey the complexity of the situation and the lack of understanding of how it would really impact people.
Excellent use is made of transparent blue fabric to denote the lake, and brief musical interludes break up the scenes well as the girls dancing exuberantly together. Sequences where girls relate their dreams are also effective, gaining impact from the change of lighting and softer speech. But, for the most part, the actors maintain a heightened energy level that could perhaps have been varied more to provide more emotional punch.
The loss of innocence, when it comes, is brutal; an effective metaphor for the country being ripped apart by partition. When the play finally returns to where it started, our understanding of the scene has changed, as the revealing of the backstory casts it in a very different light.
As the play went on, it started to drag a little and, while it perhaps went a bit too far with the dramatic climax, I felt it could have done a lot more to explore the more subtle aspects of the girls’ relationship. But it is cleverly-constructed, with a good combination of narration and direct action. And it effectively portrays how helpless the girls are to control their own fate - demonstrating how political change can affect lives on an individual level, as well as on a grand scale.