Bilal Baig’s 2020 Next Stage Festival solo show, Kitne Saare Laloo Yahan Pey Hain, opens with a frantic burst of adrenaline and anxiety: a trans woman running frantically through a forest. She’s holding an orange plastic bag, looking over her shoulder, out of breath and desperate. She gets to a highway where headlights flash and horns blare into her terrified, determined face—then she sees us, and instinctively hides herself.
Behind one of the set’s clapboard, tree-like structures, she stares out at us timidly—curious, wary, hopeful. Coming slowly out from her safe enclosure, she gradually builds the courage to reveal herself—lost in a new country, on the run, and haunted. Baig has crafted a persona that is funny and endearing yet also so unbearably fragile. I felt almost intrusive, sitting there watching her so intently, expecting so much of her. You too, I imagine, will want to do anything in your power to help her feel safe. And she does, frequently, beg the audience for kindness and gentle interaction.
This atmosphere of danger, the threat of other people—their intolerance, cruelty or exploitative self-interest—defines so much of her world. With this potential for emotional or physical violence looming constantly, the smallest of defining gestures—making a friend, dancing at a club, dressing to catch the eye—become distinctly brave.
After the initial mystery of her fraught situation is revealed, she takes us back to Bangladesh—to a mother’s disappointment, college misadventures, a final fight with her best friend. I found the narrative thread tricky to grasp here and it was difficult for me to fully invest. I was sometimes rather frustrated, trying to connect to her headspace and motivations which seemed inconsistent and a little confusing. Some of the incidents she relates lack the gravitas they were designed to hold.
But then, Baig drops a bombshell—a revelation that places everything we’ve seen in a completely new context. Suddenly, the urgency and tension were back in full force and my attention was rapt. Those aspects of her story that failed to grab me had morphed, and I found myself drawn back in and fascinated by a deliberate act of embellishment as self-protection.
Particularly moving is how Baig conveys this harrowing process: getting dressed, psyching herself up to face the world, calculating time and distance, anticipating how many people will be encountered, enduring the humiliation of not passing as a her defined gender. Oh, and when all is said and done, knowing that even physical survival isn’t to be taken for granted.
This is followed by a viscerally thrilling and defiant ode to life, value and validity. In this stunning rant, the full poetry of Baig’s text comes to the fore as she connects herself to a vast human network and the very earth that is our shared home.
Though my attention waned during the somewhat rambling middle section, there are moments that are truly searing and there is no denying the emotional potency of Baig’s achievement here.