November issue 2011
Theatre Review: Karachi
Karachi: A Knockout
After successfully adapting Broadway productions such as Chicago and Mamma Mia, Nida Butt finally brings an original musical to Pakistan. At its simplest, Karachi: The Musical is about a boxing match that determines the fate of all Lyari residents. Under-19 boxing champion, Saif, travels from Multan to Lyari to train with the renowned coach, Ghulam. The locals recognise Saif’s potential, and they bet their savings on Saif in the hope that his victory will win them enough money to buy back their neighbourhood from gang lords. The play certainly requires suspension of disbelief, but instead of overanalysing plot-holes, audiences should appreciate the striking, paan-stained set and enjoy the jabs at corrupt officials and bold “Defence ki bachiyan.”
Producing an original musical certainly has its challenges, but composer Hamza Jafri along with lyricist Faraz Lodhi definitely deliver the goods. The title track “Karachi” is an apt anthem for the city with its witty lyrics, complex composition and sampling of explosion and siren noises. And most of the songs, in true musical tradition, further the plot instead of interrupting it. Nothing beats live music on stage and other local theatre productions need to take heed. Some of the dances, however, lack the sense of spectacle that a musical requires and are too reminiscent of mehndi dances. Choreography that incorporates boxing, stomping and Capoeira is more theatrical and thus, more enjoyable.
For the fight scenes, the actors travelled to Lyari to train with the boxers who were Nida Butt’s initial inspiration for the play. Butt truly runs a tight ship, and her actors were fined if they came in late for rehearsals – the only exception was when rehearsals were postponed when violence racked Karachi. Although Karachi is not free of flaws, Nida Butt’s theatrical expertise is evident. The set fully utilises the limited space of the Arts Council’s stage by incorporating the angular downstage into the boxing ring. She also builds suspense by isolating different parts of the stage with lighting and then intercutting between different characters.
However, music and mise-en-scène can only complement good acting. Imam Syed, as the gullible yet strong-willed Saif, charms Lyariites and audiences alike while Faraz Lodhi, who co-wrote the script with Uns Mufti, capably plays the irritable Ghulam. Lyari’s crime boss, Daud Islam, is played by Syed Adnan Jaffar, who fully embodies wickedness on stage. He is an actor to be watched. Yasmeen (Rubya Chaudhry), an opportunistic reporter, serves as a foil for the downtrodden, yet resilient, Lyari residents and there are many well-deserved jokes at her expense. However, Chaudhry’s singing is disappointing and her exclamations in English are no match for the witty repartee of the local smart alecks, Tabu (Monazza Fatima Naqvi) and Mir (Younas Khan).
While the lead actors are commendable, it is the supporting cast who truly stand out. Kamal Hussain is exceptional as the weasel-like Rahim and Munawar Saeed, in a brief guest appearance, commands the stage like a true veteran. Arshad Malik, Hamid Yousuf Khan and Shakeel Hussain – reminiscent of the hyenas from The Lion King musical – also shine on stage as Daud’s thugs.
However, the sub-plot between courtesan Selina (Merium Azmi) and her son KK (Aryaan) is lacklustre. And while the dialogue is sharp, there are some overall structural weaknesses in the play. The quasi-romance between Saif and Yasmeen is unresolved since in the end Yasmeen is forced to abandon her exploits in Lyari and Saif seemingly forgets about his broken heart. Also Ghulam, and eventually Baloch (Raza Shah), are presented as anti-heroes whose struggles and motivations are more compelling than those of Saif – thereby undermining his position as the central protagonist. But these were just minor quibbles that do not detract from the grand spectacle that is Karachi. Theatre enthusiasts in Karachi can surely look forward to more original theatre in the city and hope that Nida Butt’s team will continue to produce high-quality theatre in the future.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.