Dancing to a New Tune
Anwar Maqsood’s name is enough to draw audiences to the theatre in droves and Naach Na Jaanay is no exception. His latest offering is also playing to packed theatres every night and its run has, in fact, been extended. The play picks up from the wonderful drama serial that Maqsood had penned for television, Aangan Terha. Directed by Daawar Mehmood, Naach na Jaanay brings the beloved characters from the original to life once again.
The story revolves around three main protagonists; an elderly couple and their effeminate domestic help, Akbar, who considers himself a family member. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, he takes considerable liberties with his employers and no one is spared his acerbic one-liners that so effortlessly flow from the playwright’s pen.
For television, this character was played with consummate ease and flair by the late Saleem Nasir, who is a very hard act to follow. But kudos to Yasir Hussain for filling his shoes remarkably well. Hussain’s body language and comedic timing is impeccable and, in fact, he carries the entire play on his shoulders. It would be very easy to overplay a character like Akbar’s. But Yasir steers clear of this pitfall executing his performance with a restraint and sensitivity that renders his character entertaining but never ridiculous.
Billed as a prequel, Naach na Jaanay takes us into Akbar’s past as a dancer and choreographer for a national dance academy. The audience is suddenly transported back into the seventies and treated to a very camp, seventies style dance number.
This hearkens back to the days when performing arts academy, like the PIA academy, sent cultural troupes abroad. The likes of Zia Mohyedin and Naheed Siddiqui were associated with the academy in its heyday. As homage to those days, the theatre suddenly swarmed with dancers onstage and in the aisles with even a Chinese dragon making its appearance.
However, the crackling sound system made one cringe a bit as the songs were blasted at ear-splitting volume. And the transition from the present to the past could have been handled more smoothly.
The storyline moves on to the Ziaul Haq era, which put a complete stop to song and dance and sounded the death knell for all things cultural in Pakistan. We see Akbar, now out of work, seeking a job in different fields of work from a bank to the armed forces. One particularly hilarious sequence has him at the Pakistan Cricket Board. He is in conversation with a young Imran Khan, in his heyday as Pakistan cricket captain and national heart throb. Planning for the future, Akbar charts out the trajectory of the present prime minister’s career while the latter vehemently rejects the idea of politics.
There is no real plot as such, the play is more of a sequence of humourous events, peppered with some social commentary. But the real success of the Aangan Terha series hinged on the chemistry between the three main protagonists and this is where the prequel falls short.
While Yasir Hussain’s performance cannot be faulted, the other actors do not really get into the skin of their characters. The lady of the house, Jehanara, feels wooden and Abdullah Farhat is, unfortunately, no Shakeel. A consummate performer like Shakeel played the original character with a quiet laid-back charm, whose subtle sense of humour was the perfect foil for Akbar’s more cutting wit.
The actor who plays Jehanara’s mother could apparently only express herself by screaming out every dialogue, for which one can only hold the director responsible.
The only other performer who really commands attention onstage is Hina Rizvi. She plays the neighbouring Chaudhry sahib’s bashful yet excitable younger sister. Hina essays her role with a naïvity and childish abandon that instantly endears her to the audience. The large-hearted but dim-witted Chaudhry sahib, meanwhile is competent enough but not memorable.
For many in the audience this is a stand-alone play; a younger generation who has not seen the television series. They have the advantage of not comparing it to the original. But for the others, even when the performances fall a bit short, there is the charm of nostalgia.
Caveats aside, Yasir Hussain’s brilliant portrayal and Anwar Maqsood’s pithy script are reason enough to watch Naach na Jaanay.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.