January Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Profile | Published 9 years ago

Three years since their first performance, put together as a favour for friends, Zambeel Dramatic Readings have emerged as a vibrant and integral part of Karachi’s cultural scene. With a name as evocative and full of promise as Zambeel, the bag of infinite possibilities owned by Umr Ayyar, trickster and companion of Amir Hamza, the group never disappoints. At each reading, audiences can be sure to expect a quality performance, from the choice of text to the skill of rendition and the use of sound and music.

The trio that has been breathing new life into Urdu literary texts comprises Asma Mundrawalla, Mahvash Faruqi and Saife Hasan, all actors who began their acting careers with Tehreek-i—Niswan, the theatre group which was then steered by Khalid Ahmed and Sheema Kirmani.

Saife Hasan

Saife Hasan, who is currently a director at Hum TV, recalls how he got his start in acting. “I used to teach at the Nasra school and was always interested in theatre but had only done some work at the school level. Then one day a friend of mine needed a ride home and I refused, as I always refused anyone who wanted a ride,” he recounts with the self-deprecating humour that peppers his conversation. “But my friend said that if I dropped him he would get me a role in a theatre play. So I drove him from Soldier Bazaar to Defence. He then introduced me to Khalid Ahmed and that was the start of my career. I went on to do many plays with Tehreek. I also acted with Katha theatre. Later, Tehreek sent me to a three-month workshop on the portrayal of women in the media at the PTV Academy, and that was my entry into television.”

Asma Mundrawalla, on the other hand, is an artist by training. In fact, she currently teaches at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. “I used to follow Tehreek-i-Niswan’s plays regularly but was petrified of the idea of being onstage. Through a friend, I was persuaded to join a short workshop conducted by the group. I enjoyed that experience thoroughly and thought that was the end of it. But I got selected as an actor and then there was more anguish — to join or not join them,” she recalls laughingly.

But while Asma had to overcome considerable trepidation to take to the stage, Mahvash Faruqi was used to the limelight. “I was always involved in theatre and the arts since my school days. In fact, I anchored the first children’s show on PTV, which was made in colour. It was produced by Moneeza Hashmi.” Later Mahvash, too, further developed her histrionic abilities under the Tehreek-i-Niswan banner, going on to give some memorable performances.

Asma Mundrawalla

Even within the Tehreek, these three enjoyed an easy camaraderie and a particular rapport.  So when Mahvash and Asma were asked to put together a reading for an alumni group some years ago, they turned to Saife for technical help. “They referred to me as Saife mis- tiri,” he says jokingly. “The reading was at Koel and we took our computer speakers along. That was our sound set-up,” recalls Mahvash. Today the Zambeel readings boast original music scores and nuanced use of various sounds to transport listeners into a world of imagination. The short piece  Ghoongat, by Ismat Chughtai, was an instant hit and they were immediately asked to do another longer reading.  And then there was no looking back.

Each performance presented by Zambeel is conceived with such devotion that the integrity of their craft shines through. The group merges the flair of traditional storytelling with the audio sensory stimulus of radio plays to present a unique listening experience — the only one of its kind in Pakistan at present.

Asma, who chooses the texts and is director as well, feels that her background in fine arts is reflected in her work today. “There is a connection between the theatricality of my mixed media work and my involvement with theatre,” she says. Asma also went on to write her PhD dissertation on theatre. “My current work with Zambeel is informed by my training as a visual artist in the way it is constructed and conceived.”

Despite his success as a television director and actor, Saife also remains devoted to Zambeel. “I trust Asma as a director. I know that whatever she comes up with will be something of quality,” he says. “I was extremely busy with direction and missed out on acting. Then I realised that I could feed my nasha of live performance with these readings, especially since they require fewer rehearsals and need less time than full-fledged plays.” But Saife would not term Zambeel a hobby. “A hobby is something we indulge in, in our spare time,” he says. “But these two [Asma and Mahvash] call me away from shoots to give time to Zambeel,” he laughs. “I think it’s more of a passion for all of us,” clarifies Mahvash.

Mahvash Faruqi

In the last three years, the group has completed 17 projects, which translates into many more readings since the performances are repeated. In their many projects, the core group is joined by other theatre actors, which adds to the group’s versatility and repertoire. “We are now invited to perform at festivals and by corporations and schools,” says Saife.

The intuitive understanding that the Zambeel team shares is what has made this venture so enjoyable for all of them. Asma recalls a reading she and Mahvash had to do for a group of teenage school girls and their teachers. “They were running late and we realised that our scheduled time would have to be cut short. Also, a day earlier we had some reservations about the suitability of the text for a bunch of teenage girls, because it is a little suggestive if you understand the language.” Without having reached any definite decision, the two found themselves on stage. “During the course of the reading, I realised that Mahvash was editing the text as she went along, and I was a bit worried since I had to listen for my cue,” laughs Asma. But the two carried off this kind of sudden improvisation with aplomb. “Mahvash edited the story into a six-minute PG15 version of Ismat Chughtai.”

Similar improvisation has made a huge hit of the single children’s story performed by Zambeel. “Raja ke Do Seengh remains hugely popular,” says Mahvash. “It relies on lots of audience participation, singing along and so on.” The audience has to prompt the actors at one point, another improvisation that Saife learned of mid-performance. “Imagine some 500 children in the audience and pin-drop silence until they were called upon to say something,” says Saife. “And now there is a lot of pressure to outdo that performance so that’s a challenge for us,” adds Asma.

Does the group see their work as an attempt to popularise classic Urdu literature? “ I don’t think we had any such noble aim in mind,” says Saife. “When Asma picks a text she is looking for the scope of performance in it. A good reading will be that in which you can sketch a scene in the audience’s mind. What I have consciously done more recently is to try and move away from the classics and introduce more contemporary works. This year we picked a very non-conventional choice like Ghulam Abbas, whose stories are very narrative. So I have to balance that with sound and come up with a very layered performance.”

The group is looking to take their stories to a wider audience, perhaps by way of international festivals. Asma, meanwhile, has a number of projects brewing. “I need the luxury of time,” she says. “I can’t come up with something in a hurry. There is one idea I have been nursing for a year now.”

Now that the group has proved its mettle, they feel they can afford to be more experimental and diverse in their choices. As Saife expresses it, “We would like to surprise the audience now.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.