July Issue 2013

By | Theatre | Published 11 years ago

There had been a lot of excitement surrounding The Portrait of Rumi and intrigued by the buzz, I went to see the play on the second day of its showing at the National Academy of Performing Arts. Numerous scenarios were running though my head: what elements of Rumi, the Sufi sage, would the show incorporate into its script and would they gel with Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis? How would Herman Hesse and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who are mentioned on the play’s Facebook page, come into this? In short, would the young writers and directors be able to pull off the ambitious plot?

A theatre show in Pakistan by young playwrights and actors with themes such as psychoanalysis and spirituality — a complete departure from the usual saas and bahu dramas — was bound to generate the interest that it did. However, some of the praise it received, such as calling the play “the best thing in Pakistani theatre in the last 25 years,” seemed a little over the top and begged the question whether it was deemed so simply because the play delves into unusual themes. Nonetheless, the play deserved many of the plaudits it received.

Written by Rouvan Mahmud and Ali Junejo and produced by Meher Jaffri, the one-and-a half hour-long play explores Carl Jung’s concept of individuation, whereby through different life events the mind taps into the personal and collective unconsciousness. Connections with the poet Rumi are made around the main themes of Sufism: separation from the beloved, the ensuing search for him and the realisation why the beloved came and went — to teach the lover how to come to terms with himself.

Sal (Rouvan Mahmud), Tasha (Meher Jaffri), Sherri (Joshindar Chaggar) and Rumi (Ali Junejo) are the principal characters. Sal, Tasha and Sherri’s stories are interconnected to Rumi’s tale and seem to be its subplots at the beginning, but they are allowed to develop independently and acquire a meaning of their own. Towards the end, their stories re-connect to Rumi, who remains the main character of the show.

There are multiple instances where Jung’s theories are brought to the fore with expertly designed plots that show the process of tapping into the unconscious mind. One of the best examples is Sal’s character. A hotshot lawyer, Sal is married to Tasha and they have a feisty relationship. In one of their disputes, Sal is reminded of his previous affair with Sherri. This is where Sal’s journey of exploring his past and the unconscious mind begins as he undergoes an experience that changes the course of his thinking, leading him to reflect and peel through the layers of his mind in order to bring forth hidden memories of the past. It turns out that it is the memory of Sherri which is unconsciously leading him into altercations with Tasha. Sal goes back and forth between the present moment and the past memories, and this alteration between the conscious and the unconscious mind is depicted through the use of lighting and a large frame situated on the stage. Sal walks through the frame to symbolise this movement. The frame is situated in the middle of the stage and depending on which side of the mirror Sal is, that side of the stage is lit while the rest is in the dark. This not only helps differentiate the past from the present for the audience, but also offers a dramatic visual element to the play.

The abovementioned themes of Sufism are explored via Rumi. It is also with him that the play starts and ends, making him seem like the main character despite other storylines. The play shows the unraveling of his mind and personality as he tries to come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves has left him. Rumi goes through the process of the struggle against one’s self, initiated by the departure of his beloved. At first it might not be apparent, but soon it becomes clear that Rumi is fighting his own thoughts and personality which have possessed him. It is not his beloved who has a hold on him, but she is in fact the one who is trying to liberate him by teaching him how to let go. The lover, played by Tara Mahmood, is not a ‘real’ person; she is the incarnation of Rumi’s imagination, haunting him to self-realisation. She does not have any dialogue; she sings — and each of her songs reflects the different states of Rumi’s mind. After going through many existential agonies, Rumi finally manages to find the purpose of suffering, which is to make him look into the mirror and accept himself and the past — the only way to achieve harmony.

The Portrait of Rumi finds its strength in the fact it is an ambitious and original play, and is part of the recent trend in Pakistani theatre which is seeing young actors and scriptwriters break traditions and explore themes that have been hitherto alien to it.

Given Tara Mahmood’s singing talents, she is a great pick for this role and her strong, melodious and haunting voice goes along perfectly with the intensity of Rumi’s spiritual and psychological endeavour.

Ali Junejo deserves credit for his acting as well though, I think, that applause should be mainly reserved for his part in writing the play’s script. The best male actor is Rouvan Mahmud but the standout moment in terms of performance comes during the domestic dispute between Sal and Tasha, as Meher Jaffri brilliantly plays the role of a wife who is physically vulnerable but is still able to stand her ground, thanks to her strong personality, in front of a raging husband. Credit should also be given to Sarah Haider who plays one of the patients of the psychoanalyst, Mikael (Osama Ansari).
Despite her short cameo, she leaves a mark on the show thanks to her wonderful acting.

Joshindar Chaggar, though, seemed out of her element and only had one of two good bouts where she looked comfortable. For most of the show, it was apparent that she had to push herself to play the role of Sherri. Faris Khalid plays another of the patients of Mikael. His performance was brief but elicited large cheers from the audience for his fit of anger when Mikael tells him that he has to accept the fact that his illness is soon going to end his life. Regardless of the audience approval, Faris was clearly uneasy shouting obscenities loudly. Faris’s character, just as Joshindar’s, did not always come naturally to him; nevertheless, both of the actors were an integral part of the play and deserve credit for their effort.

As to the merit of mixing Rumi and Carl Jung — it is something that experts of Sufism and psychoanalysis will and should debate amongst themselves. Whatever their verdict, The Portrait of Rumi finds its strength in the fact it is an ambitious and original play, and is part of the recent trend in Pakistani theatre which is seeing young actors and scriptwriters break traditions and explore themes that have been hitherto alien to it. It was also rejuvenating to see a group of people of my age and similar profile doing something they believed in and getting credit for it — a rare occurrence in this society.