July issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

Main Adakara Banoongi, which was recently staged at the Karachi Arts Council auditorium, marked the return of the theatre group Katha, after a long period of hibernation. It also heralded the return of Katha’s lead actress and one of the local acting industry’s brightest talents, Sania Saeed, to the stage. Sania’s star status clearly worked. The shows were performed before packed houses, with many hoping to catch a powerhouse performance from the accomplished actress.

The play was directed by Shahid Shafaat and adapted by Babar Jamal of NAPA from the English play,Educating Rita. Besides Sania, this two-person play featured Ehteshamuddin, who has a long career in theatre, and whose portrayal of the stuffy Zaigham serves as an effective foil for Sania’s irrepressible  Naila.

The Pygmalion theme has been worked many times over in theatre. This time, it was put into a local perspective with the play focusing on an aspiring young actress, clearly from the wrong side of the tracks, who comes to learn acting skills from a once-highly-acclaimed-but-now-reclusive veteran actor and teacher. Working as an assistant in a beauty parlour, the young Naila aspires to raise herself to the level of her pampered customers and even become a star one day much like most girls in her situation. But what sets her apart is her monumental determination. Zaigham, on the other hand, is an intellectually arrogant misanthrope and alcoholic, who has driven away his wife by his excessive devotion to intellectual pursuits and his lack of attention to her. However, he is now desperate to win her back.

The play  opens with him talking to his estranged spouse on the phone and trying to convince her to return home.  Naila comes into Zaigham’s life with the force of a whirlwind and despite her often infuriating antics, he slowly begins to look forward to her visits which break the tedium of his lonely existence.

Coming as they do from totally different worlds, Zaigham agrees to take the young girl under his wing and mould her into an artiste.  But the task is an uphill one. Naila’s diction, mannerisms and education are all lacking. Even more disastrous, her sensibilities are completely different from her teacher’s. What is a triumph of art for one is obscenity for the other. Amusingly enough, Naila scrambles to cover the nude painting hanging proudly on Zaigham’s walls and blushes on being asked to read Manto. However, she eagerly laps up the gyrations and double entendres which her favourite Bollywood movies dish out. In fact, one gets the feeling that Naila doesn’t really want to learn anything from her mentor and consistently rejects everything he tries to impart to her. Naila’s gandasa-wielding manoeuvres and her readiness to break into Madhuri Dixit numbers may have elicited laughs from the audience but it all begins to wear a bit thin when repeated in scene after scene. There is no change in the characters, their experience of living or learning remains static and the audiences are simply treated to more of the same, right up to the interval.

Eventually, Naila — still her brash, over exuberant self — decides to leave home and branch out on her own. Evidently, her good looks are enough for her to make it in the entertainment business and she is soon on her way to acquiring  fame and fortune. Meanwhile, Zaigham slides deeper into an alcohol-numbed existence in which he pathetically waits for Naila’s now infrequent visits. The tables have been turned and it is no longer she who craves his time but quite the opposite. Fortunately, Naila’s affection for her mentor has not died and while he is unable to do her any favours at all in her ascent to stardom, she does him the ultimate service of reconciling him with his wife.

Accomplished actor that she is, Sania connected with the audience  and Ehtesham held his own as the ageing intellectual who is ultimately left alone with his books and his principles for company. But the two actors were let down by the script, which was entertaining but really didn’t go anywhere. The most poignant moments in the story are when Naila talks of her limited schooling years, her yearning for a better life than what she sees yawning ahead, her refusal to conform to the rigid codes of  mohalla morality. But none of these themes are properly plumbed and sensitivity is too often sacrificed for easy laughs. Perhaps the more significant theme of the play was the fact that Naila, with all her brashness and lack of culture, manages to succeed in a world which has sidelined Zaigham with his erudition and knowledge. But this irony does not hit home either. And if, all preaching aside, Main Adakara Banoongi, was simply intended as a  lighthearted comedy, then it called for a sharper wit and tighter handling.

The play probably went down well enough with audiences and doubtless filled the coffers of the Rotary Club for which this was a fundraiser, but Katha’s reappearance on the theatre circuit after so many years had made one hope for more.  Here’s hoping that they will become more prolific in the future and provide a more fulfilling theatre experience that this talented group is respected for.

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