April issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Published 5 years ago

The Lahore-based troupe, Ajoka Theatre, sheds light on various social issues through its performances. Their plays are not meant to simply entertain but also to make the audience think. But when they performed Lo Phir Basant Ayee earlier this March at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi, it appeared that they are perhaps better at providing entertainment than nuanced and critical commentary.

Lo Phir Basant Ayee, written by Shahid Nadeem and directed by Madeeha Gauhar, is —  no surprises — about the ban against the kite-flying festival in the Punjab. Performed primarily in Punjabi, the narrative centres on Ustaad Maaju, an elderly kite-maker who finds himself out of work after the ban on Basant. Originally, the part is played by veteran actor Arshad Durrani but, unfortunately, Durrani fell ill upon arriving in Karachi and fellow Ajoka actor Tipu Sultan had to step in at the last minute. But had Madeeha Gauhar not revealed this information to the audience at the end of the performance, the audience would never have been able to tell that Sultan took on the role at less than a day’s notice.

Ustaad Maaju lives with his daughter and grandchildren, all of whom are in one way or another affected by the Rok Thaam Committee (RTC). The RTC’s goal is to make sure that everything that happens in the neighbourhood, in public or within private spaces, is in accordance with their version of Islam. The gang of bumbling thugs is led by the trigger-happy Khan Theykadar (very ably played by Sohail Tariq) and the jolt of black humour they brought to the play made them the highlight of the show. From revising the entire syllabus of a school to making sure everything is Sharia-compliant (Allama Iqbal becomes Mohammed Illama Iqbal Khan and classes are given on how the Islamic bomb is better than the Jewish or Indian bomb) to very, very meticulously monitoring the internet for pornography, the RTC leaves no stone unturned.

But there is an ulterior motive to their plans of Islamisation. With their endless supply of ammo and grenades, the RTC hopes to intimidate the people of the community into leaving their homes so that they can then seize their properties.

So far so good. The problem, though, is that the members of the RTC are presented as comic figures, so the audience develops a strange fondness for the villains. The other problem is that Khan Theykadar is presented as a caricature and the Pathan jokes become a bit uncomfortable after a while. Jokes about Pathans being gay or stupid are common in commercial theatre and television but one expects a little more sensitivity from Ajoka Theatre, who are purportedly more intellectual and enlightened than that.

Also, in terms of the narrative, there is a sense of unevenness as the RTC actively plans to put an end to Basant whereas Ustaad Maaju and his grandchildren are somewhat more passive. Maaju, for instance, laments the end of Basant but because of his old age can do little to oppose the ban. Maaju’s grandchildren and their friends dream of a life of freedom and joy but are too young to be able to actively resist the oppressors. There is a counter-figure in the form of a young professor who tries to teach the students art and literature on the sly but — perhaps because the character was poorly written or that the actor seemed too young to pull off the role — he, too, was completely ineffectual. For the play to have had a real sense of drama, there needed to be some possibility of the people countering the RTC but not only are they shown as being too weak, they also suffer another blow as the committee is in cahoots with the police.

Visually though, the play is a treat even though it makes use of minimal props and stage changes. When there is a brief revival of Basant, colourful kites dance in the air across the stage. And (spoiler alert) there is a chilling scene in which the entire stage is cast in red light and sounds of bullets reverberate as kites fall to the ground, signifying not just the end of Basant but also of life as we know it. But, strangely enough, the younger members in the audience were so enthralled by the visual spectacle of the scene that they hooted and applauded for its entirety, completely missing its subtext.

Lo Phir Basant Ayee is incisive and bold in its portrayal of how society is increasingly becoming oppressive. It celebrates local arts and culture and emphasises the need for it to be preserved. The play occasionally suffers from heavy-handedness but the satire provides much needed levity throughout the play.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue under the headline, “Subtext Submerged.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.