I was delighted to receive the notice of a Theatre Production by PNCA itself. Perhaps the last such initiative taken by this organisation was a decade ago during Naeem Tahir’s time as Director General. (or are these gaps in my memory?)
Most directors of semi-government institutions for Culture prefer to sit back and hire out the hall with its facilities and technical staff to theatrical companies which have enough “sponsorships” from NGOs or commercial companies to pay the cost of hiring and allied expenses – which legally allows them to sell tickets, provided they obtain an NOC from the appropriate Authority.
To encourage young or unknown artists or those with less popular work that cannot attract commercial sponsors, the PNCA can offer “Collaboration”. The director gives his production free without fee to the organisation, which provides the facilities free, but no tickets may be sold – as this is the rule which governs PNCA’s presentations. So the producer goes home with the hole in his pocket, (as I know) as preparation time and costs are not covered.
The colourful notice for the present production carries six or seven names of sponsors beginning with Pepsi and ending with Hum TV, who received a special thanks for their professional and technical help with sound and light in the Director’s closing speech.
The curtain opened to a glittering display of the sponsors’ logos and blurbs on a multimedia screen in place of a backdrop. Each lofty wing reaching high up on this huge stage carried more of the same. The music boomed and swelled as in all Pakistan’s theatres (I hastily took off my hearing aids!).
Suddenly both the screen and stage grew dark. The moving picture on the screen, which lasted for several long minutes, was of clouds rushing through a misty forest, white with snow and sleet. As the picture grew still, lights came up slowly on the stage, showing a sleeping figure that rose slowly to give us his comments on Life itself and the play that was to follow.
This was a beautiful beginning. The stark contrast of the white snowy scene coming immediately after the splash of sponsors on the screen and then the appearance of the dark lonely figure of the Ravi (the commentator) in homage to our classic theatre.
What do we look for when we go to see a lavishly produced extravaganza? We were confident that a wide spectrum of all aspects of theatre would be covered, as the present Director General S. Jamal Shah is known to be a “har fann maula”, who has the grace to admit the need for assistance in two aspects i.e. script and music. Their names were given prominence.
We are dealing with content, conversation, contrasts, character, casting, conflict, colour, costume, chorus in music, dance, crowd scenes and now cinematic affects on screen with recorded and live music on stage (as I counted them on my fingers, I was surprised to see so many ‘Cs’). But connecting all these is coordination, which was excellent.
Content: A perennial theme of the victory of good over evil (with a contemporary touch), whether on the personal moral level of Cinderella and her wicked step mother or on the societal plane of the poor and the helpless, oppressed by the tyrannical and debauched rulers. The title ‘Punja Shikanja’ indicated the latter.
Characters: In a play of ideas with many characters, most roles are of stock characters instantly recognisable by the audience and easily handled by the galaxy of well-known TV actors, who were readily available for Jamal Shah’s production. Subtleties of character are not required in these plays. Among the few constant characters that stand out are the Mazdoor (labourer) worn out by overtime and his housemates, the dog, the cock and the mother cat. They are constantly visited by a series of small oppressors we all know – policemen, neighbours and maulvi, all trying to take away the five kittens from the mother cat. She is the only one with the spirit to rebel.
I was at first taken aback by the mother cat’s refusal to allow her kittens to be separated but later wondered if this was the ‘contemporary touch’ – a reference to the separation of infants from their mothers across the globe these days.
Conversation: The long litany of common complaints and helplessness in Act 1 was perhaps unavoidable but even the dog’s playful antics and the cock’s squawks and crowing could not enliven it. When the neighbours crowd onto the stage in support of the mother cat’s resistance, we heard echoes of Habib Jalib’s words “mein nahin manta, mein nahin jaanta” followed by the strains of familiar music. I felt my lips moving with the words of the song in its Urdu version and realised it was the Internationale, the song of the people’s revolt. I wonder how many others in the audience recognised it! Such references to music, songs and phrases of earlier times are frequently found in such dramas. This was the first crowd scene with dance and music of common people.
Contrasts in set, costumes and characters: The “labourer’s home” was absolutely a bare stage. The stove and actions around the cooking pot were all in pure Mime. The two important costumes in the first scene were different in conception. The dog’s drooping ears were sufficient indication of his species whereas the cock’s wings were elaborate, realistic and beautiful. The Court Scene when it opened was splendid and realistic with gaudy thrones, superbly costumed king and sycophantic courtiers.
Casting: Among all the well-acted cameo roles, the casting of Begum Nawazish as prime minister was a gem! Strains of the song “pyar bhare do sharmilay nain” were heard in her dalliance with the Monarch. When called upon to order torture or participate in it herself, her casual sadism was terrifying. It was a personal pleasure to recognize Babar Niazi (our associate in music) as a policeman and to hear his recorded voice with Jamal Shah’s among the voices on stage in the Qawwali and specially to see Waqar Azeem as the Ravi who spends most of his time as administrator in the Drama Section. Using children of the staff as kittens was a loving gesture from ‘the boss’.
A different crowd now gathered in this court scene with Qawwals, court dancers and musicians and professional entertainers of many types, some of whom were the same characters from the earlier scenes now in disguise, including even the dog, the cock and the mother cat with her kittens. The earlier shouts of “Badshah Salaamat Zindabaad” now changed to “murdabaad”.
“Sab Taj uchalay Jayengay, Sab Takht Girayai Jayengay” were enacted by the crowd. Faiz, the visionary poet’s “Hum Dekhengay” was changed to the “Hum Jeetaingay” of today’s impatient young generation.