We observe our realm through diverse sensibilities, and the performing arts in particular enable us to observe and appreciate the world around us. When dance, music and movement unite, one can express multifaceted rudiments. Continuing in the same footprint, Pakistan’s leading institute in the sphere of the performing arts, the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), staged a remarkable theatrical production, Betaali Prem Katha, which was dominated by music and dance, almost like a musical. The performance delighted theatre-goers, as it was packed with a full house each day it was performed, with an extra Matinee show to accommodate those who couldn’t manage to watch in time. The play was written and directed by Fawad Khan, alumnus of NAPA, actor and faculty member at the academy. It was performed at the Zia Mohyeddin Theatre from 14th till the 24th of August 2022.
Planned to be staged in 2019, before COVID hit us, the play was delayed by nearly two years and the project was almost shelved. However, when the world meandered to normalcy, Fawad Khan and his crew sprang back up with the script and rehearsals, and with a bang, indeed. The story is inspired by a mythical tale belonging to an ancient Sanskrit epic, Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of the Streams of Stories). It is a legendary story-within-a-story of the 11th-century, with Indian myths, fairy tales and fables lightly knotted together.
Before the play began, it got me wondering as to how well they would be able to pull off dieties, djinns and mythics. Here, Khan’s work in playwriting is commendable throughout the production
The play’s protagonist is Prem (played by Rahil Siddiqui), who is a Brahmin boy. He attempts to explore the essentials of wisdom and knowledge. He stumbles upon the forbidden city of Roopnagar, a place that his father had strictly warned him against visiting. Here, Prem engages in a banter with a diety (Djinn), Betaali (played by Sunil Shankar), who claims to be a powerful spiritual being, possessing magical powers and obsessed with story-telling. However, this time, it is not only a story. It is a full-fledged play with an insightful question at the end, the answer of which Prem has to give correctly or he will face dire consequences. Both of them agree upon the punishment in case Prem is unable to respond correctly – that Betaali will torment him to death and drink his blood. After this meeting, there is a sequence of uncanny happenings for the length of two-hour-long play.
Rahil Siddiqui says, “When Fawad sahib called me to restart this play, I came back with more energy and fervor. We dug out the scripts. We kicked off the rehearsals all over again. I’ve worked with Fawad sahib before and every time has been better than the last. We have collaborated on several dastaangoi endeavours too. Besides, he has been my teacher as well. The area where I found myself struggling with, was the language. The play is in the Hindi language, and although we do use it conversationally and casually in our daily lives, it seemed particularly hard to come to grips with the unheard-of words and meanings.”
Before the play began, it got me wondering as to how well they would be able to pull off dieties, djinns and mythics. Here, Khan’s work in playwriting is commendable throughout the production. Not only did he direct the play well, but everything was taken care of to near perfection, including costume, set design, sound, lighting and the complete aura behind the plot. The vibrant Indian costumes (by Erum Bashir) and makeup stayed close to the period and the characters portrayed. Music by Bhagat Bhoora Laal was a definite avant-garde. One can safely say that Betiaali Prem Katha was full of emotion, humour, music, drama, and plenty of dance and movement.
How was this work different from what Fawad has worked on earlier? He explains, “The display of the play is absolutely different, this time around. Firstly, because it is a musical. Secondly, it was important to keep the essence of the local language in order to depict the original myth. Had I combined Arabic or Persian languages, it wouldn’t have stayed true to the spirit. Yes, it was peppered with a dash of Sanskrit too. In our literature, Intizar Hussain trail blazed the tradition of short-story telling. He was also accompanied by Manto and Ismat Chughtai. They were mostly inspired by European and Russian works. Hussain was the one who localised this tradition. He rewrote stories extracted from Mahabharata, giving them new contours and addressing diverse issues at hand. He retold the story of Gautam Buddha and the characters of Tilism-e-Hohsruba in a modern style. Even historical accounts from Quranic translations and the past were re-narrated in a fresh panache, all in pursuit of our original roots. In a way, he extricated himself from the colonial literature and story-telling traditions. By this, I not in the slightest mean to say that what’s coming from the West is not good or relevant. I want to add to this enormous body of work, that is not be-all and end-all of great theatre. My aim is to bring to spotlight our own great works that sparked applause too. Hence, my main inspiration was the ‘nautanki-style’, that I twined and played around with to bring what you saw on the stage, which stayed true to our receptivity. The musicians also belong to Tando Allahyar and Mirpurkhas, bringing in their own treasure that seldom reaches us.”
Khan proved his mettle as a director with his endeavours situated to bring the best to the stage. In an attempt to decolonise literature and demand answers to social disorders, an important discourse in Pakistan that one can always resonate with, the production was an epic portrayal of immaculate technical crew, to create an apt visual, that comprised a heady fusion of history, mythology and magic. The local ‘nautanki’ style, the writing of which was primarily inspired by Intizar Hussain, was something that needed attention and limelight, especially when most of what we are taught is brimmed with foreign texts and Western plays, such as those of Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Pakistan and its citizens have a lot in common with India and Indians, whether it is music, poetry, social context, cultural elements or historical practices – as both have coexisted peacefully for more than a century. Khan ensured that all his actors were well-versed in the local works and texts, which was clearly evident from their spectacular performances, so much so that it pegged on incredible wit.
And so, what might come across as a mere winning theatrical production that harnessed applause, was much more than that, as it reconstructed the tones and hints around wisdom, knowledge and insight, the theatrical circuit and the way forward for art itself.