By Sonya Rehman
Walking through the waist-high gates of the Qaddafi Stadium on the 24th of November – via heavy security (which included separate male and female metal detectors, a police van, an ambulance and armed guards), a group of gypsy singers and fire starters towards the right- hand side of the sprawling stadium ground, were managing to attract quite a crowd.
And in the opposite direction, people lined up to buy tickets from a large black, rectangular-shaped ticket booth. Up front, what looked like a massive placard, with each day’s listed performances/shows, stood in the centre.
And amidst all the flurry of activity, the whiffs of cheap aftershave, hot coffee, the slightly damp mist of winter, the ribbons of colour and the twirly lights (set high up on the stadium’s circular roof like a crown); ten-foot tall and bald, rainbow coloured puppets walked and swayed.
It was all so surreal, that one almost expected each to mumble, ‘Ooo’, ‘Aaa’ (like creatures out of Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’), as they rolled their large heads back and forth.
But it was only until much later that I noticed a pair of eyes peeking out from the waist of one of the mammoth puppet’s belly – looking back at me with a quizzical expression that seemed to almost match mine.
“Oh my God, look”, my friend said. She was pointing at a troupe of short, bare-footed dark men with abs, grass skirts, funny head pieces and war paint. “You reckon they’re from Africa?” And just then, one of the fellows walked past us – with one cell phone in his hand, and the other clung to his ear, “oh paa jee, tussi dusso toh sahi”, he said merrily yapping away in thait Punjabi as his voice trailed off. That sure answered our question!
And speaking of Punjabi, a play by the name of ‘Patay Khan’ was due to begin just then.
Considering the comedic nature of ‘Patay Khan’, it managed to base itself around a very significant storyline.
Set to depict nawabs, and kings – who once ruled the subcontinent over fifty years ago – the play primarily highlighted this: the force of might and dictatorship opposed to rights, and the glaring disparity between the affluent and the hoi polloi. Sound familiar? Sure does. Considering the country’s current (mad) political tea party, ‘Patay Khan’ was bizarrely timely.
Written by Imran Peerzada and directed by his brother, Usman Peerzada (back in 1992), ‘Patay Khan’ – delivered in crass, naughty Punjabi – often broke out into conversational song and merry dance (all very traditional and marasi-ish) every now and then.
The music was courtesy to a live classical ‘band’ that sat towards the far-right of the stage, and it was all so extempore-sounding, fresh and without any kind of acting anomalies, that each actor’s role delivery and expressions were thoroughly pro-like.
Interspersed with funny innuendos and hilarious one-liners, cackles from the crowd were frequent throughout the play’s performance.
One slightly grim moment in the play came when, during a candle-lit mujra (enjoyed by all three nawabs) got interrupted by a commoner who lashed out at the nawabs for not giving a toss about the people, their plight, and the fact that they don’t even have clean water for consumption. But instead of addressing the man, the head nawab orders Patay Khan (a policeman of sorts) to kick and beat the fellow out of the way. And that scene in particular, hit so close to home.
Perhaps the reason as to why we’re so cursed as a nation is because of each of our leaders’ utter disregard for the mass populace – who are silenced because they’re treated like cattle instead of human beings. It is no wonder.
But coming back to the play itself, as soon as the performance drew to a close, and as people began trickling out of the camp, I managed to speak with Sohrab Khan – a brilliant actor who played the part of ‘Patay Khan’, and who also happened to be the play’s Assistant Director.
“This play is all about fun and frolic but its message is that whatever change we need to bring about in our society, has to come from within”, Sohrab said whilst placing a hand on his chest for emphasis, “and not from outside sources. In this pay we’ve tried to depict the common man; labourers and a gardener on one side, Patay Khan who brings law and order, and then the nawabs on the other side.”
The portrayal of each nawab was fascinating because their characters almost seemed to portray Nawaz Shariff and Musharraf – what was Sohrab’s take on this?
“No no”, Sohrab stated rather hurriedly, “that’s upto the audience’s perception – and whoever they perceive the nawabs to be. It’s simple. One nawab wears a vilayati jooti, aur doosra, Allah ka sipahi hay. Nawaz probably resembles the latter nawab, and Benazir ka touch thora ata hay in the former, but it’s mainly upto the audience’s perception.”
What about the road ahead, is ‘Patay Khan’ going to be performed elsewhere? “We have performed the play locally – infact we did four to five shows before this festival, but look we’re not commercial artists – and we have passion and love that we do, but frankly the society really isn’t ready to support people like us. They think, ‘yaar kya marasi type log hain’, Sohrab said, “we performed in Amritsar, in a football stadium, before 9-10,000 people, in Chand Bagh School, and in a pind ahead of Harapa – where the audience loved and clearly understood us”.
But the fact of the matter is, traditional folk theatre in Pakistan seems to be fast dissipating, with foreign plays and scripts taking greater precedence amongst the younger generation. Sure, glitzy plays such as the ‘Moulin Rogue’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Black Comedy’ can be jolly good as far as entertainment is concerned, but it seems almost as if we’ve become haughtier, bored and more intolerant of ‘real’, local forms of theatre.
‘Patay Khan’ was an A-class performance. Why? Because it managed to whip up a profusion of laughter, an oddly bizarre kind of patriotism, and a feeling of ‘hey, we’re all in this together’. Brilliant.
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