Not impressed by Pawnay 14 August

The play lacked any clear focus; making a Bengali appear in a lungi and a Sindhi in an ajrak is hardly ingenious.

Salman Abedin April 09, 2012
With great expectations, I ventured into the Arts Council auditorium to see Anwar Maqsood’s humour come to life for the first time on stage. I had been warned that there would be seating problems, and there were. The production planning was disrupted due to the two days that the city was ablaze, and so people were accommodated well beyond the capacity of the hall.

The producer tried to calm everyone’s nerves as more and more people poured into the hall. Honestly though, it was a tinderbox in there, and it seemed like a war of nerves between the people already seated and the producer.

The play opened to what at best can be called an ordinary set.

It wasn’t minimalistic enough to classify as modern and not realistic enough to classify as detailed either. Well, the premise was interesting enough with Maulana Shaukat Ali, Allama Iqbal, and Quaid-e-Azam coming down from heaven for a few days to see where Pakistan was, and how it was doing.

However, the script left much to be desired. Please don’t get me wrong, Anwar Maqsood is a fantastic writer, one who has mastered the art of repartee over the years. But, in my opinion, a theatre performance needs to go beyond some basic level of scene building; otherwise it falls into the stage show trap that many commercial stage productions in Pakistan fall into.

A loosely constructed scenario may work for Hanif Raja and co, but to think that one could hold the audience for an hour and half, without any narrative build-up is unfair. Having said so, I do admit that there were moments of extremely high emotion, and one would even have tears in one’s eyes, but everyone who loves Pakistan is bound to cry at the current state of affairs.

So, for me, that was not really much of an accomplishment.

The play lacked any clear focus; it seemed that the three stalwarts of the Pakistan movement were being mocked for no reason. It seemed as if we were all indulging in Pakistan bashing, and honestly I resent that. If political parties use the Quaid’s mazar as a place to hold rallies, it is because they know that resonates with Pakistanis, and if Junoon re-introduced Iqbal to the public, how is that a bad thing?

The current Pakistani characters were card board, and lacked any depth whatsoever. Making a Bengali appear in a lungi, and a Sindhi in an ajrak is hardly ingenious. I don’t think this reflects the script - it shows weak direction and an aesthetic built on over-exaggeration and excess.

The ending of the play was also problematic where the three founders hand over their luggage to a small child and leave - hardly a resolution.

I think if we take on something as difficult as the raison d’etre of Pakistan, we owe it to the audience to present a solution. Also, having the national anthem playing with the Quaid speaking at the same time is an offence against the anthem, and honestly the producers needed to think about how they used the anthem.

On a political note, one wonders if the bourgeoisie Urdu-speaking middle and upper class of Karachi is feeling left out in the new dispensation with Punjab reasserting itself and Sindh wanting to rule all parts of Sindh. One felt that the Urdu-speaking run had been a long one, but now it is over.

Anwar Maqsood, one of the last of the breed of Urdu-speaking intellectuals is making his final stand. And that is probably why everyone in the audience was laughing and crying at the same time.

It truly signifies the end of an era.

Follow Salman on Twitter @ideawala.
WRITTEN BY:
Salman Abedin The author is a faculty member at the SZABIST Media Sciences program and has varied interests in cultural criticism, media strategy, advertising and product design. He is currently pursuing his MS in Media Studies from SZABIST. He tweets @ideawala.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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COMMENTS (22)

Salman fan | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend Brilliant article. At the end of the day, it was a successful commercial venture. which means the producer understood what people want to watch according it does not mean the play had any substance or form. well written. PS. i spent some time with the producer, Dawer Mahmood during one of his earlier productions and dealings with unscrupulous (read mob affiliated) persons during the funding stage of a production is never reassuring... is it?
Zubin (New Delhi) | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend @ahad: I happened to see a recording of a performance of Paunay 14 August on YouTube. The recording was hazy and not too clear ... with echo and audience murmur etc. So, please bear with my observations, as I wasn't lucky to be there physically. Many years ago, I had seen a play, BHUTTO, which was, correct me, if I be wrong, banned in Pakistan, performed in India. There was hardly any props in the play. A berth / bed, a table, a stool / muda, a glass and a jar, a newspaper ... and that all too vivid fading out of the gallows. . India has been fortunate to have had many great stage directors. Yet, when we looked for excellence for drama ... especially on TV, we turned to PTV productions. I felt that this particular production of Paunay 14 August, while brave in its selection of theme, lacked in creative art direction. . A Habeeb Tanvir, Bhisham Sahani, Shyamanand Jalan or Safdar Hashmi, would have likely taken a minimalist approach. Focused sharply on the personalities and the dynamics between them. Rather than on a linear narrative where actors come across as separate puppets, speaking obliquely to the audience. . SET DESIGN: The background image / windows dominate the scene. Making light the imposing individuality and diluting the collective presence of Pakistan's founding fathers. This in itself is a powerful statement of a national aspiration. This could have been elevated by only hinting at the airport setting. All that was needed was the lounge seats and an arrival / departure board. The arrival / departure board would have been a visual pun and could be used as an intentional prop to create moments of coincidental humour. The possibilities are many ... Also, the lack of clutter would allow the characters to stand out on their own, confident and independent. . LIGHTING: The floodlighting of the stage with a uniform white light, leaves the actors competing for attention. And in this play, they end up speaking loudly to the audience. A more effective ploy, would have been to use situational warm / yellow lighting against a uniformly black stage. This could be switched to spotlighting when Quaid-E-Azam speaks. Or when Allama Iqbal engages M.A.Jinnah in a discussion or vice-versa. It gives an extra emphasis to the chemistry between them. It can also be used to high light the tension between distinct groups of people on different corners of the stage or with competing philosophies of Pakistan. Again, the possibilities are many ... and remain unexplored, in an otherwise very rich script. . SOUND DESIGN: There is a particular episode when Quaid-E-Azam enquires after the identity of the singer, Pukhraj. In similar vein, many other artists from Pakistan early years are mentioned. Most Pakistanis, if not all, are well aware of the oeuvre of these artistic greats. There should have been some attempt to employ the richness of these sounds and incorporate them into the flow of the script. They would be used to accentuate and punctuate the drama. Again, imaginative use of sound would have furthered the impact of the play on the audience by engaging them. Nothing holds the attention more than sound. We get sound, even before we catch a glimpse ... there is a romance to it. And a mystery. A voiceover by Zia Moheyddin or Rahat Kazmi to introduce clear episodes would have introduced the element of a storyteller! . COSTUMES / PROPS:. In South Asia, we rarely appreciate the biographies of our leaders. Instead we turn them into saints, because we are addicted to hagiography. We want to remember them as ideal human beings and the image most strong in our mind, is the one which the state wants us to absorb and venerate. The only exception to this, I guess, is Gandhi, because, well he didn't have much sartorial leeway, considering he had the most limited wardrobe. But M.A.Jinnah wore sherwani rarely, and mostly Saville Row suits. And Allama Iqbal rarely walked about swaddled in a shawl and kurta pyjama. The choice of costumes, assumes a bias towards traditions. When, in actuality both were very much modernists. This itself is a significant political consideration, Those of us, who have seen reels and heard the speeches of them, know the conviction and deportment they effected. This is to be recreated on the stage. And once again, Paunay 14 August lost to the possibility of bringing alive their persona. . If I may, in the passing say, that there were quite a few things, by way of humour, that I didn't comprehend. But that is likely for anyone who isn't native to a country. What I did find most interesting, that theater, perhaps more so than movie, still remains the one medium where messages can be communicated with great immediacy. On that front, Paunay 14 August delivers quite well. I hope, that someone in India, perhaps IPTA or the National School of Drama will consider a Saadey 15 August.
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