Amir Liaquat enters the room in his typical rushed style and opens with his signature welcome note: France, Amreeka, Muttahida Arab Emiraat aur ussay bhi agay… He is interrupted by a shrieking Kim Kardashian, who hides her daughter North West and mumbles: Oh yeh mera bacha lay jaingay! In a villainous voice, Amir Liaquat shouts: Musalmano tukka lagao, yeh bacha kisko chahiye? and suddenly hands over the celebrity child to an audience member amidst hoots of laughter.
As the crowd adjusts in their chairs, the improv comedy group The Bhands gets ready for their next act. The 60-minute-long performance is packed with jabs at Hamza Ali Abbasi and former president Asif Ali Zardari, poking fun at the ironies of the Pakistani society. With spectators nodding heads in agreement and occasional shouts of ‘OMG, so true!’, the young performers smile for striking a chord with their small yet energetic audience.
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In a chat an hour before the performance, key member Shehzad Ghias Shaikh gave a resounding ‘yes’ when asked if there’s an audience for improv comedy in Pakistan. “Our lives are so tragic that we need comedy; for some it is catharsis and for others it is an escape,” he says.
“If a mobile chor comes and puts a gun on your forehead, you have no power over him but if you get together with 90 people and laugh at a mobile chor, it gives you some of that power back,” the comedian explains.
Shaikh says he makes fun of terrorism in his acts and it is cathartic for victims of terrorism. “Many times, these things are dangerous to talk about but as a society we need that catharsis,” he maintains.
“I went to see Louis CK at Madison Square and he told a 9/11 joke; I wondered if it was fine to do that in New York, just 30 blocks away from where it happened but there were 30,000 people laughing – they are not disrespecting the event, it is cathartic for them to laugh about it,” Shaikh says. “It is that experience and societies need to go through that experience,” he adds.
“Woody Allen said comedy is tragedy plus time; because of the Holocaust, it is argued there are many Jewish comedians – the only way to deal with the tragedy looming over their heads is to turn to comedy,” he states. Listing famous Jewish comedians, Shaikh quips how some call comedy “an old, male, Jewish lobby”.
The Bhands philosophy
In an improv game where audience members suggest acts, The Bhands performer Jaffer Shah walks to the centre and reads a suggestion off a chit: If Zardari was the president of the US?
“Corruption karnay say phansi hojati hai?” Shah responds with a rhetorical question, throwing the audience into fits of laughter as they grasp the social commentary.
The theatre troupe, as Shaikh puts it, is an amalgamation of folk bhand entertainers’ content and philosophy of social awareness with modern improv structure. “We recognize ourselves as a part of the bhand tradition but we are humble enough to not assume we are the next evolution of that tradition,” he stresses.
Shaikh lets out a deep sigh as we ask him about the history of bhand performers and suggests we read his Master’s thesis. He, however, patiently narrates the evolution of bhands from Sanskrit theatre.
“Bhands – roughly translated to ‘entertainers’ – were popular in Punjab and Kashmir regions of India and focused on comedy,” Shaikh says, explaining that wandering groups of comedians would go from villages to villages to perform.
He says the performance had a very specific structure, always having a character with a chammota – a leather whip – which he would use on other characters. “In the performance, when a person assumed to say something dumb utters something smart, he gets whipped; the classical bhand is still done this way,” he tells us. “Bhand was improvised and entrenched in the culture of the society,” Shaikh adds.
When British arrived, he says, the art began to die as it lost the patronage of kings and princely states it enjoyed earlier and was absorbed into new forms.
He argues the elements of bhand are found in today’s commercial theatre. “For instance, if Umer Shareef is a servant but he is the wittiest, it is a very bhand thing,” he explains. “The chammota, essential part of the bhand tradition, evolved into Shareef slapping his fellow performers – the chamaat is the connection to the chammota tradition.”
“Our troupe won’t be doing anything of this sort,” he laughs.
Shaikh says bhands still perform in the country and mentions Amanullah Chand as a current example. “Bhands perform in villages and in neighboughoods like Heera Mandi where there is a culture of performing arts or in a baithak at someone’s house,” he says as he narrates a performance during Pervez Musharraf’s era in which the then president was referred to as maut ka farishta.
“The performer got a chammota for saying that,” Shaikh shares referring to the retribution that followed.
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Being an oral tradition in a world which privileges text, bhand drew members from the lower strata of the society. Shaikh says he wanted his troupe to be a reflection of this trend. “We diversified the composition of our group as our members don’t come from the same income or social backgrounds,” he states.
Like traditional bhands, Shaikh also wanted his group to be entrenched in the society they live in. “Bhand is really about playing with the society and the status quo,” he says.
“It generates humour but at the same time, hopefully, will make people ask questions about the societies they live in; it is not as blatant as making people sit down and explain though hope is upon reflection, people will reach there,” Shaikh wishes.
When Shaikh decided to form his comedy troupe based on these traditions, he got in touch with his theatre peers Abdul Ahad Ayub, Hassaan Bin Shaheen and Amtul Baweja and began auditioning candidates with them.
Troupe member Shah shares what transpired when he went for the auditions. “I had ‘The Great Indian Laughter Challenge’ show in my mind when I decided to go for the auditions; as soon as I entered the room, one of the panel members started signing: sab akho Ali Ali dum Ali Ali lajpal,” Shah recalls as a tease for his overgrown curly hair and reference to singer Asrar.
Shaikh confirms if it was him who started singing and then both burst into laughter.
“It was a fun beginning and I told myself – yeh banday chill hain,” Shah says. Having no prior acting experience, Shah is a promising find. His launching acts in front of a 40-strong audience showed signs of a star in the making.
Shaikh says the process through which they found Shah and another member Malika Zafar was long and arduous. He auditioned several, shortlisted a few to conduct workshops with and finally selected two.
“More than the skill, it’s important how the person’s mind is oriented; many times people tend to make the other person look bad in the scene to make themselves look better – that would be a difficult person to work with; even if he can mimic 20 people and he is funny but if he cannot work well in a group, it is of no good,” Shaikh says as he shares the troubles he and his team went through to find the right person.
Getting a team together to perform a blend of traditional and modern arts can be a challenging task and Shaikh tells us he dealt with candidates who did not fully understand what they were planning to do, expected to have a script or did not have the right temperament for the task. “The inclination in Pakistan is for people to close down and the first rule of improv is ‘yes and’ – to agree with fellow performer’s act and build on it,” he describes.
Shaikh also points out that sometimes people come with preconceived notions and are reluctant to change. “It is easy to get laughs – if I make racist, sexist jokes, 80% of the audience will laugh but that is not what we are trying to do,” Shaikh says highlighting that being true to their ideas is more important than simply getting people to laugh.
The Bhands new members underwent training for three months particularly to improve emotional intelligence and listening skill.
“Listening is very, very important; if you have not listened to me, how can you take what I have said forward,” Shaikh emphasizes, adding that the performer could still be funny but they won’t be adding anything to the conversation.
Shaikh also trained his members in modern improv structures and games, long form and short form scenes, characterization, physicalisation and of course comedy. “There are certain hacks for all the acts which I have devised after doing this for some years and are helpful in guiding the scene,” he says.
Praising Shaikh and others who trained the troupe, Shah says had there been anybody else, he would have taken a long time to learn new skills. “Honestly speaking, I found great teachers in my team; a student, more than the will to learn, needs a good teacher to learn from,” he shares.
“Students tend to run away from lessons but learning is possible if you have the right teacher,” Shah says, as Shaikh – in a comical tone – responds: “Paglay, rulaye ga kiya”.
Shaikh says he has great plans for the future which include performing in the streets and parks with dhols and at Eid mehndi stalls. “In malls too, but I fear we will be kicked out,” he laughs.
In order to stay true to the bhand culture, Shaikh says it is important to perform for the masses. “If we want to make it awami, we will have to go to the awam; not everyone will buy Rs250 and come to MAD,” he argues.
But Shaikh says this might take some time. “Phelay kiddy pool may toh swim karlain, then we will go to the deep end but pura irada hai; we will perform in other neighbourhoods and cities,” he assures.'