On a balmy Tuesday, 20 third-year Szabist film students cluster in a small, dingy studio. The midday sun streams from the skylight, testing everyone’s patience as they attempt to mark scenes in a series of fact-based plays highlighting human rights violations in Pakistan. Under Dr Framji Minwalla, Head of Media Science at Szabist University, these students and 50 of their peers researched, wrote and are currently staging a specific type of play — The Living Newspaper.
“Living Newspapers is a theatrical form that became popular during the Great Depression to tackle immediately relevant social and political issues that affected the lives of working and middle class Americans,” says Minwalla, who seems at home in the studio, even in a crisp mint button down and khakis.
As one group finishes rehearsing a talk show scene where a 1970 cyclone victim and a 2010 flood victim discuss their respective governments’ responses, Minwalla straddles the back of a chair and addresses his students.
“Did it take everyone a while to figure out that they’re referencing the flood that happened in East Pakistan?” he asks.
“But he had the accent,” protests Maria Mumtaz, the writer/director of the flood play.
“He may have had the accent, but you need to make it clear,” Minwalla says. “After the cyclone, aid came through Islamabad and most of it didn’t filter down to the areas hardest hit. With this play, you may want to show that this situation was largely responsible for splitting the country in half!”
Begun as a means to spread propaganda in Bolshevik Russia, Living Newspapers is more commonly associated with the US’s Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s, which the government designed to employ Depression-era actors in public service. The plays took a journalistic approach to issues affecting US workers, rejecting conventions of realism and complicated set design and relying on abrupt lighting choices, flexible use of space and a narrator or ‘loudspeaker’ to offer references and commentary.
Minwalla’s students are simply continuing a long tradition of political theatre in Pakistan. The country has a history of promoting change via the (often makeshift) stage. The Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association, a Communist theatre troupe, had offshoots in Pakistan, post-Partition and political theatre became localised and focused when the late Mansoor Saeed founded the Karachi-based Dastak in 1982.
“During General Zia’s time, it was difficult to say anything against the government, or really, anything at all,” says Mansoor Saeed’s daughter, Sania Saeed. “My father wanted to bring progressive people together on one platform that could help them spread their ideals. It showed female factory workers talking with university students and young doctors talking with union representatives.”
Dastak staged Urdu adaptations of famous Western plays, using indirect approaches to comment on the political situation, often performing at factories and union offices, shoving tables together for a stage. Once, during a staging of Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards” in a factory compound, there was a blackout. Sania was a child at the time, but she remembers how all the truck-drivers turned on their headlights so the performance could continue.
Other influential political theatre groups included Ajoka in Punjab and Tehrik-e-Niswan in Karachi. Formed by Sheema Kermani in 1979, Tehrik-e-Niswan, or Woman’s Struggle, remains an active company today and has often produced what could be considered Pakistan’s own version of Living Newspapers. The plays were scripted from interviews and case studies and performed in private spaces in low-income communities in order to evade censorship. As with Living Newspapers, they incorporated visual aids and song and dance to reach as broad an audience as possible.
Minwalla has specific reasons for turning to The Living Newspaper. “I took Living Newspapers as a model through which students could examine civil rights violations around topical issues,” says Minwalla.
In many ways, the students’ plays hew closely to experimental concepts, eschewing — much like Dastak did 20 years ago — fancy sets and costumes in favour of a strong message. Umair Bilal, the Loudspeaker and light-tech for the flood play, is, at 26, is too young to remember the early Dastak days but he says, “An elaborate set is a barrier between the audience and the actors. If you take street theatre, they don’t have any sets at all. That’s far more appealing to the ordinary person than professional theatre with sets and props.”
Minwalla’s class read international civil rights documents, such as the Magna Carta, and various countries’ constitutions, before brainstorming potential play topics — free speech, child labour, extra judicial violence against women, police corruption and lynching. Then students consulted newspapers and legislative texts and conducted personal interviews.
“They came up with smart outlines for their plays,” said Minwalla. “They thought about the issues and figured out how to tell the stories from relatively impartial perspectives.”
Among the dramatic texts from the historical canon the students read and analysed was “Power”, a 1937 Living Newspaper production about a government organisation’s struggle to make electricity available to millions of people in the poverty — stricken southern US. To Minwalla, “Power” seemed especially poignant, since his students experience daily power lapses due to Karachi’s overburdened grid.
Zeeshan Haider and Rafay Mahmood are Minwalla’s assistants. According to Rafay, who is also a reporter at The Express Tribune: “There’s a difference between how a journalist looks at the story and how a lawyer looks at the story. A journalist is supposed to be unbiased, but a lawyer has to speculate — ‘If someone has violated something, what mindset is he coming from?’ The students started out thinking like journalists, and then began thinking like lawyers.”
Bilal hopes to become a filmmaker, but at one time, he contemplated becoming a journalist. His personal mission lines up directly with the mission of the original Living Newspapers. “I want to work for the people,” he says. “Considering the literacy rate of Pakistan, the written word doesn’t have much value. If you write an article, an ordinary worker’s not going to read it. But if he watches a film at a tea stall, he forgets his hunger, his worries and just concentrates on the movie for those few hours. He’s finding an escape in the form of entertainment, so I thought why should I not use that as a platform? We should entertain, but there should be a cause behind it.”
In her play, Mumtaz-cum-Angelina Jolie sits among heads of states and discusses post-flood foreign aid distribution. “I was in Pakistan and I saw with my own eyes the kind of lavish life styles these government officials enjoy,” she said. “The disparities in income in this country are unbelievable. They lead a lifestyle comparable to us Hollywood celebrities.”
Later, Mumtaz as Mumtaz says, “Pakistani people deserve everything. We deserve electricity, we deserve water, we deserve a healthy happy lifestyle, but we don’t get it. So we are trying to make the audience aware.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine May 22nd, 2011.