Theatre in Pakistan: From English to Urdu

Published: June 19, 2011
The evolution of contemporary theatre in Pakistan. CREATIVE COMMON

The evolution of contemporary theatre in Pakistan. CREATIVE COMMON


In the past year, many producers known predominantly for their work in commercial English theatre are now transitioning into commercial Urdu theatre. The trend is part of an effort to cater to a larger market, while also developing an economic model that can help sustain the industry.

For many people sitting through a classical Urdu play can be difficult and tedious, due to the sophistication of the language and pace of the play. And while it is pricey – getting a script written in Urdu can cost around Rs70,000 to Rs80,000 – with modern commercial Urdu theatre, one has the opportunity to experience faster Broadway styled plays designed to relate to the average person.

“A criticism has always been that we have not done Urdu,” explains Nida Butt who recently started rehearsals for her new Urdu play, Kings of Lyari, which is expected to release in November. “It will be interesting to see how audiences respond to an Urdu musical. It will be like an Indian movie on stage.”

Her upcoming play is an original which revolves around the life of boxers in Lyari. Technically, the hype around the play has been that it will be a completely live Broadway musical which will include its own musical composition – without any lip-syncing. Butt, who is famous for the production of the English plays Chicago and Mamma Mia, has a theatre company called Made for Stage Productions. She said that the idea of Broadway styled Urdu plays was an exciting trend as it could start a ripple effect in the industry.

Currently of the three major cities in Pakistan, Islamabad is considered to have the most vibrant theatre scene, with Urdu and English performances happening regularly. Ajoka is a dominant force in Lahore, while in Karachi; Napa is the major Urdu theatre institution. The first forays into Urdu theatre by top English producers, Nida Butt and Shah Sharahbeel, have been renditions of famous English plays such as The Phantom of the Opera. The transition has been in phases, with some plays being done in a combination of English and Urdu.

Scriptwriter Abdullah Farhatullah said this was an experiment that was taking place in the country. In Urdu, directors and producers feel they can make a bigger impact and increase their shows popularity with the audiences. The creative forum of Urdu theatre allows audiences, producers and directors to play with different ideas and themes. However, he said that original plays in Urdu were still considered a risk by sponsors who were uncomfortable investing in them. As a result, only a few top directors such as Butt and Dawar Mehmoud have been able to thoroughly research and design plays at the commercial level.

“I believe the main thing is that it gives the audience something it can relate to and understand,” said Mehmoud, the director of the recently released Urdu play, Act 144. “It’s a new wave, and audiences are being surprised because it’s all from real life situations.”

Urdu theatre means several changes in terms of marketing. Mehmoud laments that there still has not been a market for contemporary theatre, which can be sustained through profits from box office sales, rather than sponsorship money. He added that there was also a perception that English theatre was more authentic for the audience. Mehmoud recalls his childhood where plays such Alpha Bravo Charlie and Uncle Lucy had provided entertainment to a wide array of people. “Recently we performed in Karachi. The audiences are starved for good plays. They want good entertainment, and that’s what we are trying to do,” he concluded.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2011.

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