KARACHI: In the BBC period drama Peaky Blinders, Polly Shelby, the matriarch of the family tries to convince her niece Ada to stop waiting for her lover at the train station. Ada is pregnant with the offspring of her communist boyfriend who the Shelbys have always hated but she is madly in love with him.
Polly tries to give her a hint but when Ada remains persistent, Polly ends up saying perhaps the most mindboggling one-liner of season one. “You know the words. You’re a wh**e. Baby is a bas*a*d. But there’s no word for the man who doesn’t come back.”In a fraction of a minute the writer summarises how over the years, language, aesthetics and pop culture have been shaped for the male gaze if not from the male glance.
Thursday night at Napa saw women pick South Asia’s most popular folktale and spin it in a way that the woman was no longer at the receiving end of power, pain or even sympathy. With one pinching dialogue after another, actresses highlighted the darkness of our social predispositions as they stood out in reds, on the backdrop of a rather dimly lit stage.
Heer Project by Zain Ahmed and Bakhtawar Mazhar was as brave and bold in its aesthetic as it was both controversial and debatable in its subject matter. For a number of academics and folklorists believe that characters such as Heer and Sassi are in themselves icons of feminist power and social dissent. However, focusing only on the directors’ ideological inclination will rob Heer Project of its originality and clarity of vision.
Perhaps the aim was to take Heer a step further; where her life begins at the self-actualisation that she shouldn’t settle for Ranjha when what she really wants is Arsenal to win the English Premier League. Ha! It sounds funny but it was quite serious and that is perhaps, the play’s greatest achievement.
Set in an undefined space, the play starts with the actresses calling out nouns usually associated with the ‘feminine etiquette’ and having a good laugh about them. They were accompanied by a set of live musicians led by Nigel Bobby who would interlude every now and then to keep the mood flowing. Tenderness, shyness, bubbly, sweet, hysterical: you name it and they had an Urdu equivalent, both being spoken on stage and projected on the backdrop. While the projected phrases occupied the empty spaces on stage quite fully, it felt a bit unneeded in a play that flipped an entire discourse by not following any conventions.
The whole story takes place in the form of cliquey and clannish conversations without a clear sense of space or structure and yet it manages to hit all the right notes without yelling victory. It does get really preachy towards the end when all the characters come back on stage to narrate excerpts from Kishwar Naheed's Hum Gunahgar Aurtain. Bakhtawar’s monologue followed by the excerpts self-explode in front of an audience that had so far been engaged in discourse without realising they were being given a lesson.
As a man, my positionality might be a problem here and aficionados may argue that contemporary feminist discourse needs to be more out-there and direct to register its voice but that doesn’t really serve the purpose aesthetically. Both Aurat March and Heer Project have similar aspirations but they could rely on different means of pursuing a similar outcome.
Beyond the thematic and narrative preferences, Heer Project features some of the finest performances on stage. All the actresses were given the opportunity to vary their emotional tangents and that allowed the space to display their range as performers. Shabana Hasan, a Napa regular since Dheti Deewarein (2015) has come a long way as a serious performer. She is now consciously trying to not entirely rely on her amazing voice throw and balances that with a mellowness of delivery and that’s really helping her case. Syeda Maha Ali was equally at ease in the many colours she portrays on stage.
Hajra Yamin who I last saw as Pinky in Pinky Memsab was the real surprise of the night. Movement and dance might not be her forte but she knows how to keep the emotion understated without compromising on the drama. That is one thing that all Napa actors have struggled with initially and she doesn’t, because she has a background in theatre but she didn’t go to Napa. Her strengths are tonal quality and adaptiveness to Urdu diction. Which is why a genre-bending script like Heer Project enabled her to step out of her comfort zone which she did so with style and grace.
Although it seemed like co-directing had taken a toll over Bakhtawar’s performance but she held her own in some of the most badass moments on stage. From her earlier days of doing Chekov alongside giants such as Rahat Kazmi and Talat Hussain, Bakhtawar has clearly evolved into not just an actor, but a theatre practitioner who says something when she has something to say. That’s a blessing in an industry that has only two kinds of roles for women; the tender, happy-go-lucky woman and the tender not so happy-go-lucky woman.
Zahshanne Malik and Vajdan Shah emulated Heer Ranjha with dance and movement quite well but the music could have been as contemporary and upbeat as the spin on the folktale. Of course, it’s a challenge to re-render and compose music for such an iconic story but the light-classical influence in arrangement and the melodic structure was a tad bit too easy on ears and dated for such a progressive play.
As a whole, Heer Project has to be one of the most remarkable original works to come out of the Karachi theatre scene. It’s feisty, hard-hitting and above all incredibly entertaining and relevant. By attempting the blasphemy of messing around with a Punjabi folktale, Zain and Bakhtwar have managed to offer what Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha did to the Indian and to some extent the Pakistani multiplex audience. They have humanised Heer and given her the voice that is needed to reinterpret not just our notions of love, family and sacrifice but also basic ethics and morality.
It’s a big win for society, not just the women.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Heer Project was performed for one day at the ongoing International Theatre Festival at Napa that ends March 31.
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