Punjabi theatre: What goes around, comes around

The decline of Punjabi film industry has revived Punjabi theatre.

Sher Khan March 08, 2012


Where Punjabi commercial cinema is synonymous with bulbous women, shaking their posteriors and flexing their thunder thighs to get their always and forever angry ‘sardars’ attention, Punjabi theatre, on the other hand, is a less commercial and less risque source of entertainment, which is probably why it was hiding in a dark corner for so many years. However, the recent decline in the Punjabi film industry has sent fans and entertainment seekers back to the world of props and curtain calling. Even for the local actors and actresses, it is the stage, and not the film, which has become a viable place to work because they are promised consistent pay and work.

Theatre returns

“Theatre as compared to film is doing much better and many people are turning their attention to theatre again,” says Sabir Raj, a supporting actor. “Directors try to get as much skill as they can out of the actors who feel demotivated because of the workload and nominal pay.”

Raj, who has been working at Alhamra theatre for many years, explains that acting is a hard way to make a living for people extras and supporting actors. The supporting actor who himself receives Rs5,000 for a small part, but states that plays and stage dramas are ideal for people who get lead characters. The protagonists get consistent work in smaller productions and the entire experience is more fulfilling as compared to acting in a film, adds Raj. In these smaller productions, lead actresses start out with salaries as much as Rs30,000 and for bigger stars, salaries can reach up to Rs1 million for each performance.

According to insiders, the Punjabi film industry’s attractiveness has decreased because actors have started to believe that there is no scope for growth in the industry and that only established film personalities like Moammar Rana, Reema Khan and Shaan can survive in the unforgiving film industry. This resentment and apprehensions towards the film industry automatically increased the supply of theatre artists and eventually led to an increased demand of theatre plays by the audience. Even the weekday shows experience a full house.

Dancing your way to success

Punjabi commercial theatre has also been popularly associated with mujra or stage dance. Stage dancers such as Deedar and Nargis have become popular celebrities in the Punjabi circle and are reported to make huge amounts in a single night.

Kohinoor, a local actress and dancer, who has worked at major theatres such as Alfalah, claims that success comes with hard work and popularity and it has nothing to do with the number of contacts one has in the industry. “Anyone who works that hard and is able to sell seats gets to reap the fruits of success. It’s really that easy,” says Kohinoor. On the other hand, Raj explains that the initial stages of a dancer’s career depend on skill and merit, after that, it’s all about what the audience wants to see. “Whether it’s Hollywood, Bollywood or Lollywood, the actor or actress people wish to see or hear the most gets a heavier cheque,” says Raj.

According to another actress who wished to remain anonymous, for each performance of famous dancers such as Khushboo or Negha, a dance organiser employs around 16 dancers who get paid Rs8,000 each. A dance choreographer gets paid somewhere around Rs20,000.

Are we evolving?

The evolution of Punjabi stage drama — which now considers comedy as its edge — has invited extensive monitoring by local authorities. Due to the stereotypes and misconceptions about Punjabi theatre, many people still think that theatre performances are vulgar. However, the reality is that over the years, the dances have become more tasteful and due to regulations imposed by the government, the general standard of theatre has improved. It was because of government, that the stage has been cleansed of all the vulgar performance and Pakistan’s comedic talent is being given a chance to prove their prowess.

Munir Raj, a stage director, says that, “The talented actors of today have mastered the art of making people laugh. The more these actors perform, the more they attract people and the more they help the theatre industry flourish.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2012.


Optimist | 9 years ago | Reply

Nargis charges Rs 20 Lakh for 10 performances (10 days) on one stage which is quite a lot when we look at it as just one venue in one city (like Lahore...) . Punjabi film industry pays far less for months' shoot and its audience is 12 crore!!

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