ISLAMABAD: The South Asian Free Media Association (Safma) screened the teleplay Naya Qanoon on Friday that is based on a short story by Saadat Hassan Manto. Set in 1937, the play is a snapshot of colonised India. It focuses specifically on the sentiments and ideologies of the average serving class citizen under British rule.
Sarmad Sehbai adapted the original text for national television as commemoration of Pakistan’s 50 years. In that context, as a tribute, a memory and perhaps a visual lesson in culture and history, it was acceptable.
However, I seriously question the relevance of such productions today. Despite entry being free, the audience for the play was barely enough to fill a small room. These attendants were mostly elderly people who could relate to the play. The screening ended with loud applause and everyone gathering around the director to congratulate and encourage him.
A viewer, who has not grown up in the immediate aftermath of our nation’s struggle for independence from the British, is a viewer who can not enjoy the play for its nostalgic value. What does this play have to offer such an audience?
Sarmad said that his adaptation offered analogies that were relevant today. The story line essentially follows the interaction between Mangu, driver of a Tanga (Horse and Cart used as public transport) and his frequent customer, a rude British ruler. Every night Mangu takes him to see a prostitute, Rani Jan, played by Saba Pervaiz. Both Mangu and Rani loathe the British but remain subservient out of fear. Rani uses poetry to convey her sentiments, using the Brit’s lack of command on the Urdu language as a thin veil for her verbal assaults.
Mangu’s thoughts are portrayed by his conversations with his horse, during which he develops the delusion that India has become free and autonomous with the passing of a Naya Qanoon (new law). Sarmad feels that democracy turned out to be for us, the illusion of autonomy that Mangu once felt. Without the director’s comments, this would be a difficult connection to make, even with his comments it feels like a stretched one. Those were the delusions of a frustrated working man under the rule of another race. We are a nation struggling for accurate and transparent implementation of a political structure that our majority prefers. The enemy is a lot less obvious now, the problems harder to pin-point, the alternatives a lot less exciting, but the means to attain progress and prosperity remain just as elusive.
The most promising similarity attempted was perhaps the emotion. Frustration, limitation, poverty, dejection, uncertainty, the human experience of these sentiments may have remained the same over the years, especially in the less privileged. Unfortunately, this attempt also fell short, because the actors were simply not up to mark. An exception must be made here for Saba Pervaiz, her recitation of poetry and her expressions of poorly-concealed disdain under forced submission were brilliant. Her acting transported the viewer back in time and across space dissolving him into the setting of the scene.
Unfortunately this also highlighted how the rest of the teleplay had failed to do so.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2010.