If Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had to classify Lahoris and Karachiites into certain personality types, he’d definitely choose the ‘Extraverted Feeling’ type for Lahoris and the ‘Extraverted Thinking’ type for Karachiites. This is by no means meant to demean the fun-loving populus of Lahore, but an easier way of exploring how people from both cities, who are both mostly sociable, react differently to their surroundings.
Lahoris are usually more direct, whereas people from Karachi are comparatively more reserved. They take their time to get in sync with the vibe of the situation, whether it is happy or sad, and then pick up pace upon finding their comfort level. This high-octane Lahori approach translates into their theatre plays, and that is why Ajoka’s Rang De Basanti Chola was a unique experience for the audience at NAPA.
A dhol player appears under a dull orange spot light on centre stage. He starts playing a loud and catchy bhangra beat and starts whirling in a circle. The audience is already on their feet, the groove has woken them up and Madeeha Gauhar’s (Director) trick of starting out with a bang ( literally) works out well. The dhol player swings to stage right and is joined by a group of malangs who are performing dhamaal at a shrine and loudly chanting different phrases in respect of Baba Shah Jamal, and in veneration of the creator.
The fact that it is a play on the life of Bhagat Singh has become secondary for the audience, due to the gimmick of intertwining musical excerpts.There is no fully orchestrated piece of music, mostly simple renditions. The Karachi audience however, is not used to the soulful, yet raw renditions of Punjabi folk, which is why whenever the chorus came on stage, it departed to whistles and claps from the crowd. The chorus does get a little redundant though, especially during the end when they start appearing on stage more frequently, without melodic variations however.
The story of Bhagat Singh doesn’t remain in the background for long, but what is interesting is the route that Shahid Nadeem (playwright) takes to pay homage to Singh. The play begins when policemen come looking for the killers of Nawab Mohammad Khan Qasuri, the magistrate from Qasur, who had signed the hanging orders of Singh and his friends when none of the magistrates from Lahore were willing to do so.
From there, the old Bhoga (Basharat Saleem) a regular visitor of the shrine who also keeps track of the case files, starts narrating the story of his favourite inmates from Central Jail Lahore. The story is of Bhagat Singh (Nirvan Nadeem), Raj Guru (Shahzad Sadiq) and Sukh Dev (Sohail Tariq), a trio that is admired for their intellect and drive for freedom while they are imprisoned, and also after their death.
Saleem as the old Bhoga,single-handedly anchors the entire production by delivering Punjabi dialogue with ease and charismatic stress that can only be achieved by years of living on and around the stage. The rest of the cast all fall short at certain points. The major concern however, was the powerlessness of Nirvan, who played the most powerful character. Whenever an impactful pause was intended, his acting seemed half-baked until curtain call. That is where he performed some acrobatic Bhangra moves, and seemed comfortable with himself for the first time.
All in all Rang De Basanti Chola is a smart and engaging theatrical extravaganza which has more flashes of brilliance than shades of darkness. It brings forward a story that has been intentionally removed from the annals of our history in an enlightening, yet dramatic manner. After all a masterpiece like Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna if delivered well, will always give you goosebumps.
Verdict: Ajoka is one of the rare, long-surviving theatre troupes that have been improving on their class of performance in a contemporary fashion. Rang De Basanti Chola is more than a missed lesson in history, it is a theatrical extravaganza.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2014.
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