An adaptation of the epic love story Heer Ranjha opened in Lahore last week. The story popularised by Waris Shah was based on the script by Kaifi Azmi for the 1970s Bollywood production.
A collaboration between The Citizen Foundation (TCF) and NAPA, the play was directed by Zain Ahmed and starred prominent actors like Sanam Saeed, Arshad Mehmood and Samina Ahmed.
Despite the Mall being blocked because of the World XI playing at Gaddafi Stadium, the play opened to a nearly full hall. Curiously, a white sheet was spread across the entire stage. “Don’t worry if you think the actors are tripping on the sheet or their feet seem to be getting caught in the material,” the director warned the audience before the play. “This is all planned. I would urge you to focus on the play.”
The curtains opened as Qaido announced the start of the natak. The actors took their positions; the singers went to the very back of the stage, taking the mike. And so began the action that was reminiscent more of qissa khwani than a theatrical production.
In Ahmed’s version of the story, Heer and Ranjha meet at a friend’s wedding, gone is Ranjha’s flute and Heer’s attraction to his musical prowess. The story moves quickly — the two star crossed lovers are introduced by friends, proclaim their love for each other and begin meeting secretly. In the first few minutes of the play, Heer is singing to Ranjha “Milo na tum to dil ghabraye, milo to ankh churayein humein kia ho gaya hai.”
Sanam Saeed’s vocals came as a pleasant surprise. Seeing her as a background vocalist on Coke Studio lent some credibility to her singing talent, but her vocals in the play confirmed it.
The play mostly covered songs from the 1970s Bollywood production of Heer Ranjha. Another song that stood out was the rendition of ‘Do dil toote’ in the play. The song is divided between Ranjha, held captive and lamenting the loss of his beloved and Heer telling her father “Ab na khile gi sarson, ab na lage gi mehendi paon mein” For someone who has heard Lata Mangeshkar croon the song for a lifetime, the simply done version in the play brought the lyrics into focus.
There are certain things you take for granted, going to a theatrical production by NAPA. The acting was on point, the chemistry of the actors wonderful and the dialogue delivery impeccable. Saeed as Heer and Hassan Raza playing Ranjha were apt in their delivery of uber cheesy lines to each other.
The play was found wanting though in certain respects. Having grown up with Waris Shah’s story, it seemed the play missed some of the larger social issues. There was not enough time to explore the characters and their motivations. Perhaps, the characters lacked the emotional complexity found in Waris Shah’s version of the story.
Was Qaido simply conniving to bring Heer down or was it based on his frustration with a society that had oppressed him? Ranjha did not have a penny to his name. He had left his house fighting with his older brothers who thought he was useless and he was not going to get any share in his family property. In the play, Ranjha is made out to be from a happy home where all is well.
The most disappointing omission was taking the agency from Heer’s character. Her confrontation with Qazi did not have the same impact — asking God for guidance in the wedding scene, before the lights dimmed. Heer was not the steadfast rebel, sure of her love and her blessed union with Ranjha. Again in the end, as a battle in court was fought, female actors dressed up as courtiers for both sides spoke on behalf of Heer but Heer herself was largely silent.
The play was perhaps not meant to cater to those who were familiar with the intricacies of the original legend because it simply left those out. It was unclear at times what motivated the characters. The love affair between Heer and Ranjha was sudden. Heer suffering through different seasons for her beloved was missing. So, the audience did not really celebrate with the characters when Heer and Ranjha were to finally wed, neither was there a pull at heartstrings when they died.