Lately, everyone in the entertainment industry seems to be worrying about the lack of original and engaging stories on our screens. It’s a valid concern; television is filled with sappy, weepy women who are constantly being bullied by the men in their life while our cinema screens seem to be churning out one Bollywood remake after the other, with the exception of a Moor or a Manto that seems to come by once or twice a year.
Sadly, the content is being driven by the economics. There’s an assumption that the so called ratings meter is a reliable system, which is why TV channels want to make content that will get them those said ratings. Film distributors think that Pakistanis love Bollywood thus they should also make similar content in order to generate the same kind of business that Bollywood films do.
This is why the theatre is still a safe space. Theatre’s disadvantage is its biggest advantage: nobody expects to make any money doing theatre so the people who are currently working and producing plays are simply doing it for the love of it. This is why the art being produced is pure and real.
When one thinks of theatre in Pakistan, the first place that comes to mind is the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA,) an organization that continues to deflect any threats and obstacles that come its way. Currently, NAPA is involved with providing Karachi some much needed stories that are sadly missing from other story telling art forms.
The NAPA International Theatre and Music Festival is an annual festival that is putting together plays for 18 consecutive days this year. “The first priority of conducting the theatre festival is to offer our students different ways of telling a story,” shared Zain Ahmed, artistic director at NAPA. “The other thing is that we are trying to bring as many diverse performances to Pakistan as possible. We’re trying to get performers to work with us, to share their stories with us so that we may broaden our horizons. It is vital that we don’t get stuck in a corner. We must be global citizens.”
The festival has brought performers from various countries, such as Nepal, Germany, Italy, USA, England and even Palestine. “This is the first time a Palestinian group has ever performed in Pakistan,” explained Ahmed. One wonders how difficult it must have been getting a Palestinian group to Pakistan. “It was very complicated getting them here since Pakistan has no embassy in Palestine. We had some issues in getting the visas. But we are very grateful to the embassy in Jordon, in Amman. They were very kind. Yes, it is complicated but it’s our job. We have to make it happen.”
The play in question is called Return to Palestine, directed by Micaela Miranda. It revolved around the life of a Palestinian-American boy who returns to Palestine in order to learn more about his family and identity. The play was put together with the help of students from The Freedom Theatre Acting School, who collected research from different parts of Palestine, such as Jenin, Farsayel, Dheisha Camp, Mufaqara and Gaza, to create the story. It was an absolutely tragic, yet hilarious performance but the sheer brilliance of the play lies in the way it was told. The entire performance took place on a small piece of cloth placed in the center of the stage. “It’s small, just like Palestine,” announced Nabeel Alraee, one of the performers in Return to Palestine.
Instep spoke to Alraee about his experience of performing in Pakistan. “I wanted to meet people in Pakistan and know more about their stories other than what news tells us. We deserve to meet each other. This is the normal way of interacting with other people: talking to them face to face and getting to know them. The world is putting us in categories and dividing us over race, colour and religion. This experience has made me realize that Pakistanis have such warm attitudes towards Palestine.”
NAPA’s stage is allowing all sorts of stories to come forward. For instance, a student written play Ikhtiar touches upon two topics that will never be discussed on TV or in films: sectarian violence and abortion. Religion is considered a very sensitive subject in the country, which is why many filmmakers refrain from talking about it. Equally sensitive is any discussion about sex, which is why it’s refreshing to see two very crucial topics being discussed under the same breath.
Written by Meesam Naqvi, Ikhtiar was about a young Shia couple who had been through a miscarriage and was trying to recover from it. The husband, played by Kashif Hussain, wanted to have a child soon as he feared for the survival of his community while the wife wanted the right to choose when to have the child. Also present in the background is sectarian violence and how it influences the couple.
This play was also directed by Zain Ahmed. “Ikhtiar is part of the playwriting project that we conducted here at NAPA. We mentored some young people who wrote plays. Of those we have selected five plays to be performed at the festival and one of them is Ikhtiar. It’s a beautifully written script. It’s a very real, modern urban story. It’s something a lot of young couples go through,” shared Ahmed.
So far, the plays at the festival have seen full attendance, even over attendance in some cases. For Sarmad Khoosat and Sania Saeed’s Absolut Manto, the auditorium that can only seat 220 people saw 300 people cramped into the space, while others were fighting for tickets outside. “It is not humanly possible to fit more people inside anymore!” exclaimed veteran actor Arshad Mehmood, who also happens to be the Director of Programmes and Administration at NAPA. Mehmood had to ask the ticket counter to stop selling more tickets as there was no more space left inside.
On a concluding note, Ahmed shared that he does not worry for the future of theatre in Pakistan. “Theatre has been threatened for 3000 years; it persists. It refuses to die. It does not die because the live interaction between the audience and the performer is present in no other art form. The sharing of stories in a single space is vital. And that is why theatre survives. Yes it’s under threat but this is all we know how to do and will keep doing till our last breath.”