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Is theatre suffering because of cinema?

With so many theatre actors migrating to electronic screens – be they television or cinema - one wonders how theatre is affected, if at all. The experts weigh in…

Is theatre suffering because of cinema?
Actor Yasir Hussain, who made his film debut with Wajaht Rauf’s Karachi Se Lahore, is of the view that cinema is not effective in itself to have an impact on theatre.

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 2016 didn’t turn out to be a great year for cinema as most of the films released last year failed to leave a mark and several went unnoticed. Some films were criticized for lacking a strong script while others just didn’t have cinematic appeal. If there was anything worth applause, it was the performances of some actors who helped save their films from turning into complete disasters – Yasir Hussain in Lahore Se Aagey, Adeel Hussain in Dobara Phir Se and Feroze Khan and Sajal Aly in Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hay.

While it is great for films to have such talented actors whom cinema can count on in the coming years, it has left an impact on theatre. As Pakistani cinema picks up pace, many theatre artists have made their debut into films, creating a vacuum on the proscenium arch. According to NAPA’s Artistic Director Zain Ahmed, theatre has suffered in the last couple of years because of cinema.

“2016 was a patchy year for theatre,” he told Instep. “While there were some new collaborations that helped promote art and culture, there were a few lows as well that affected the growth of theatre. A lot of creative talent and money for theatre moved to films. It was a better year for cinema than for theatre.”

While Ahmed is of the view that theatre suffered because of films in terms of both talent and money, Dawar Mehmood of Kopykats Productions (whose last play Bananistan was a critical as well as commercial success) believes that cinema has no impact on theatre as far as business is concerned.

“I don’t think films have affected theatre at all,” Mehmood stated. “Films aren’t getting as much sponsorship as they need. As a viewer one cannot appreciate the loud, in-your-face product placement that we see in our films – be it ‘Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa’ or the placement of Cornetto in Karachi Se Lahore.”

However he is of the view that an actor would always prefer doing a film over theatre. He said, “Film is a bigger medium and it’s a big deal for actors to get a film. If a play runs for 90 days, 50,000 people watch it but if a film is sold even for a day, 100,000 people watch it. Even if they are being paid less or the story is weak, they’d choose films over theatre.”

Legendary scriptwriter Anwar Maqsood, who is writing two films this year, also echoed similar sentiments. “Films and television have mass appeal,” he stated. “Around 8-10 actors who started off with theatre (Yasir Hussain, Hareem Farooq, Sohai Ali Abro, Zahid Ahmed, Sanam Saeed) have moved to either TV or films. Now they don’t have the time to do theatre. Yasir [Hussain] did four of my plays and he acted so well but now he is writing and acting for films.”

It’s a common belief that cinema brings with it many advantages for actors (be it money or fame) that they don’t enjoy in theatre. Perhaps this is the reason that most of the artists who began their acting careers with theatre are now working in films – Hareem Farooq (Dobara Phir Se), Yasir Hussain (Lahore Se Aagey), Osman Khalid Butt (Balu Mahi) – and hardly any of them plan to return to the stage.

One such actor (or perhaps the only actor) who switched from theatre to films, without making his television debut, is Yasir Hussain. Recently seen in Wajahat Rauf’s Lahore Se Aagey, Hussain is of the view that it isn’t cinema that theatre artists are turning to; it’s television to which most of them switched to before making their debut into films.

“TV has always been an important medium for artists,” he asserted. “Most of the actors who have come out of theatre have gone to television, except me. Even NAPA graduates who have studied theatre are turning to television.”

As far as the impact of cinema on theatre is concerned, Hussain maintained, “Film isn’t effective in Pakistan at present. In fact, our cinemas were running only because of Indian films, something we witnessed in the last couple of months.”

This makes one question if cinema has the power to influence any other medium when it’s struggling itself?

“At this point I don’t think Pakistani cinema is really going places,” theatre veteran Sheema Kermani, opined. “And after this ban on Indian films we’ve made such a loss. I think it was such a stupid decision to stop screening Bollywood films because that’s actually what led people to start going back to cinema. All these years when cinema houses were not there, theatre became an alternative form of entertainment but I think it will continue even now. I think both things can continue together, both have an audience.”

In light of the opinion of industry’s bigwigs, one can conclude that out of film, TV and theatre, television is (and has always been) the most stable medium in Pakistan that not only pays artists well but also has a mass appeal. Theatre and cinema on the other hand have their highs and lows.

Nida Butt is of the view that “those who love theatre and performing live will always come back to theatre”.

“Those who are serious about theatre and love it make the financial sacrifice when they can, in order to feed their soul,” she maintained. “Having a diversified revenue stream actually enables actors to do the occasional theatre project and keep cinema as the medium that pays bills. Several notable actors have consistently worked in Made for Stage Productions. They are two completely different mediums of art. The more art the better it is. A growing cinema industry will inspire and give rise to the next generation of actors, directors and producers. We need that right now. This will benefit the theatre industry too, as more youngsters will consider Performing Arts as a career option. The two industries are not opposed but rather can develop simultaneously, each feeding the other. Some of the best onscreen talent that we witness globally and locally has emerged from the theater industry,” Butt concluded optimistically.

Buraq Shabbir

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