Sultana Daku is one of those plays which you will walk into expecting nothing but an hour-and-a-half of entertainment that may or may not work. Luckily for both the team as well as the audience, everything about the play works, even when you may spot a rough edge.
One of the big pulls here is Salman Shahid, who plays the title role of Sultana Daku. As with any big name, or a much senior name being part of any project, it is expected that a big share of the performance will belong to them. While Salman Shahid is very much part of every scene that plays out on stage, he does not overpower his costars Ottoman Ali Khan (Chuski), Zubair Khan (Kackraa) and Ahmed Ali as the journalist kidnapped to chronicle Sultana’s life.
The script written by Abdullah Farhatullah (Sabz, 2011) is clever and witty. While the humour may not be highbrow and the cultural references more pop than classic, the writing escapes being bawdy and unnecessary. Even the more risqué jokes are not jarringly lewd, as we have come to expect them to be in more commercial theatre. This is down to both Farhatullah’s direction, which is not entirely without fault, but has a definite shape to it — everything in the words and manner that is said is said so lightly, that it succeeds in being inoffensive. This may not sound like rocket science, but pulling off a performance that has the audience laughing at literally every dialogue comfortably is not easy.
What Farhatullah’s direction lacks at this point in his career is consistency. Yes, his actors are funny, and they have some very punchy writing to work with, but their performance often seems patchy. There are lines and scenes here and there which have awkward segues into the next dialogue or situation, and that certainly brings down the overall quality of the production a notch. However it still possibly what you’re looking for to cap a stressful day, and there should always be room for more theatre in our lives.
Farhatullah’s approach to direction still may not have worked had he not a solid set of actors to work with. The two female characters, Eighteen and Erum Khan, may be annoying but their roles probably required them to be just that. That said, Rida Shahzad’s Eighteen is actually quite fun to watch.
The henchman, Chuski and Kackraa, it often seems are not acting at all but being themselves. Ottoman Ali Khan’s slapstick-y naiveté appears well-practiced, which could become his creative Kryptonite if he brings it to every character, but watching it for the first time simply meant that Chuski is a character many will develop a soft spot for. Zubair Khan plays off his costars well but is more, though only very mildly, stilted than Ottoman Ali Khan. Together though, the three onstage dacoits make an enjoyable gang to watch.
If your top reason for watching Sultana Daku is catching a lot of Salman Shahid live, you may walk out a bit disappointed. Salman Shahid is very much part of the narrative, but he is also not overshadowing the narrative in the play, or the production in general. If a huge name is attached to any production, the team may become complacent and kind of just coast on the fact that they have immense star power in their cast or crew. Similarly, the audience might find themselves placated by the fact that they handed over a chunk of cash to watch so-and-so’s play, no matter how mediocre a production it is.
It is to Salman Shahid’s credit that he is the laid-back but dramatic daku, and a star, without claiming too much of the stage or its time. What this means is, don’t be disappointed if Salman Shahid seems to take a backseat to Kackraa and Chuski’s antics — it is because he is as good an actor as he is that his is a subtle presence.
What we have at the end of it all is a well-rounded work of theatre that is quite hilarious, with certain poignant moments that do not weigh it down at all. And it is not overly stretched out to fill a certain number of minutes either. As the audience, we really couldn’t ask for more.
Sultana Daku runs at the FTC Auditorium in Karachi till September 8.