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On with the show

June 10, 2013

CINEMAS in urban areas, especially those frequented by the elites, seem to be doing quite well. Going by the way multiplex theatres are springing up, it is hard to imagine that a little over a decade ago, the death of the cinema-going audience was being projected and lamented.

Back then, many of the cinemas sitting on prime urban properties were (or were in danger of) being demolished or converted into commercial retail venues that yield higher profits. (Many of the country’s cinemas, by the way, were originally theatre halls, several of them converted during the ’80s. In several cases, a screen was simply erected at the foot of the stage, leaving the bare boards behind forlorn and forgotten — an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the purposes of this article.)

Why has interest in cinema gone up amongst Pakistan’s privileged?

First, plasma televisions — wall-sized though they may be — are nothing compared to an actual movie theatre. And, second, is the ‘if you build it, they will come’ line of thought. During the ’80s and even years into the ’90s, cinema audiences were primarily working class, there to watch the latest offering from the local industry.

So, it can be argued, that Pakistan’s privileged used to not go to the cinemas because they weren’t interested in the movies being put up and, further, there weren’t many upmarket cinemas in the posh parts of town. Now that they’ve started being established, and are screening films that are doing the rounds internationally, they’re doing well.

Many people also say that the revived interest in cinema has also to do with a revived interest in the arts in general. It would not be correct to say that theatre in Pakistan has been revived, because it never died in the first place. But certainly, for several reasons, Pakistani theatre too is these days and has been in recent years at the high-visibility mark, particularly as far as the elites are concerned.

The disparate factors include the effect on the industry of the establishment of the National Academy of the Performing Arts in Karachi several years ago, the greater involvement in theatre in recent years of educated and well-connected young persons in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, the efforts made by or the involvement of well-placed individuals whose names carry currency in the mind of an elite audience, and high-profile events such as Pakistani groups’ participation in international theatre festivals and performances on international stages.

A troupe from Lahore presented The Taming of the Shrew at London’s Globe Theatre during the World Shakespeare Festival organised in the run-up to the London Olympics last year, for instance. And meanwhile, groups including Ajoka Theatre, Tehrik-e-Niswan and the Napa Repertory Theatre participate frequently in festivals or otherwise perform in other countries, including India, thus raising theatre’s visibility. And, it must not be forgotten, the Rafi Peer Theatre Festival was, before its very unfortunate death, a landmark event.

Yet talk to people within the theatre industry, and a worrying dimension becomes visible: barring a couple of runaway successes over the years, theatre halls do not fill up like cinemas do (though even there, house-fulls are a much sought after outcome). Many of the theatre people I have talked to over the years say that their best chance of getting a full house is getting a corporate body — a bank or a multinational, for instance — to ‘buy a show’, ie buy, for a given night, say 200 tickets for a hall with a capacity for 200 people. The corporate body will distribute the tickets as invitations and, having received them, people will arrive in their dozens. Otherwise, the strength of the audience will remain much lower than potential.

Whether the play is in English or Urdu, comedy or drama or experimental, staged by an established group or a newbie, this seems to be the general trend at venues in well-heeled areas (a distinction that needs to be made since I am not including the so-called ‘commercial theatre’ in this discussion).

What does this mean, then? Are people more likely to go and see a play if they are presented with an invitation (as opposed to buying a ticket)? True, having an invitation sitting on your mantelpiece exerts a subliminal tug. But it seems hardly likely that people going to watch a play at the Karachi or Lahore arts’ councils would be reluctant to fork out a few hundred or even a thousand rupees, given how much a fast food meal costs these days.

It could be, though, that the difference lies in the nature of the product. Theatre offers a live experience, an intimacy and immediacy that in my view no other performative medium offers. A cinema showing a Hollywood or a Bollywood movie, though, offers the distilled product of industries that are obviously much, much larger and have access to far more resources and money than a Pakistani theatre group can ever hope for.

If one takes the unpalatable view that the well-to-do in Pakistan (to say nothing of everyone else), in their most secret of hearts, wish they were elsewhere then, sadly, at a theatre one remains alive to the fact that here is where one is; at the cinema, watching Iron Man 3, you can forget that for a space. Further, a theatre group here must do the best it can to advertise. An American or an Indian blockbuster has the world’s communities and television to create hype about it.

Most people reading would — I hope — say that Pakistan needs as much performing arts’ activities as possible. To all of them, then, I’d say: every time you buy a cinema ticket, buy a theatre ticket too.

The writer is a member of staff.