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Playing to the gallery

June 30, 2013

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THE protagonist has become rich running a network of beggars. He now wants his sons, both blind, to marry into a certain wealthy family. Complications ensue, graphic curses abound and the audience splits its sides over a lowly clerk who has wandered onto the premises of an upper-class party.

This description is the closest to the so-called ‘commercial theatre’ that the average urban reader of an English newspaper is likely to get. The humour is too ripe for these sections to swallow, the lighting poor, the set tawdry and the acting mere hamming. We are happy to allow the other half its earthy sensibilities, but these should be underscored by some sort of message, surely — some form of clever, gender-sensitive understanding of social and political ills that we in turn can process and pigeonhole.

In the meanwhile, the said other half has not only our incredulity to deal with — which it could not particularly care less about — it has a well-established, well-armed blue-rinse brigade that has cudgelled its way to a theatre-less wasteland.

‘Commercial theatre’, which since the 1980s has become the handy term to mark the distinction with originally the activist ‘parallel’ and anti-Zia theatre, and now between an audience class differential, has proved it has a tough hide. While the genre is well-established in Karachi, producing heavyweights such as Umer Sharif and Liaquat Soldier, Lahore is the city that it truly now owns.

Every few weeks or so, parties of businessmen will close shop in Lahore’s Azam Cloth Market, for instance, buy tickets priced at up to Rs3,000, and make a lads’ night of it at the Tamaseel or the Naz theatres. The cast will play to a full house, exchanging red-blooded badinage with its (almost exclusively male) audience: after a long week of 11-hour days, every sense has been well and truly entertained.

Commercial theatre in Pakistan has an undoubtedly Punjabi grain. But as opposed to the socially-conscious, parallel theatre of established Punjab-based companies such as Ajoka and Lok Rehas, the aim of commercial theatre is to give its public humorous entertainment with the judicious addition of dance. The genre as we know it took root in Lahore with producers and writers such as Amanullah, Naheed Khanum and Baboo Baral producing spirited comic dialogues in productions such as Shartiya Mithay that thrived on an actor’s ability to perform off the cuff.

Umer Sharif became a household name, particularly after his wildly popular comedy, Bakra Qiston Pay, which dispensed with attempts at cultured dialogue and delivered earthy humour instead. Afzaal Ahmed’s play, Janam Janam ki Maili Chaddar soon integrated dances with the plot.

As audiences flocked to the Alhamra, then Lahore’s main theatre, cinema owners saw profits in converting their halls to playhouses. The plays themselves soon began attracting audiences from outside Lahore: from Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Multan, and Sahiwal. Today, a stage play runs for just over two weeks and is likely to be sold out on weekends and public holidays. And yet, commercial theatre finds itself officially in decline — even though it does not lack for audiences and does not depend on commercial sponsors. What it lacks, overwhelmingly, is a direction and state support.

Theatre director and scriptwriter Vasay Chaudhry, who also writes and acts for film and television, points out that the state has restricted its support (such as it is) to “elite” theatre — the sanitised and socially acceptable theatre that caters primarily to the English-speaking upper-middle-class. A telling difference though, says Chaudhry, is that ‘elite’ theatre depends on commercial sponsors while a large part of its audience relies on free passes — and certainly not because they could not otherwise afford to attend. The production is valued in more highbrow terms and the language divide has never been greater. Yet, this class of theatregoers is no different from its commercial counterpart in wanting to be entertained — productions such as Bombay Dreams contain no subliminal references to loving thy neighbour.

The Punjab Arts Council is responsible for vetting all commercial theatre scripts, while district coordination officers (DCOs) monitor performances for “obscenity” — which can range from lower-than-regulation necklines to actors who stray from the preapproved script. But Chaudhry relates how commercial theatre has skirted the charge of vulgarity, quite simply, by compartmentalising the cast’s performance and the intermittent dances. DCOs and producers have reached a gentleman’s agreement: when the dance is not officially deemed part of the play, the play is off the hook.

The debate on vulgarity — and even art — aside, there is no denying that commercial theatre has proved its financial viability. Chaudhry describes how the genre’s icons, such as Iftikhar Thakur, have expanded their performances beyond Pakistan to every city in North America, Europe and Australia that has a Punjabi-speaking population, Pakistani and Indian alike. Thakur performs 10 to 11 shows spanning the same number of cities in the space of a week, playing invariably to a crammed theatre and relying on few props, if any; his audience will still be rolling in the aisles.

The state’s idea of exporting culture, says Chaudhry, is meanwhile restricted to sending a troupe of models, possibly a singer or two, to exhibit one small facet of Pakistan that is accessible to a minute class of people.

Meanwhile, the Naz, the Tamaseel, and the Alfalah play to standing-room-only halls. To re-quip Beerbohm, the audience “may not know very much about art”, but it clearly knows what it likes.