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First person: The direction for Dawar

July 07, 2013

While there was never a dearth of old guards pursuing ace satirist Anwar Maqsood to hand over his televised plays for theatre, he chose young theatre director Dawar Mahmood … and lo and behold, it turned to gold(en jubilee).

The 24-year-old lad from Islamabad claims to have learnt the craft of theatre direction “through trial and error, and not textbooks” (see Box 1), and has proved his mettle by running Aangan Terrha (AT) to an almost packed Karachi Arts Council theatre for 100 nights (the last most run play in the history of theatre was Janam Janam ki Maili Chaddar in Lahore in the ’90s which ran 77 shows). Aangan Terrha broke all previous records and made theatre history.

“I had always dreamt of directing AT and running it for the longest period of time, and I finally achieved it,” Dawar says. With a bunch of unknown and new actors that also performed in last year’s Pawnay 14 August, the young Dawar Mahmood has won admiration but at the cost of some adversity.

Stats show that in Karachi alone, AT catered to some 52,000 people; a record that gives Dawar reason enough to celebrate. His rhetoric on having revived theatre in the country may be an overkill, but the fact remains that theatre has been a lucrative career option for him. Today, Dawar leads his profitable theatre company, KopyKats Productions, with a strength of 25 actors. “We never made so much money from theatre in the past so many years. I can sit back home for the next seven years without working and still maintain a decent lifestyle,” he says. The actors in his company are paid a decent monthly income (even if there’s no work) equalling that of a middle cadre executive in a media house or telecom company. To Dawar’s credit, this is a rare phenomenon.

In the aftermath, he claims many construction companies have approached him to plan a theatre in their ongoing housing projects. Multinational companies have been particularly interested in ‘buying nights’ (advance booking of all the seats for a single evening’s performance) for marketing and promotional purposes. These trends are crucially making theatre more mainstream.

While many believe that Lahore’s Shah Sharabeel deserves the credit for making theatre a lucrative promotional option for corporates, Dawar, who has worked in various theatre companies for seven years, stands in good stead to benefit from this new trend.

AT opened on Feb 8, with only five days open for public. The rest of the days were booked by the corporates. “It was a phenomenally lucrative month for the company,” says the director, “unlike March in which the law and order situation in the city worsened. I felt my dream was falling apart. And one couldn’t help it,” he says (see Box 2). But the response soon returned once law and order was under control.”

Dawar also claims to have expelled the much-hyped grievance that there are no local scripts or writers to develop theatre plays, which is why theatre does not thrive or render gate money. Both AT and Pawnay 14 August were social and political satires that clinched audiences and set a benchmark for success; whether a tragedy or a romance will bring crowds to the performance is a question to ask.

Indeed, with as popular a script writer as Anwar Maqsood, a younger and a more flexible director is bearable than an inflexible old guard. Anwar Maqsood’s script, or any good script for that matter, does half the job.

Dawar says he sincerely appreciates the affection that many stalwarts in theatre have showed him after AT’s success in Karachi. “When Rahat Kazmi came to see the play and praised it, I was on cloud nine. He also invited me to dinner,” he says excitedly.

Dawar now wants to sit back and let his team — Yasir Husain and Hareem Farooq — prove their mettle. “They are extremely talented actors. I also plan to run plays in the Nine Zero auditorium at a very nominal ticket.” Dawar has made Karachi his home because he believes that Karachi gave him the most respect. “People don’t call you kanjar or mirasi here. They give you respect for your work,” he says.

With the right marketing skills in hand, fairly good looks and a tender age, Dawar has his whole life ahead of him to further sharpen his directoral skills; but the devil has to be given its due for bringing respectability and money to this struggling art form.

“I have learned some very important lessons along the way; that one should learn with an open mind and an open heart,” he says, summing up his success story.

Shy child turns mimic

Shy and unconfident at school, Dawar remembers how he loved watching the televised version of AT with his mother. It was his favourite TV drama, and Saleem Nasir his favourite character. “I once auditioned in school for a role in the play, Anarkali. Nobody wanted to do the role as it required a man in the guise of a woman. I mustered my mimickry skills and having absorbed Saleem Nasir’s enactment of Akbar in AT, I was selected despite being the youngest in the crowd: a ninth grader against A-level students.”

Dawar belongs to a rather puritanical family “where children are studious and obedient and return home before Maghrib and usually stay indoors. My parents disapproved of my passion; I was even thrashed up by my mother to abandon it,” he says. He eventually had to leave home to pursue his love for theatre.

“Last year, Anwar Sahib invited my father to see the play,” says Dawar. “My father liked it and told me where I could improve. I had finally proved to him that theatre is respectable.”

A dream come true

While Dawar achieved his dream of running AT for 100 days, he narrates how he was suddenly faced with his worst nightmare when Karachi witnessed a severe law and order situation. The play had run some 50 performances when the sale of tickets dropped and people stopped coming in large numbers to watch it. He was almost on the verge of closing down his dream project.

With packed audiences reduced to almost half and bookings also having slowed down tremendously, any promotional effort made on its Facebook fan page was met with an onslaught of negative comments: “How can you promote your play when the city is going through such pain!”, etc.

Dawar’s dream suddenly seemed on the verge of bursting after a huge response in February. As his heart sank, he realised that he couldn’t take the situation for granted. “I learned in those few days how to resurrect a close-to-impossible situation and how to read the public mood: when and when not to rely on it. But then I found that a corporate had bought four nights and the play picked up momentum from then on.”

The fifth day was again tricky. Says he, “I woke up quite depressed and did not bother to check the situation with the ticket vendors. The actors were also very worried. We decided to see what the public response was for that evening and then close down the play, making it a Golden Jubilee performance. I wore my suit that night with a heavy heart and reached the auditorium. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the swarm of people buying tickets at the gate. I realised that the ticket vendors had sold-out performances for 10 days ahead. The response had returned, and it was then that I saw my dream finally realised.”