It was August in 2013 when a young actor called Gohar Rasheed took to the stage for a script penned by Anwar Maqsood and produced by an enterprising new group of thespians, Kopykats Productions.

The play was called Sawa Chauda Agust — the second edition of a series that had started in 2011 with Pawnay Chauda Agust — and Gohar was playing Gen Ziaul Haq. He acted so well that he got rave reviews. Ten-odd years later, having since then embarked on a successful TV acting career, people still remember his enactment of Gen Zia.

But some of Gohar’s memories from those long ago days are of rote-learning the script to the tee. “When you are enacting a script written by Anwar Maqsood, even your zair zabbar [Urdu punctuation] need to be perfect. Every sentence has a certain weight, connected so precisely with the next dialogue, that you cannot jumble it up,” recalls Gohar. “And if you say a sentence incorrectly, you would return backstage and Anwar sahib would be standing there and he would just give you this look that would make you feel so ashamed that you want to disappear!”

Another gifted young actor, Yasir Hussain, became part of the series when it debuted with Pawnay Chauda Agust. Kopykats Productions’ CEO and director of the hit plays that the team has to its credit, Dawar Mehmood, had great faith in Yasir’s abilities and took him on board merely a few days before the premiere.

Saarrhay Chauda Agust, which premieres August 14, will mark the third and final edition of the Kopykats Productions and Anwar Maqsood collaborative stage trilogy about the Subcontinent’s history of Partition. The young new cast is excited and also anxious. And director Dawar Mehmood insists this play will be the most powerful one yet

“I was reading the dialogues off a paper while the rest of the actors knew them by heart by then,” Yasir remembers. “When Anwar sahib came to one of the final rehearsals and saw me with the paper, he was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to perform. Dawar insisted that I would manage.

“Two days later, when the play premiered, I knew all my lines. Anwar sahib was so happy with me that he would keep adding new quips in my dialogues, based on current affairs. He knew that I would be able to learn them easily.

“Back then, I was enacting the character of a Sindhi,” Yasir continues. “The next time Pawnay Chauda Agust was staged, I played two characters. When the play was taken to Dubai, there weren’t enough funds to take a big cast and so I played five characters: a soldier, a Punjabi minister, a Sindhi minister, a Bengali and a poor Pathan man! I always knew my dialogues, which is why Anwar sahib would be happy with me.”

Maqsood is, of course, famous for being fiercely possessive about his scripts. Back when he wrote for TV, he would walk out of a project if the director or actors changed his scripts. “Meray alfaaz nahin badalnay chaheeay hain [the words I write shouldn’t be changed]”, he is known to say frequently.

In the realm of theatre, he has now worked extensively with Kopykats Productions and Dawar Mehmood has been the recipient of multiple threats from him. Should Maqsood come to see the play at the premiere and find that it has strayed from the original script, he would come on stage and declare that the script wasn’t his. In fact, he has done so already a few times!

Actress Hareem Farooq, who has also starred in a number of Maqsood-Kopyats collaborations, remembers the premiere night of the very first Pawnay Chauda Agust when AM — the nickname used for the writer by those close to him in the Kopykats team — came on stage and declared, “Iss script mein aadhay jumlay meray nahin hain [Half the sentences in this script aren’t mine].”

Hareem laughs. “We were shocked. I was there on stage and all I could do was nod because it was true. Even during rehearsals, a lot of us would get scolded if we said a sentence incorrectly. I was his favourite so he would take me aside and complain to me about the others. I’d be the mediator! AM understood that the script had to be staged according to the present times, but he was so passionate about the words he wrote that he felt hurt when someone altered them.”

This August, then, a motley crew of young actors is busy rote-learning a new script by Maqsood, much like Gohar and Yasir did some years ago. Light and sound is getting tested, a dance rehearsal is followed by a heartbreakingly serious scene. The witticisms come fast — it’s an Anwar Maqsood script after all — but the actors are corrected so that they say them out in a certain way.

The cast and crew is dressed in comfort clothes that can withstand the long hours of rehearsals: T-shirts and jeans, shorts, crumpled shalwar kameez. In a week, the actors will be slapping on the greasepaint and standing at attention, in costume, when the Chauda Agust omnibus will roll out its final presentation: Saarrhay Chauda Agust.

The play will be staged across the country but will be debuting on August 14 in Karachi, pitting two personalities who led the Indo-Pak Partition: Jinnah and Gandhi.

Veteran Sajid Hassan, who is advising the troupe in his capacity as Creative Director, observes that while there may be plenty of cross-border jibes in the script, the content will be enjoyable for audiences around the world.

“Once the drama has been staged in Pakistan, there are plans to take it onwards, perhaps to Dubai and even beyond,” he says. “I think Anwar Bhai is phenomenal. This is the sort of script that triggers debates but won’t hurt the sentiments of the people in the audience.”

Dawar Mehmood promises me, “This is the most powerful play in the Chauda Agust series to be staged.”

Why? The other parts were very impactful — and memorable — too.

In the realm of theatre, Anwar Maqsood has now worked extensively with Kopykats Productions and Dawar Mehmood has been the recipient of multiple threats from him. Should Maqsood come to see the play at the premiere and find that it has strayed from the original script, he would come on stage and declare that the script wasn’t his. In fact, he has done so already a few times!

“It just shows a clash of two of the most powerful men in the Subcontinent’s history,” he points out the obvious, “and with Anwar Maqsood writing the script, you know that you will laugh and you will cry, and there will be punchlines that you’ll remember even later.

“Also, the scale at which this play has been created is extensive. We have worked very hard on special effects and lighting, there is music and there are multiple set changes.”

The set changes are a basic requirement of the script in which Jinnah and Gandhi will be visiting Kashmir, Delhi, Lahore and London. A court case has been filed, questioning who is to blame for the formation of Pakistan, and Jinnah and Gandhi travel to different corners of the world in order to investigate.

Maqsood reveals small snippets of the script to me — the turmoil that the two leaders experience in Kashmir, Gandhi’s hilarious encounter with a prostitute while within the vicinity of the red light area in old Lahore, and how they experience the shooting of a Bollywood film while in Delhi. In Lahore, Gandhi encounters a plump woman who is sweating profusely. He offers her water and asks her name. “She says, ‘Shaheen’,” says Maqsood, “to which Gandhi remarks, ‘Oh, Iqbal ki chirrya [bird]’!” He laughs.

Considering that this is the very last edition of the Kopykats and Maqsood’s most successful collaborative series, did the team consider bringing back some of the actors on stage who were part of the initial Chauda Agust plays?

Actors Yasir Hussain, Zahid Ahmed, Gohar Rasheed and Hareem Farooq, among others, were part of the plays during the initial phases of their careers. Dawar explains, “It was considered but the veteran actors no longer have the kind of time that a play like this requires. We rehearse for at least two months and then the play gets staged in different cities for weeks. They can’t commit to a project that would require so much of their time. Also, theatre just doesn’t pay the way TV or cinema does. This wouldn’t make sense for them money-wise.

“You need to be really passionate to be able to rehearse for 10 hours on weekdays, 14 hours on weekends. The young actors who are part of our cast are willing to put in the effort and the time.”

Dawar is quite confident that his cast will deliver. “I have worked with new people in every play and they have performed so well,” he says. “So many of them have gone on to become major actors.”

Tanveer Gill, who has starred in KopyKats Productions plays before and will now be enacting Gandhi, says, “Sometimes, it takes three hours for a scene to be perfected. But then, the hard work pays off when you hear the audience laughing at your dialogue. That’s the beauty of a live performance — you immediately know if people are enjoying the play, you know when you have to do better.”

Did Tanveer feel intimidated when he was selected to play one of the main characters in Saarrhay Chauda Agust?

“Yes, but then Dawar and I worked on the character,” he says. “I lost about 12 kilos and watched Gandhi’s old video clips in order to understand his body language. I shaved my head — it’ll stay shaved for as long as this play will be staged!”

The cast and crew during rehearsals
The cast and crew during rehearsals

Similarly, Omar Kazi, who will be playing Jinnah, has been reading up on the founder’s personality. In a short phone interview, he impulsively began saying out his dialogues, in slightly accented British English. It’s evident that the cast is very excited.

Jahanzeb Ali Shah, playing a Kashmiri freedom fighter, talks about how his ‘emotions’ were tested for a role that is inevitably going to traverse some painful, hard-hitting scenes. “I’m stationed at the Line of Control, which is a very tense place,” he describes. “There are some comic lines but, generally, you get an idea of the desperation felt by the people living in that area and the violence they endure.”

‘Anwar sahib’ may visit the rehearsals sporadically but the director is helming the rehearsals with a gimlet eye. Sarfaraz Rizvi, enacting an Indian soldier, elaborates, “We are all sitting together, relaxed, and then Dawar comes in and we are alert. We’ve been groomed extensively, from the way our hands move to where we are supposed to stand, every move, every detail.”

So far, in Maqsood-Kopykats collaborations, the hard work has paid off with every play running to full houses. Sponsors — notoriously hesitant with their budgets — have come on board willingly and one imagines the profits to be considerable. And while Maqsood’s inimitable scripts may be the strongest selling points, never has it been critiqued that the actors did not do justice to their roles.

Actor Zahid Ahmed remembers how his stint as Jinnah in the earlier Chauda Agust plays got noticed to the extent that he never had to audition for a TV drama. “Sultana Siddiqui and Momina Duraid from the Hum TV Network came to see the play and, soon afterwards, I had a number of scripts to choose from. There’s no substitute to the exhilaration of being on stage and when you are enacting an Anwar Maqsood script, it becomes even more enjoyable.”

But is this the most powerful Chauda Agust instalment yet, as Dawar claims? The stage is set. There’s Sajid Hassan guiding the team on the overall production value, Abbas Ali Khan is on board as music composer, Shiraz Uppal has composed a special track written by Anwar Maqsood — the nature of the song is a surprise for now — and choreographer Raja Mughal is working with the dancers.

“They will of course say that it’s the biggest yet,” says Maqsood. “All I can say is that everyone has worked hard and I am hopeful.”

The hard work is absolutely necessary. More than a decade since the first Chauda Agust, Dawar and his team are now pros at staging scripts written by Anwar Maqsood. However, while the playwright’s immense popularity and fame may guarantee ticket sales, a slip in direction or a flaw in acting can result in immediate backlash. The audience, fiercely loyal to the writer and paying a bundle for the tickets, is not likely to accept mediocrity.

The pressure is on.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 7th, 2022

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