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An ideological itch

December 31, 2011

Ajoka's 'Amrika Chalo' is a laugh riot all the way.

Ajoka Theatre staged Amrika Chalo (Destination USA) at the Alhamra Cultural Complex in Lahore recently. The remarkable thing about Ajoka plays is that there’s almost always something controversial about the content so the average Pakistani audience always goes home with ample food for thought.

Amrika Chalo was no different. It was a no-holds-barred, in-your-face adult satire that spared neither Americans nor Pakistanis. At the beginning, Shahid Nadeem, the writer and director of the play, said in his typically mild-mannered manner, “Ajoka always makes it a point to present socially relevant plays which are also entertaining. Likewise, Amrika Chalo is also a chance for you to laugh at yourself, the rulers and the US imperialism. There is no agenda and no analysis in this play and we just want to show a mirror to the audience.

Somehow the issue of US dominance keeps surfacing into our daily lives in the form of the Memo, Abbottabad, Mehmand or Haqqani; whether the one in the tribal areas or the one who came from Washington. It’s time we thought to ourselves whether we really are so naïve as to be bound by this slavish relationship against our will? Or is it our own hypocrisy that makes the US so powerful in our lives. I advise you to relax and just enjoy the play with an open mind.”

The play was set against a huge backdrop of images in a collage that one normally associates with Uncle Sam: there was a splash of Batman, Spider-man, Angelina Jolie as the Tomb Raider, Halle Berry as Cat Woman, Statue of Liberty, etc. The play started with a dance performance of the title song, Chalo Chalo Amrika, reflecting the fetish for the American Dream.

The scene then shifts to a bunch of candidates lined up at the US embassy for a visa. There is Gul Khan and his wife Haya Bibi who are the guards at one end outside the main security gate. And then there is Raymond who takes over the candidates through the rest of the formalities inside the embassy. Raymond (played brilliantly by Furqan Majeed) is a CIA agent and gay at that. Dressed as a US marine and flashing red lipstick, earrings and a golden mane, he grills one candidate after another much to their chagrin. His accented drawl, ‘ladies, gentlemen and other sexes’ addressed to the candidates had people laughing hard.

The candidates include Nasreen, a student who wants to study in the US; Abdul Aleem and Rafaqat Khatoon who are an elderly couple wishing to visit their son; Basa, a dark-skinned Pakistani carrying several passports and who is willing to visit Uncle Sam even if it means hiring an illegal agent; Bali and Dali, a puppeteer and puppet duo (played very skillfully by Suhail Tariq); Haneef, a businessman from Lahore who wishes to harness money-making opportunities in the US; the siasi leader who wants to make the pilgrimage to his political masters in Washington, and finally Molvi Tameezuddin who not only wants to convert Pastor Terry Jones but also to start his own business of selling square-shaped Muslim samosas in the land of the infidels and the triangular samosa. The satire hit at the Memo scandal, the dharna mentality, Veena Malik’s photo shoot and the US partiality to gay rights in the face of its human rights abuse elsewhere.

I especially found the mention of square-shaped samosas funny since I had actually once read of the Al-Shabab in Somalia which banned the snack for similar reasons, apart from enforcing a host of other equally nonsensical orthodox laws. The play had some really funny jibes hitting the US like the mere mention of the word ‘China’ would send Raymond and the other US staff in an emergency combative mode.

The candidates would sometimes be asked to queue up according to their heights, or according to the size of their beards, etc. Conversely, the Pakistani obsession for clearing the US formalities was also hit upon. Molvi Tameezuddin, for instance, stands out at dancing the fastest to the tune of Macarena in one of the rounds!

The play was interspersed with dance and song with dance choreography by Wahab Shah and his group. He also performed to Nusrat Fateh Ali’s Jaane kub hoongay kum sung by Ajoka singers. A particular ditty, God bless America, bhaar mein gaye baaqi duniya, was particularly amusing.

The candidates are subjected to a round of humiliating frisking by Raymond which each candidate handles as per his or her tenacity.

There is a round of interviews and a set of idiotic competitions announced such as arm wrestling and eye blinking which filter the final set of visa approvals.

Finally, the scene is shown to be taken hostage by Arabic-speaking terrorists who bring it to a climax. The US staff and the candidates negotiate for their lives with the terrorists. The audience were in stitches when Raymond tells the terrorists, “I can give diyat and qisas as per your will”, or “Don’t take my life but you can take anything else.”

The play ended with a projector montage of images from popular US culture with the title song performance. My only contention was that the Ajoka team should have clearly marked the invites and posters with an ‘Adults Only’ rating. The ‘Children Under 8 Not Allowed’ was insufficient. The jokes in the play and the images shown on the screen were not suitable for younger or conservative sensibilities, and that should have been taken into consideration as it would have saved many unsuspecting families from embarrassment.