Hail the actor
Two major stage actors died in the course of a couple of weeks. Mastana and Babboo Baraal were the mainstay of popular theatre of the country. Both were comedians and had the fame to draw audiences if their name was displayed on the advertisements and hoardings of the plays to be staged in any of the theatre halls in the city.
Both mainly performed in Punjabi or the staple, a mixture of Urdu and Punjabi which had the audiences up in splits. Both had that ability to assess the mood of the audience and then act accordingly. This link with the audience was as much the result of their talent as of their experience. The names of the plays that they acted in became insignificant because in every role they as actors dominated rather than the role. In all plays, hundreds in numbers, their razor sharp wit paled everything else including the script, the director as well as their character.
Many people have strong objection to the theatre that is popular or commercially viable, calling it vulgar and obscene. Every now and then there are reports in the newspapers about the theatres being raided or the plays being banned. Occasionally there may be a report about the actor, director or the sponsor/ manager being arrested. But it is rare for the buck to stop with the play being banned for this theatre which prospered in Lahore and also in Karachi due to its appeal and popularity, then spread to other urban centres of the country especially in Punjab. Due to the authorities coming down with a heavy hand in the cities particularly in Lahore, the managers and players have looked around for venues in towns where the authorities do not breathe down their necks unnecessarily.
This theatre is bawdy and irreverent — there is no question about its nature but it is supposed to be so and it has never claimed to be otherwise. Actually this theatre is holding the mirror up to the nature of the values of the middle classes, more visible on the social level in their violation than observance.
In a society that is sanctimonious and hypocritical, this theatre is its antidote. If the society is power hungry, hankering after favours which are unearned, the theatre exposes it all. Rather than being vulgar, this theatre only responds to the situation as it exists in our society now. There has hardly been a society that is so demonstrative about its moral uprightness while violating it so shamelessly. The most precious and holiest are not even spared when it comes to doing exactly the opposite of stating. This popular theatre derives its raw material from hypocrisy. It is vulgar because the society is so stiff-lipped about vulgarity — it is obscene because it pretends that it is not endemic. It attacks the very fibre of society — the hypocritical hiding behind the sacred relationship, particularly the mother son relationship.
This theatre has the virtue that it did not or does not need any support or aid to go on. It was and has been financially viable and does not hold a begging bowl to balance the deficit in its account books. Theatre, hardly a self-sustaining activity has needed help from either the arts councils or private organisations. Of late, in the past couple of decades, non government organisations have been generously funding theatre activity usually promoting values these non government organisations are sympathetic to. But popular/commercial theatre has earned money and made those associated with theatre rich.
This theatre, for a variety of reasons, does not really have a proper script. It was usually the censorship policies, quite narrow that made the relationship, between the script approved and the performance, weak and tenuous. No matter what the script approved by the censors, the actors do what they want on stage — with their intuitive ability to know what the audiences want as they weave their acts and words round the burning topic of the day. In these plays, topicality is triggered by the firepower of ruthless satire.
All these actors whether Amanullah, Albela, Ali Ijaz, Umar Sharif, Irfan Khoosat, Anwar Ali, Suhail Ahmed, Shoqi, Iftikhar Thakur and even Khalid Abbas Dar, to name some, have had no formal training in acting or theatre but their keenness and passion made them apprentices in the theatre and they learnt on the job and learnt fast because they had the talent to be super quick on the cue.
There has been a tradition of the naqal which relies on two things– topicality and ready wit. This tradition goes back a long time, an institution especially in Punjab with the ready wit being the principal asset of these performers. The readier the wit about current issues and personalities the more they are in demand. This theatre which on the surface may have been adaptation of European plays, over a period of time, has been rendered so loose that the connection with the original script has been fifth removed. The actors have a field day sharpening their wit on a created situation. This theatre is not about a well made play but gradually forms its contours as it progresses in each performance. Principally an actor’s theatre, its main asset has been the actor — the rest pales into insignificance as mere appendages.
It has been a pure delight to witness and hear these actors unleashing the firepower of wit once they exchange repartees among themselves, rather than focus on the play. Such digressions have been hilarious, though distractive. This kind of theatre that does not rely on its script but creates it as it goes along is full of full of wit, repartees, adlibbing and double entendre.
Both Mastana and Babboo Baraal were the main players and helped in establishing theatre closely linked to a tradition in a proscenium setting. Both had razor sharp wit and both had the feel of the language which was the principal vehicle of their humour. There was something extremely idiomatic about their Punjabi and connected them instantly with the audiences, and not those who speak Punjabi through the route of Urdu. Both died and have left a void in the theatre, but both left while the house was full, brimming with laughter and clapping. This laughter has been the lifeline of this improvised theatre because the instant feedback has been grist to the mill of wit. This ability to improvise with ready wit was the chief bearer of their talent. Their jokes, repartees and wit will resound long after their exit from stage.
Source: The News