The curtain goes down on writers
By: Peerzada Salman
KARACHI: A few months back, while responding to a question put to him by a journalist during a press briefing on one of National Academy of Performing Arts’ drama productions, the creative head of the academy, Rahat Kazmi, said he’d give Rs100,000 to anyone who walked up to him with an original theatre script.
This sounded quite strange and disappointing at the same time. Strange: a country which has produced short story writers, novelists and poets of repute doesn’t have a playwright. Disappointing: well, more or less for the same reason.
If one takes the claim seriously, the situation becomes baffling when one considers that there was a time when writers writing plays for television in the ’70s and Â’80s were almost just as famous and celebrated as the actors working for them – Fatima Surayya Bajia, Ashfaq Ahmed, Hasina Moin, Bano Qudsia and Enver Sajjad to name a few. How is it possible that a nation which boasts such a stellar group of (TV) writers doesn’t have a veritable pool of playwrights? What about the likes of Agha Hashr Kashmiri and Imtiaz Ali Taj? Is it because they were not born in an independent Pakistan that they wrote for stage?
For a lot of people it is cause for concern that genuine talent often goes unnoticed when those who matter don’t pay as much attention to it as it warrants. After all, there have been people in the not-so-distant past like Khwaja Moinuddin and Rafi Pirzada whose forte was entertaining theatre-goers through their pen(s) — and they did a job right out of the top drawer.
Actor Talat Husain says, “I don’t think we have a dearth of playwrights. Even today we have at least a couple of scripts by Dr Enver Sajjad lying with us. The thing is unless you commission someone to write for you, only then will s/he be able to do so.
Gone are the days when creative individuals penned scripts for a paltry sum. If you expect that you dole out a hefty amount to someone and you’ll get an Arthur Miller in return in the blink of an eye, you’re terribly mistaken. How many Arthur Millers are there in this world? I sincerely believe that you can have a fairly decent script in this day and age. However, it’s no mean feat to come up with an original play. If India has 10 or more playwrights it is because they have such an activity going on for them for quite some time.”
All these arguments against what the introduction to this piece suggests sound weighty. However, the fact remains that there hasn’t been many noteworthy stage dramas written by Pakistani writers, let’s say, in the last couple of decades which can be compared or bracketed with their international counterparts. Ever since the National Academy of Performing Arts started doing productions, it either presented adaptations into Urdu from foreign language pieces or Urdu plays written by non-Pakistanis – the academy’s recent hit, Begum Jaan, written by Javed Siddiqui who is an Indian screenplay and dialogue writer, being a case in point.
Actress and known theatre person Sania Saeed says, “We have scripts from writers like Kamal Ahmed Rizvi and Enver Sajjad, apart from the old classics. The problem is that people often talk in absolute terms. You can’t compare yourself to cultures that have been having theatre for ages without considering your own socioeconomic conditions and continuity of work. We may not be producing great scripts, but we are writing them. No one can write Miratul Uroos just like that. It’s an evolutionary process. There are a lot of factors that you have to look at here. Usually we cater to urban middle-class audience. There was a very short span of time in which plays rooted in our own soil were written. Even today some such theatre is happening in Lahore, in Sindh and in the Saraeki belt. The issue is those who are studying theatre don’t have enough exposure to the genre.
“It’s a fallacy that Katha (her theatre group) only does foreign scripts. The fact is that every time I say I’m doing Chekhov, you will come to see the play. Katha started off with a workshop on working children. We also did Preim Kahani, a love story between a Shia and Sunni couple. They were plays written by Shahid Shafat. His scripts are still being used. The important thing is that theatre activities must keep happening.
“As for the quality of scripting goes, it’s again an evolutionary thing. Then the society that we live in has many complexities. Our culture is not yet properly defined; the urban/rural divide is there as well. Every piece should be judged on an individual basis,” says Ms Saeed.
All these arguments suggest the situation is not bleak. However, there’s still a long way to go to prove that.