America: Land of my dreams and home of the Whopper

Balky (left) and Larry (right) are the best of  friends.
Balky (left) and Larry (right) are the best of friends.

Perfect Strangers was an American sitcom that ran for eight years straight, until 1993, that showcased the lives of two best friends: Larry Appleton, a good old boy from the American Midwest  and Balky Bartokomous, his “related by rumour” cousin from an imaginary island kingdom called Mypos, in Midwestern Europe. The sitcom is a wildly hilarious comedy, playing out in a series of unrelated thirty-minute episodes. (Which is perfect for a quick break in-between study sessions!) Balki is a proud immigrant, an ex-shepherd who has moved to America to live out the American dream, and make a life for himself. Throughout the eight seasons, we are taken on a seemingly endless joy ride as Balki interprets various life situations with his own recollections of American pop culture, one of which I have showcased in the title of this blog.

While most of Balky’s comedy comes from his persistently innocent childish demeanor, and his sense of wonder and joy at all things American, Larry is no wise old man. His range of comedy comes from his obstinate insistence that “that’s not how we do things here in America” - his over-the-top surety of direction, and his scheming to get rich fast.

Supporting characters include the boys’ female friends (that later evolve from crushes to girlfriends, and then wives – major win for monogamy!), their boss at the Ritz Discount Store, Donald “Twinkie” Twinkacetti, their friends at the Chicago Chronicle,  where they later go on to work, and various neighbors that make periodic entrances to the main story line.

The series provides a window for us to see what American society was like in the late eighties and early nineties. There is clear mockery of “the immigrant” and a sense of superiority in knowing how “it’s done, here in the US of A.” There is no talk of same-sex relationships (even heterosexual relationships are displayed at a side-angle, so that there are virtually no kissing scenes in the first few seasons), infidelity in marriages, the internet, or the quick-irritation that is so common today. It is the last bit that really hit home with me. Watching Larry and Balki continuously flounder through various aspects of their lives, stumbling through their relationship, mistakes and successes included – I was amazed at how they never cursed, or schemed, or backstabbed – how, no matter what, they always forgave each other. Maybe the show painted an idealistic picture, but if that is the case, then I wish that was reality. There is none of the angry violence depicted in the sitcoms of today. There is only laughter and lessons, and the outstanding ability of those two men to find joy in life.

Makes you think a little about how we are today, doesn’t it? Have things such as sex, money, and violence come to play such a dominant role in our reality that prime-time television barely has any “homely”, “good ol’” shows now?

Bronson Pinchot, the actor who played Balki, astounded me with his ability to be such a versatile character. The accents, the attitudes, the blatant childish emotion  - I thought it was truly fantastic. Without his superb acting skills, the show would not have been even half an entertaining.

 

Pawnay 14 August

Quaid-e-Azam with Field Marshal Auchinleck and Admiral Jefford

Islamabad‘s got it’s fair share of theatre-goers – you know, the sophisticated aunties, and the foreign-influenced teens, and the old couples that have Ph.D’s in drawing-room politics. Though I’ve never been a regular member of this group, I do enjoy the occasional play at the Pakistan National Council of Arts. There’s something serene and yet very impressive about the old brick building, and the dimly lit hall. When I heard buzz about the latest play, I swatted it away as one would a pleasant and yet, insignificant social event that everyone was hoo-ing and haa-ing about. I had university work to do, a million extra curriculars demanding my attentions, and midterms just around the corner. Just the latest trend to hit the Facebook share-ing and like-ing addicts. Little did I know that I was very, very wrong. Luckily, my mother and father had heard about the play, and actually taken the time to find out what it was about, and bought us tickets to attend. In retrospect, I am extremely grateful that they did.

The play was called Pawnay 14 August, a masterpiece put together by Anwar Maqsood, and directed and produced by Dawar Mehmood and Raihan Merchant respectively. I managed to catch the second last viewing in Islamabad and considered myself extremely lucky as I saw several people having to turn back because there were no empty seats left in the theater.

The play opens in the lobby of an airport in Karachi, with Quaid-e-AzamAllama Iqbal and Maulana Shaukat Ali standing before us. Three of the most important people in Pakistan’s history – brought to life by three very courageous actors. I applaud not only their bravery in filling such large historical boots, but in doing their jobs exceptionally well. A special kudos to the costume design and makeup teams, for these three fellows looked genuinely aged and realistic.

A one-act play, Pawnay 14 August takes us through a day in the lives of these three giants of history as they are stuck in an airport lobby, and meet numerous travelers as they pass through, catching their flights. Among their guests: Veena Malik, a very stylish Imran Khan supporter, and PML (N) man, a Sindhi wazir, etc. They have spent four days in Karachi, and so far, no one has recognized them. To read more about the basic outline of the play, check out this article by The Express Tribune.

What I want to talk about is the trajectory of emotions that the play forced the audience through. As the various travelers pass through the airport lobby, they inadvertently mock not only Jinnah and Iqbal, but the very notion of Pakistan as a prosperous, stable country. Veena Malik justifies her nude photos by quoting one of Iqbal’s greatest poems, the Sindhi wazir is grateful to have been granted his lofty position “by the grace of Asif” – a play on the traditional phrase, “by the grace of God”, and the society woman-turned-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf supporter can’t stop going on about “the tsunami” and all her “loves” and “darlings”. A Junoon song takes a famous Allama Iqbal quote and turns it into a pop melody, much to the dismay of our national poet.

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqder se pehle

Khuda bande se ye poche bata teri raza kia hai”

Iconic words about the selflessness and egoism of man that philosophers have studied since Iqbal penned them – turned into a fun jingle. As the song plays through the airport lobby, we see the poet upset and distraught, saying that not only have his words been wrongly used, but also misinterpreted. This is one of the main themes of the play, which involved various plays on Iqbal’s poetry, showing how each ignoble character uses iconic verses to justify his or her behavior in the name of all that is Pakistan.

Systematically, Anwar Maqsood, through his brilliant wit and serious undertones shows us what it means to be a Pakistani in 2012 – through the eyes of those who envisioned it in 1947. In the words of my friend Zaina Batool: It was a play about cathartic humor at a very hopeless situation, and the audience was certainly not sparing in their appreciation of the acid wit and satire. I laughed every few minutes during the play, even though some of the references were dated and hard for me to follow.

However, this wasn’t just a comedy play. It was a glimpse of the disappointment Pakistan’s founding fathers would feel if they knew what it had become, and it was heart-wrenching. After an intense and emotionally charged final scene – in which a young girl named Fatima lifts our hopes up by quoting Jinnah’s words of religious equality and then dashes them to pieces with a high-pitched girlish squeal screaming the name Christopher Lee – the play ended on a note of hope. It was empty hope. It was Anwar Maqsood’s consolation prize to us: false hope in the absence of real hope. The prospect of the youth effecting change in our country was overridden by thoughts of how past generations have failed this country.

It was a devastating blow to our hearts. The Quaid’s emotion was tangible. I could feel the love and hope in his voice as he beheld young Fatima in front of him, asking for his autograph, quoting his famous speech. My heart soared for that moment, a smile lit up my face. I was transported into an idyllic state of delusion, because two seconds later, Fatima turned into a squealing teenage girl, happy that she had just met a famous actor. My heart broke, and I felt tears flowing freely down my cheeks. She had not recognized Jinnah, the man I hold in great esteem, the man who made this country, but a mere actor – a man who played his part in a movie some years go – a lesser being, by far.

The most memorable part of the play was Quaid’s monologue at the end – his face contorted with pain after realizing his country was a failed state, his voice breaking as he repeated bits from his famous 15th August speech in a last attempt to shame the audience into becoming better and less unscrupulous citizens. [Insert actor’s name]’s performance was haunting. The atmosphere in the hall had changed. An almost tangible sorrow had descended upon the audience; the kind of pain that accompanies the realization that your country is well on its way to self-destruction.

After a standing ovation, I left the play with a heavy heart. I couldn’t help but think things had gone wrong for Pakistan, and I am still searching for a way to believe that our country’s fate isn’t as bleak as its history would suggest.

Afterwards, I read a retweet by Raza Rumi saying how Pakistanis never felt guilty, and I just want to say, I was guilty. I was ashamed. Through my tears, I felt dirty. It was my fault. I was a contributor. It would be a shame if those of us who can afford to pay Rs. 1500 and dress up in our best clothes to go watch an exclusive play in the country’s capital cannot learn a long-term lesson from that very play. On my way out of the theater, I saw a girl stooping to pick up dropped candy wrappers from between the seats. I don’t know her, and I’ll probably never see her again, but I said a little prayer for her in my heart, and I can only hope that everyone stops to clean up the trash we’ve littered this country with.

Le Tartuffe at PNCA

the opening scene

Last night, I was lucky enough to attend one of the most well-performed plays I have ever seen. Written in 1664 by Moliere, La Tartuffe was translated from French to Urdu and performed at the Pakistan National Council of Arts (Islamabad). The entire event was held under the umbrella of Alliance Francaise d’Islamabad, along with sponsorship from City FM89, etc.

Since the play was to be performed in Urdu, I was a bit hesitant at first, but having watched one of the cast’s rehearsals at Kuch Khaas, I quickly changed my mind. Under the leadership of director Tughral T. Khan, the actors were putting in every effort. It’s wonderful to see dramatic culture thriving in Pakistan. All the actors were participating on a purely voluntary basis, and most were students.

The play tells the story of a man who pretends to be what he is not – a pious, god-fearing fakir. He seems to have enchanted the head of the household, who, despite his family’s continued efforts, just cannot see what is wrong with the guest he holds so dear. The play’s dark humor shines through as the weasel ends up with all of the children’s inheritance, and a promise of marriage to the young lady of the house. Alas, his hypocrisy is finally revealed! What is his undoing? His love for the Lady, the mistress of the house. All wrongs are righted and the play concludes happily.

What makes this play memorable is that it caries a timeless message. The chatty maid, the secret declarations of love, and the father who is always right (and doesn’t listen to reason) are all characters we can relate to. As for Tartuffe (the villain), do I really have to say anything? How many of us know a real-life Tartuffe?

Tartuffe declaring his love to the lady.

 

M. Loyal delivering the court summons

 

 

 

The Tempest

I was going through my bookshelf, thinking, which book should I read next? when I stumbled across a work that I once hated. Despised, in fact. It was a course book, from back when I was taking English Literature in A Levels, a play. This time, when I saw it, a wave of nostalgia overtook me. I remembered reading it between classes, desperate to draw some meaning from Shakespeare’s words before the mid-term exams. And so, I picked it up again. Let’s take a journey into the past, I thought to myself. Let’s revisit those memories.

The Tempest is a romantic comedy in which Shakespeare gives a final turn and absorbs other, non-romantic comedy-ish elements. It’s one of the most original of Shakespeare’s productions, & he has shown in it all the variety of his powers. Full of grace and grandeur, the human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque are all blended together with the greatest art and without any appearance of awkward contrivance.

The romantic comedy genre draws heavily from the tradition of a romance, a fictitious narrative set away from ordinary life. Romances were typically based around themes such as the supernatural, wandering, exploration & discovery, all of which are present in this play. Also, as found in The Tempest, romances were often set in coastal regions, and typically featured exotic, fantastical locations, the themes of transgression and redemption, loss & retrieval, exile and reunion. The play was further influenced by the then-new genre of tragicomedy as well as by the development of the courtly masque form.

The Tempest differs from Shakespeare’s other plays in its observation of a stricter, more organized style. The clearest indication of this is the playwright’s respect for the three unities of the play: the unities of time, place & action. His other plays rarely respected the three unities, taking place in separate locations, miles apart and over several days, or even years. The play’s events unfold in real time before the audience, with Prospero even declaring in the last Act that everything has happened in more or less three hours.

All action is unified into one basic plot: Prospero’s struggle to regain his dukedom. It is also confined to one place: a fictional island. The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare ever wrote, and is closely linked to four other plays: Pericles, Henry VIII, Cymbelime & A Winter’s Tale. All these plays have much in common. There is, in all of them, a violence of expression (intense style, forceful, fast-moving pace), an unreality of atmosphere and an improbability of the plot. Furthermore, they all deal with the themes of separation and reunion; separation of royal parents from their children. Wilson Knight says that the last plays are “myths of immortality”, legends dealing with the fundamental issues of life and death.

Shakespeare believed in the philosophical concept of the continuity of life. Parents renew themselves in their children. We see that The Tempest ends not in death but in redemption, and the renewal of life in a younger generation (Ferdinand and Miranda).

The storm is a powerful symbol of natural or moral disaster. Shakespeare used this metaphor in his great tragedies, particularly King Lear. In this play, the storm does not have a controlling power, but it does affect the characters in the fact that the shipwreck in in the control of Prospero’s providential white magic.

The spectacular & theatrical is used to great effect. The Tempest is a play of forgiveness. The ‘sin’ that has been committed is the banishing of Prospero and his daughter, the usurpation of a lawfully appointed ruler. The philosophical theory of the divine right of kings is brought into use here. A king was considered to be a representation of God in socio-political terms; to rebel against him is a sin against God. Sin creates retaliation and revenge. Vengeance is taken against the offender. This brings about redemption & reconciliation. Mercy is ultimately extended to the offender by Prospero.

Antonio & Sebastian are evil villains but they can be forgiven because they are human. Somehow, we cannot treat Caliban in the same way. At the end, alone, he is still unreconciled and becomes “his own king” . There is, however, the faint suggestion that even he may be capable of reform.

“I’ll be wise hereafter and seek for grace…” – Caliban

The word “grace” carries Christian religious connotations which Shakespeare emphasizes. The heart of the lay rests on an interesting concept: that of expiational suffering. To expiate means to atone, and atonement through suffering will lead to redemption. We can see that this is much more complicated than a superficial interpretation of the play, which shows it as a story of a magician and his tricks. The heart of all tragic experience in Shakespeare’s work (which is also present in King Lear) is that the hero must atone.

“For I am bound upon a wheel of fire that my tears so scald like molten lead…”

We are made conscious that suffering is present in order to atone. This concept brings tragic connotations into a romantic comedy. Madness is used to cleanse all that is vicious in Alonso and his party. It represents a disorder of the mind, while the storm represents a disorder of nature.

The three villains (Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio) become aggravated to the extent that they begin to see apparitions and become victims of fits of madness, They lose their senses. Gonzalo interprets their insanity as a consequence of their own guilt. The punishment (madness), is used negatively for suffering and simultaneously, is the agent in bringing about the cure. Particularly in Alonso’s case, the desperation caused by the apparent loss of his son cuts into him deeply enough to cause an emotional crisis & produces a vital change of personality.

So, just a romantic comedy? I think not.