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-Azam, Allama 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.