Siachen; an icy, rigged battlefield mired with decades of bloodshed and frustration. It is a terrain that has long blotted the history of the subcontinent with the deaths of thousands; killed more by weather extremities than by actual warfare.
On this sordid, unfortunate land, a troop of Indian soldiers endeavor to cross a mountain in order to attack the ‘enemy’.
They play a song that may be Pakistani but defines their plight; Strings’ 'Sar Kiye Ye Pahar'. The Pakistani army then plays a song in retaliation.
And so it goes on. Trust Anwar Maqsood to seek out the ridiculous within macabre war-torn realms. Trust him to delve into laugh-out-loud satire while never deviating from the tragedy that blemishes the Siachen glacier. Trust him to make you laugh and then cry, again and again.
Set to begin staging in Islamabad on October 28, Siachen, the latest venture by Kopykats Productions and Anwar Maqsood, promises to deliver laughter and poignance along the same lines as its predecessors, most prominently the Pawnay and Sawa 14 August series. In Anwer Maqsood’s quintessential style, it seeks to provoke thought and ask questions.
“Why are we fighting in Siachen and what for?” asks the playwright as he launches into a story that begins with a mother bidding goodbye to her son, a sister seeing off her brother and a son saying farewell to his father, all heading off for war in Siachen.
“The son asks the mother why she is sending him off when two of her sons have already gone off to fight. She tells him, ‘Mein teri maa hoon toh yeh watan bhi teri maa hai’ (If I am your mother, then this country is also like a mother to you). Once her son leaves she bursts into tears and asks Allah why she had borne three sons that she had to send off to war, rather than a daughter.”
War is always a sensitive topic and under Anwar Maqsood’s pen it is bound to become heartrending. “I specifically requested Anwar sahib to focus on Siachen and this is the first army-centric script that he has written,” says the play’s director Dawar Mehmood.
“As a child, I was always fascinated by life in the armed forces. I remember watching the drama Alpha Bravo Charlie and wishing that I knew more about the army. This drama attempts to depict life through the eyes of an officer. He’s a desi, country hick-turned-army officer, mind you. Therein lies the humour, as well as the hard-hitting truths.”
In an effort to stay true to the script, the play’s cast spent 15 days in Siachen with the Pakistan Army jawans. “I wanted them to endure the pain that these men go through on a daily basis,” explains Mehmood. “The casualties occur more often from frostbite and avalanches than by enemy bullets. They are fighting, more than anything else, a psychological war and I wanted the actors to experience it.”
The ensemble cast of amateur first-time actors was further made to go through a rigorous course in method acting. For 120 days, they were forced to live together, cut off from the outside world with no access to phones or the Internet, missing out on Eids and family funerals as they trained to emulate soldiers at war. Mornings would begin with extensive physical training while play rehearsals took up evenings.
“I chose new actors because I wanted to work on raw talent and bring fresh energy to the stage,” explains Mehmood, whose Kopykats Productions has earlier served as a prodigious launch-pad for actors like Yasir Hussain and Gohar Rasheed. “It was hard work and many of them were often frustrated. While under house arrest, quite a few of them wanted to quit working in the play. It has all paid off now, though. They look like true soldiers with muscular, well-toned bodies. And when they say ‘Maa, teri yaad aa rahi hai’, you can’t help but shed a tear.”
With a title that piques curiosity and a well-loved scriptwriter and accomplished production team at its helm, Siachen is bound to draw in crowds. But will its frigid veneer end up being too morbid or will it manage to scale new heights in entertainment? We’ll find out soon enough.
They can quip pretty well, too, says Maqsood. “At one point in the play, the men are talking amongst each other and one of them says that half the army is employed at Zarb-i-Azb, half is at the border and most of the remainder is at Siachen. If Martial Law was declared, he was afraid that the navy would take over.”
“The script is packed with punch lines,” enthuses Mehmood. “We talk about Ayub Khan and General Zia and current-day politics. The story spans six months and it culminates with a Pakistan and India peace match taking place in Dubai. We contrast it with what is happening in Siachen.”
In an effort to be more realistic, special effects and two separate stage settings have been planned out — hitherto, Kopykats’ plays had always functioned with a single set. “I do want to set the bar higher with this play,” admits Mehmood. “We are even going to install chillers in every auditorium, maintaining temperatures at around six degrees Celsius. The tickets are going to instruct people to wear warm clothes when they come to watch the play. And just in case they don’t, we have a ready stock of shawls and overcoats for them.”
Notwithstanding technical tweaks, taking center stage in any play by Anwar Maqsood is the script itself, peppered with poker-faced, inimitable satire — and Dawar has demonstrated a talent for wielding it into riveting theatre. With a title that piques curiosity and a well-loved scriptwriter and accomplished production team at its helm, Siachen is bound to draw in crowds. Written for the Pakistani audience, it will also be traveling all over Pakistan and beyond over the next six months, traversing through Islamabad, Peshawar, Multan, Faisalabad, Karachi, Dubai, London and Lahore.
But will its frigid veneer end up being too morbid or will it manage to scale new heights in entertainment? We'll find out tonight.
Siachen opens in Islamabad today.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015