As a nation, we’re fortunate to have had our culture enriched by the works of legendary artists like Anwar Maqsood. But it is time we look forward to a new crop of artwork that doesn’t insist on shackling us to the past.
The master humorist’s latest play, Siachen, brings us more of the same; not necessarily an unflattering thing to say, as Maqsood’s classic witticism is precisely what his audience seeks. There is charm in the ‘old ways’, but for a lot of people, the past wasn’t quite as appealing.
Siachen is a play about the lives of Pakistani soldiers stationed at the ‘roof of the world’. The setting makes it convenient to sideline female characters, as the army chawki is strictly a place for men. When the character of a female journalist/filmmaker does appear on the set, a baffled soldier remarks, “Allah ki qudrat! Siachen mein aurat?”
This represents a recurring problem with Anwar Maqsood’s productions. The female characters are tragically one dimensional, serving either as mothers and sisters of male protagonists, or stereotypical ‘modern’ women who enamor the male characters on stage, or get enamored by them. In other words, under no circumstance must a woman appear upon the stage without her gender being absolutely essential to the act she’s about to perform.
This is not the first time ‘un-Pakistani’ ethnicities have been caricatured by Maqsood. In an old ‘Loose Talk’ sketch, Anwar Maqsood interviewed the renowned comedian Moin Akhtar, the latter appearing in blackface as a Bangladeshi cricketer; satirizing not just the cricketer, but the Bengali people in general and their outré cultural practices.
The subject matter comes with an expected nationalistic overtone. There are no political complexities, and no middle ground up on the Siachen glacier. It’s just ‘us’ and ‘them’. We fight to defend our mothers and sisters. They fight because they’re the enemy. We’re reminded, as always, of a political construct where the life of the selfless soldier who toils up there in an icy oblivion is secondary to the honor of the state.
The production is supplemented with crass ethnic humor. The enemy captain is fittingly a ‘Singh’, therefore an opportunity to amuse the audience with a hackneyed sardar joke. A ‘pathan’ joke explicitly or implicitly follows every appearance of a Pakhtun character.
More distressingly, a “Bihari” minstrel, of sorts, wanders onto the set, offering ample comic relief between the more somber moments of the play. With dark facial makeup and a thick Bihari accent, the ‘enemy’ character flounders about centre-stage as Pakistani soldiers decide his fate. You won’t notice the irony if you’re not familiar with Pakistan’s history with the Bihari people.
This is not the first time ‘un-Pakistani’ ethnicities have been donned as funny costumes in the artist’s works. In an old ‘Loose Talk’ sketch, Anwar Maqsood interviewed the renowned comedian Moin Akhtar, the latter appearing in blackface as a Bangladeshi cricketer; satirizing not just the cricketer, but the Bengali people in general and their outré cultural practices. Anyone acquainted with Mr. Maqsood’s work wonders if there’s something naturally comedic about dark-skinned people.
With his most recent production, Anwar Maqsood establishes his muse as a relic from a time when conquest – not coexistence – was the dominant theme.
In ‘Anwar Maqsood ka Dharna’, all politicians are caricatured through extension of their political policies; except the character depicting Bilawal Bhutto, who is satirized simply for his alleged ‘femininity’. A female character slyly admits that during a personal meeting with him, he seemed more ‘interested’ in her brother than her. And for those not sufficiently amused or offended by the subtle innuendo, the play directly tosses a transphobic slur at Bilawal’s character before the final bow.
With his most recent production, Anwar Maqsood establishes his muse as a relic from a time when conquest – not coexistence – was the dominant theme. The current environments are examined through the lens of an ethos where women, foreigners, and people of other races and ethnicities did not exist as independent beings, but were simply a part of our collective experience as Pakistani men.
Tradition has its charm, but it also marks the casual betrayal of many groups of people, including ourselves at times... A new wave of artists now struggles to unveil the common humanity of Pakistanis and Indians, Bengalis and Punjabis, Muslims and Sikhs, and men and women.
The culture war draws to a close. A new wave of artists now struggles to unveil the common humanity of Pakistanis and Indians, Bengalis and Punjabis, Muslims and Sikhs, and men and women. It aims at building bridges to compensate for the old generation of artists that preyed on this diversity for jokes, and systematically demonized all that wasn’t “us”.
Directors like Sarmad Khosat now move in to explore crucial dimensions of our lives, regardless of how strange and unfamiliar they may seem on screen. Shoaib Mansoor and Sharmeen Chinoy have won accolades highlighting social issues we hesitate to speak of, without marginalizing ‘others’. Undoubtedly, all new artists and writers stand on the shoulders of legends like Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood, just as these two may have been inspired by the ones before them.
Tradition has its charm, but it also marks the casual betrayal of many groups of people, including ourselves at times. Ultimately, art itself demands ‘tabdeeli’; not to stay ‘hip’, but to avoid anchoring a society to one time period.
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