Within the first few minutes of the performance Absolut Manto at the International Theatre and Music Festival of the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) on Sunday, the world building of Saadat Hasan Manto, and spellbinding performances by a star cast, had the complete attention of the audience.
A production of Olomopolo Media from Lahore, director Kanwal Khoosat presented Karachiites with a glimpse of Manto, his life, his work and philosophy of tolerance, and several of his short stories were brought to life by actors Sania Saeed, Sarmad Khoosat, Feryal Ali Gauhar and Erfan Khoosat.
Set against a minimalist backdrop, relying simply on the gravitas of the actor, Saeed began the dramatic reading with Manto’s Yazid, which was a befitting beginning. Embodying Karim Daad’s losses and gains, his ability to persevere despite the upheavals he must face, immediate or in the distant future, Saeed’s delivery of each and every word pulled in the audience, leaving them with no room to retreat.
Technical difficulties plagued the production. At times the sound was lost and in the midst of the actor delivering the immortal words of Manto, the audience had a rude awakening and had to lean in to hear. At times the backdrop too flickered and disappeared, leaving the auditorium in darkness and within a few moments came back again, constantly requiring the audience to adjust to discrepancies in lighting. But the actors did not fumble, nor lose their bearings and took the production forward despite the glitches.
Sound was employed intelligently and did not overwhelm the actors’ delivery but only enhanced where necessary. This created a haunted feel, with the silence broken by the sounds of weeping women, or the loss of crop after being burnt in riots.
Erfan Khoosat’s rendition of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh was also crafted well. A popular story, it was well-received by most in the audience, and Khoosat’s delivery of Bishan Singh’s “Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di daal of the Pakistan government” required no translation and was delivered with aplomb. Switching between the dialogues and the characters of the different inhabitants of the mental asylum is not for the faint-hearted, and Khoosat rose to the challenge and made each his own.
Absolut Manto picks up stories by Manto which are very contemporary, especially amid the current political climate between Pakistan and India. In Yazid there are fears among the villagers that the dushman Hindustan is planning to cut off the water supply and starve them. Manto’s stories rope in simple people and how they are impacted by the politics of the rich and the powerful, and the fatalism of man, and all this is translated through each performance.
The second half of the production depicted a photo essay of jarring images to accompany Manto’s Syah Hashiye.
A few in the audience had complaints against the management regarding the overselling of tickets for Absolut Manto. This was primarily because many of the audience had to settle on the floor for the entire production and was a cause for inconvenience to many.
The Napa International Theatre and Music Festival will run till April 2 with different plays and musical performances as part of the offering.
Originally published in Dawn, March 20th, 2017