There is a magic to Anwar Maqsood’s name. It draws in crowds, sells tickets and allows producers to happily declare to have had ‘sold out’. This is a good thing but it’s also a bad thing.
Maqsood’s most recent script, titled Kyun Nikala? and currently being staged in Karachi by KopyKats Productions, is hauling in considerable profits. The tickets, priced at a steep Rs2000 apiece, are selling like hot cakes and daily, the Arts Council is packed with a laughing, enthusiastic audience. It’s indicative of a positive future for theatre in Pakistan, overall.
But it’s not good that audiences don’t seem to be too bothered about the play’s content, that they are so smitten with Maqsood’s name that they can’t seem to see some glaringly obvious flaws in the play. Were they laughing because they found the script to be truly funny or was it because they felt that anything written by the country’s most celebrated scriptwriter just has to be brilliant, no questions asked?
“It saddens me that a lot of the dialogues in Kyun Nikala? are not mine,” said Maqsood in an exclusive conversation with Images. “They have been exaggerated or changed in some way or the other. It’s something that I had specifically asked Kopykats Productions not to do but somehow these things happen.
"I have written romantic plays in the past where the hero and heroine never even touch. And yet, in this play, there is jostling and shoving, a middle-aged man flirting with a young girl, jokes that are slapstick and dialogue delivery that is bawdy. This is not to my taste and certainly not my style. I have observed how the audience laughs at the dialogues that I have written while the rest are just fillers.”
To be fair, Kyun Nikala? does have its funny moments but it lacks the quintessential Maqsood spark. Pakistani audiences are well-acquainted with Maqsood’s particular comic genre. Over the years, his many political satires and skits have regaled and been elevated to the stature of classics. He dabbled with theatre for the very first time in 2010, penning Pawnay Chauda August, a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek commentary on local politics that set the bar high for theatre. Kyun Nikala? doesn’t quite manage to meet these standards.
The story revolves around the household of a Lahore based Pakistan Muslim League – N politician, ‘Chaudhry’, during election time. He is the archetypal corrupt politician with illegal properties in his name and a young second wife that he tries to hide from his first wife. While he remains loyal to his own party, other political factions keep approaching him, trying to buy him out since he always wins in his particular district.
Among them, a Sindhi PPP worker tempts him with briefcases, young PTI girls try to convince him to join their ‘Kaptaan’ and his own wife urges him to join PTI since PML-N’s fortunes are flailing. Passing pointed remarks on the Chaudhry’s many activities is his Bengali butler, played quite well by the young Mohsin Ejaz.
Sajid Hasan, as Chaudhry, holds center stage throughout the play and is quite impressive most of the time. He suffers occasionally, though, from bouts of over-acting. Loud humour may draw laughs but it’s not really what one expects from an Anwar Maqsood project. The writer’s forte has always been wordplay, subtle nuances, the right wisecrack delivered at just the right time. In Kyun Nikala? these subtleties often get lost.
There are dialogues that make one laugh: the quip about Shahbaz Sharif’s services to Lahore, declaring that ‘Suraj nikla toh Paris, barish huee toh Venice’ or the time when the Bengali househelp tells the Chaudhry that ‘Maut say pehlay NAB ka do farishta log aaya hai’. Chaudhry’s second wife complains to him, ‘Hamari shadi koh teen saal huay magar kuch nahin bana’ to which he replies ‘Pakistan ko banay huay 71 saal ho gaye, yahan bhi toh kuch nahin bana’. That’s classic Anwar Maqsood for you – sarcastic to the core.
Was Kyun Nikala's audience laughing because they found the script to be truly funny or was it because they felt that anything written by Anwar Maqsood just has to be brilliant, no questions asked?
There are other parts where the play falls flat or becomes far too predictable. It is interesting to note, though, that Maqsood seems to have been careful while writing about the various ethnic communities that come on to the stage.
Some months ago, he had been accused of having belittled the Sindhi community in a comic skit that he had uploaded but in Kyun Nikala?, racist jokes are avoided altogether. Mohsin, as the Bengali cook, does have dark makeup on his skin, which has been called out as Blackface by some reviewers – but this assertion is complicated by the fact that the play really doesn't contain any jokes about skin colour or even Bengalis. Still, it would have been better if the play's producers had relied on accent and dialogue to convey Mohsin's ethnicity rather than falling back on problematic makeup.
On the other hand, it would certainly have had been better if the PTI girls who came to the Chaudhry’s house had not been treated quite so lasciviously by him. They were professional women going about their work and the flirtatious Chaudhry could have kept some distance from them. This is something that Maqsood agrees upon. “I don’t approve of a man leaning forward so offensively over a young girl. It was sad for me to see it in a play that has my name attached to it.”
But while Kyun Nikala? is certainly not as stellar as its predecessors – this is the seventh play helmed by Maqsood and Kopykats Productions – it does give out interesting messages and makes astute observations. It skeptically looks at present-day ‘Naya Pakistan’ and ponders if the changes will truly run deep.
It comments on the fickle ways of politics, with party members easily shifting loyalties from one faction to the other. It indicates that the army has an iron hold over the country and all other political bodies are merely peripheral. It blends comedy with a deep-rooted understanding of Pakistan’s tumultuous political history. It wouldn’t be an Anwar Maqsood play if it at least didn’t manage to do this.