Coffee Bar: Who will win the battle of wits between a rebel and a drunk-on-power conformist?

The play's unpredictable narrative kept the audience hooked till the end.
Updated 17 Oct, 2022

On Saturday, I had the privilege to watch a play called Coffee Bar at Karachi’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA). Starring Ashmal Lalwany, Husnain Falak and Naveed Ul Hassan, Coffee Bar is a modern adaptation of a multi-faceted Arabic play of the same name. The Pakistani version was written and directed by Usama Khan and spoke of the dichotomy between power, authority and truth in modern art.

I loved Coffee Bar. It transported me to the days when I had first read the line “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and felt I too was a part of a larger narrative that the playwright had intended to build. Ten years have passed since I first read that comedy but I relived those memories on Saturday thanks to the team of Coffee Bar.

Towards the end of the play, my excitement and curiosity were off the charts so I decided to talk to the director and cast too. Without further ado, let’s dig into this review.

The basics

The play had a multi-faceted plot

The plot is centred around a trio, a producer (Husnain Falak), a writer (Ashmal Lalwany) and a waiter (Naveed Ul Hassan). The writer meets the producer to discuss a play. The producer likes the play and doesn’t mince his words in appreciating it in front of the writer.

The real mystery unfolds when the producer shares his reservations about the choice of certain words used in the play, forcing the writer to make changes in the script. What follows next is a series of comical and suspenseful moments, unpredictable moves and pure theatrics. By the end of the play, we’re left with a question, “What exactly is a coffee bar?”

As per my understanding, a coffee bar is a metaphor for a place where you can’t demand the one thing that it claims to offer. Name-wise coffee. (Yes, you get kahwa, shikanjibeen, chai and chocolates but no coffee). Play-wise freedom of expression. A play where you can’t stand up to authority and fight for your rights. A place that serves everything but justice.

When I asked Lalwany for the definition, he said, “Coffee Bar is open to interpretation. It can be anything. It can be whatever you want it to be.”

Lighting lit up the script — literally and figuratively

The thing I loved most about the play was the dramatic use of lighting. If you ask me, lighting was the fourth character in the play. The scenes that captured the essence of gloom or uncertainty were featured under dull light, whereas those that showed optimism were depicted by bright lights.

At one point, the lighting was used to create a stroboscopic effect on both the character(s) and audience — perhaps as a ploy to make us realise we’re being blinded by facts, like the producer but unlike the writer who could see beyond the veil of illusion. I’d like to credit Hasnain Raza for brilliantly using stage lights to evoke emotions.

Music played an instrumental role

I entered the theatre to the sound of ‘Riders on the Storm’, making me believe the play was going to be something jazzy. But as the play started, a beautiful symphony of late Mehdi Hasan, ‘*Tum Zid Tou Karahe Ho. Hum Kya Tumhein Sunaein’.* [You’re adamant to listen to more but I don’t have anything to say] pervaded the air. It was so sudden that before I could begin to ponder the meaning of lyrics or their role in the play, the play began, leaving me pondering many other hows, whats and whens.

However, the words of the song stayed with me. Later, when the play ended, I thought of them again, and they seemed to be hinting towards the writer’s lamentation, the producer’s dilemma and the waiter’s silence.

I asked Khan about the choice of music and its role in the overarching theme of the drama.“This song summed up the entire play metaphorically. I believe if you’re using a particular musical piece in a play, the lyrics of the song should complement the theme of the play,” he said.

Set design a major architect of story building

The set design was exceptional. Everything, right from the chairs to a painting, belonged to the play. In fact, the choices of selecting particular books and masking the name of the artist in the painting were deliberate. If the chairs gave us an inkling of how we perceive authority, the books of Ghalib and Manto introduced us to the world of denial and the denial of the world.

The play was meticulously-directed

Though it was Usama Khan’s debut play, he didn’t make us feel as if it was. Had I not spoken to him, I’d not have known that it was his first directorial venture. He took care of every small detail, from the costumes to characters’ movements. Given the quality of our primetime shows, it’s so refreshing to see new directors taking up new stories and delivering them so beautifully. Kudos to Usama for doing such a fabulous job!

A brilliant cast

The play was so intricate and multi-layered that it required some really brilliant acting chops and Lalwany, Falak and Hassan rose to the occasion. From dialogue delivery to expressions, everything was on point. Lalwany is a fresh graduate of NAPA whereas Hassan is in his second year of graduation. Falak has a production company called The Last Show, under the banner of which he produced Coffee Bar.

The themes

Dynamics of the writer-producer relationship

The play explores the relationship between a writer and producer; how a writer greatly depends on a producer but the latter often dictates what they should or shouldn’t do in a script without making an effort to understand the standpoint of the other, which shouldn’t be the case.

As Falak aptly put it, “A writer is dependent on a producer. Nothing can happen without a producer. However, I believe this shouldn’t be. A producer should be onboard but he should respect the writer too. Both entities should draw certain boundaries that they must not cross.”

“It is important for a writer or a journalist that their written material must not be changed unless there is a valid reason for doing so,” commented Lalwany.

Metaphorical implications of authority

I witnessed many metaphorical expressions throughout the show. However, what stood out the most was the producer’s adoration for his “chair”, both literally and figuratively. The producer deemed himself an authoritative figure, somebody who must be respected at all times and at all costs. And as they say, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, the producer was on the verge of it too. He didn’t value the opinions of the writer because he didn’t consider him worthy enough to be sitting in front of him in the first place.

But he had to tolerate him because he wasn’t a writer himself. This juxtaposition of authority with dependency was brilliantly portrayed in the play. “Writer and producer are a metaphor. It is a place of power. It can be anything. It can be in the household. it can be in any office,” explained Lalwany.

The impact

The unpredictable narrative made me crave more

While there is a buffet of TV shows and movies these days, their offerings are very much the same — the same old formula of “entice with spice”, which kills our curiosity. If it’s a boy and a girl, it’s going to be a love story. An orphan girl on TV means the story is going to be about a damsel-in-distress who will be saved by a knight in shining armour. Amidst these shows, Coffee Bar is a welcome reprieve. The play keeps you hooked till the end, leaving you wondering, “What will happen next?” which is a rare sight these days.

Post-screening, I asked Khan whether he had made any extra effort to keep the story unpredictable. “If you know your script well enough, if you have a command of it then you don’t have to think about making it unpredictable. It will happen automatically.”

Redefining art

For some reason, we believe that art is somewhat of a sacred entity. An “ibadatgah” (place of worship) as the producer said to the writer at one instance. The writer astutely replied, “Art is nobody’s property”. This seemed accurate given the current circumstances where we want to impose our beliefs and ideals on others.

When I spoke about this further to Falak, whose character wanted to saddle everybody with the task of blindly following his narrative, he echoed the opinion that we felt as an audience. “Who am I to justify art? Wherever you see, there is art.”

Open to interpretation

The play had an open ending. I still don’t know what happened to the writer, producer and waiter. Nobody knows and this is what the actors and director wanted to achieve with the play. At one point, the writer even articulated his thoughts. “I’m not a photographer who could present the bad image as good, my job is to make pictures. It’s the audience’s job to look at the picture and interpret it themselves.”

This dialogue reminds me of these words by Saadat Hasan Manto, “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.”

With the Coffee Bar, the goal of the director was to focus on the issues that are not being discussed openly, leaving the audience to question everything they’re presented as facts.

The show-runners also hinted at the fact that there would be more screenings of Coffee Bar and their shows in the future, so whenever that happens, don’t miss out on the play. You’re not gonna regret it!