Joyland’s Ali Junejo and Rasti Farooq dissect contemporary theatre in Pakistan and where it’s headed
Artists Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Fizza Hasan and Kanwal Khoosat came together at The Blackhole in Islamabad on Sunday evening to trace a timeline of the evolution of theatre in Pakistan through a discussion titled A Discourse on Contemporary Theatre in Pakistan: Trends, Trajectory and Terminology.
Junejo, who is an actor as well as a playwright, felt that it is not easy to define contemporary theatre because of the various layers around the term itself. Farooq, a theatre and a film actor, pointed out that contemporary theatre at times appears as if it’s a departure from conventional or traditional theatre. If one takes a look at traditional theatre, it may appear almost one-dimensional and didactic, she noted.
“Meaning making was kind of limited to the person who was creating something but I feel that with contemporary art, there is a really interesting space for possibilities, because the reader or the viewer is almost a part of it. It is more immersive and because of that, meaning in modern writing is a little less in your face and is a little more ambivalent,” she said.
Fizza Hasan, one of the founders of Theatre Wallay, a theatre troupe based in Islamabad, felt that theatre has not been the most vibrant medium in Pakistan, if its history is to be traced, because the theatre scene has not seen many original plays and most are adapted from other parts of the world. She feels, however, that contemporary theatre has been doing a lot of experimenting due to the conditions surrounding it: “Anything which is contemporary is extremely immediate. It is the now, so anything which is the now becomes very hard to define because it is only with time and distance that we can get the view of anything to be able to find [it].”
She added that contemporary theatre comes as a result of circumstances, which are not limited to socio-political dynamics. Rather, it is the financial ones because the theatre groups existing in pockets make do with all that is available to them. “For me, contemporary theatre in Pakistan is a theatre that can solve problems, and still find expression — borrowing things from traditions across the world and creating a new hybrid experimental form that is still able to make it to the public despite all the limitations that are being placed on theatre.”
Kanwal Khoosat of Olomopolo Media said the current space is very interesting because it keeps evolving and changing, especially because of how informed it is about global trends.
“Places where there is no segregation between the two ends, the storytellers and the consumers, and when there is democracy, meaning that the process of storytelling is much more immersive, more visceral, and the quality that we try and attribute through it. Yet, in general, there is much more information coming from the people who are consuming it, in not just assumptions on the part of producers but of the stories,” she said.
“More technological advancements are also being incorporated in the way that we are trying to tell stories. When it is evolving, it also means that we are not really dependent on anyone.”
Junejo, agreeing with the others, added that the landscape of Pakistan is very interesting because despite the barriers, creativity will find a way to thrive out of nothing. “That’s something I really [take pride in]. I’m from Karachi, so we have a little bit of theatre happening every now and then, even when there are strange and awful restrictions that come around time and time again.”
He said that he has worked quite a bit with those who can be called traditional and has noticed how people engage with the text itself by asking questions around it.
“This means under all these restrictions, we tend to think a lot more creatively and we tend to become far more challenging of the circumstances and we tend to become more vibrant in the things we try and I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Junejo added that abroad, there is a lot of room for the abstract and the grey, and contemporary theatre is also guilty of focusing so much on the sub-text that sometimes it is forgotten that perhaps it was just a simple story waiting to be told without too much reading between the lines.
“Sometimes all it takes is relatability. The play [Rasti] and I are doing — we are going crazy at each other for about an hour and we have all seen it at home. There is not really anything particularly intriguing about it, but what makes it interesting is what they are arguing about may very well be relatable in some sense to some people, or hopefully to many people, and people are struggling through the very issues we are telling a story about.”
He said when we forget the fact that we are telling stories, we are wrapped up in concepts, and that is something we are guilty of. “It is as if we are applying first world solutions to our third world problems, and that just does not mesh. So, when we are talking about being exposed to the trends of today across the world, we also tend to suffer. This is because we have so much access to people and their stories from everywhere, and we have access to try and bring those voices to light and we tend to get burdened by that, and eventually we are not looking at the simplicity of the story,” he said.
Cultural void and the role of state and audiences
Hasan spoke about a cultural void as well as confusion in Pakistan about rejection of the different cultures that could have assimilated after Partition.
“African theatre has been able to mix traditional forms with contemporary and Western forms of theatre to produce a kind [of its own], which is spellbinding. This brings us back to a cultural void, because post-Partition, we have had to rewrite history and our culture. Therefore, the traditions from South India, and the subcontinent — we disowned them, and have not been able to replace them,” she said.
“We have been living in what is a cultural void concerning theatre more than anything else because theatre means performance and performance often means performance is about the body. Due to a unilateral and narrow approach to Islam itself, we rejected the performance of the body alongside all forms that were indigenous to people of the subcontinent,” she explained.
When a question came about the state’s role in promoting theatre, it was unanimously agreed that the state takes a backseat when it comes to supporting theatre that does not adhere to the narratives it wishes to propagate. Khoosat said that sometimes when the state takes on a ‘cultural event’, it almost appears like a zoo where participants from different provinces are put on a stage that is alien to them and they are asked to represent their “culture” in a vacuum.
“We all are aware that we live in a police state, where we all are constantly surveilled, and this isn’t limited to Pakistan of today but has been the case for a long while now. The government would very happily support a kind of very insipid imitative theatre full of glamour and song and dance that is not causing them any harm. But the minute you try to do a theatre piece with a bit of relevance to any kind of social or political issue, any kind of theatre with relevance to a people and the way that they think, that is where the support stops,” said Hasan.
Khoosat added that even though there are many stages in Lahore, public spaces push theatre companies to showcase their work without charging anything. “The packaged chips available at the canteen would not be subsidised but they want us to not charge anything, which again goes to show the support,” she said.
“I am not sure about Karachi or Lahore but in Islamabad we are a long way from creating an atmosphere where people will gladly pay to watch theatre. The idea of paying for artistry is questioned a lot,” Hasan said, stressing on the role of the audience for a more self-sustaining future of theatre.
Farooq felt that while she was growing up in Lahore, “cultural night” was the term given by elders for a time where entertainment was consumed, yet it seems very confusing as to what exactly the term entailed. It begs the question of the relationship the audience had with theatre itself alongside the state trying to control what is shown to the people.
Junejo spoke about corporate sponsorships being forced into scripts even when it is not needed. Due to lack of funding, some have no option but to accept those changes even when they appear like a compulsion.