Punjabi theatre: Plebeian pleasures

Punjabi plays have deteriorated in terms of scripts and acting. DESIGN: ESSA MALIK


Buxom women crassly prancing about, slapstick comedy bordering on vulgarity and rowdy spectators hooting at the lewd jokes — this is what most people associate with Punjabi theatre today. However this form of entertainment, typically popular among the less privileged classes which cannot afford other leisurely activities, was very different in earlier times.

“Nowadays Punjabi theatre does not encompass the creativity and ingenuity that it once did,” reminisces veteran Punjabi theatre writer/director Muneer Rath, as he glances at the stage where cast members of his play “Sohni Lagdi” rehearse at Lahore’s Al-Hamra open air theater. “Sohni Lagdi” is a rendition of a play originally written by Rath, staring veteran theatre actor Sohail Ahmed, and has been performed in the US and Britain. Many of the cast members are part-time actors with day jobs and, like most Punjabi plays, the dialogue is a mixture of Punjabi and Urdu.

A scene shows the play’s rehearsal encompasses a pudgy boy running from one end of the stage to another, while being feverishly followed by an angry elder woman threatening to beat him. The play appears to draw a hint of inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”, since it features a series of unfortunate yet comic incidents. Like many other Punjabi stage plays, this dramatic performance also seems to have little thought put into its script.

“Now the trend requires shorter scripts and the focus is on vocal comedy rather than other methods of comic expressions,” explains Rath. “Classic Punjabi plays used to be replete with black comedy and had solid scripts.”

Theatre reforms during president Musharraf’s era allowed songs to be incorporated in plays, which further accelerated the lack of focus on good scripts. Nearly 75 minutes of any given play are now typically allocated to song and dance.

A director at the Punjab Arts Council explained that now producers feel that the inclusion of impromptu Bollywood-inspired dance sequences have minimised the role of direction in plays.

Yet deteriorating standards of Punjabi plays have still not impacted the raging popularity of Punjabi theatre. “Commercial Punjabi theatre is still very popular; there are around nine theatres and each has a night show every day,” explains Rath.

He estimates that the turnout is nearly 10,000 people in all of Lahore’s theatres every night. The attendance is certainly impressive considering that tickets for plays are not always inexpensive. At public institutions such as Al-Hamra, the entrance fee for individuals is low — between Rs100 to Rs300 — yet tickets at commercial theatres such Naz and Tamaseel can even cost up to Rs1000.

The fact that audiences are willing to pay for such crass entertainment at commercial theatres has further stifled any impetus for improving plays. Imran Nawab, associate producer for the immensely popular play “Janam Janam Kee Mahlee Chadar” says that actors who lack a proper background in acting and technical expertise in stage performances dominate Punjabi theatre because producers and financiers benefit from commercial theatre.

“Currently there is no emphasis on acting,” said Nawab. “The current lot of actors are functioning are merely entertainers, not actors.”

Akmal Jafri, a director at Naz theater, also concurs with Nawab’s viewpoint. He maintains that the quality of Punjabi theatre will only improve if the emphasis shifts away from music and dance. “There has to be an incentive for actors to improve their craft,” said the director.”The issue is that people enjoy private commercial theatre and thus there is no responsibility to improve the quality of the plays.”

Theatre is an intrinsically challenging venue for showcasing one’s acting skills. But it seems that this is far from true in the case of Punjabi theatre, which has merely become a show for song and dance. And judging by the current state of affairs, it seems that the quality of Punjabi stage plays will continue to slide downhill.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2011.

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