Reehan Merchant

KARACHI - It was vintage Anwar Maqsood. In fact, it would not be wrong to state that in his very first effort as a playwright, he has almost outdone himself. Ponay 14 August, Anwar Maqsood’s first stage drama, lived up to the high expectations that theatregoers have on its opening night on Saturday. The play was replete with no-holds-barred punch lines and laugh-inducing one-liners. If only the direction had been a little tighter, the play could have been much more enjoyable.

In ‘Ponay 14 August’, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Umar Sultan), Allama Iqbal (Talal Jillani) and Maulana Shaukat Ali (Aamer Agha) are at Karachi airport waiting to receive the confirmation of their plane seats to Islamabad. They are here to observe how the Independence Day is celebrated in Pakistan, despite Josh Malihabadi’s stern warning. They have been here for a few days and no one has recognised them. This perturbs Maulana and he holds back no punches, dubbing Iqbal’s dream as phusphusa (fluffy, insubstantial). He sets the tone for the play by using the term martial law misunderstood as Mashallah.

As the three great men are waiting for their turn to leave Karachi, different characters appear and interact with them. The first one is an Urdu verse-wielder who claims that Faiz was a greater poet than Iqbal (not knowing that he is talking to Iqbal) because Faiz’s poems have been sung by the likes of Mehdi Hasan, Noor Jehan and Tina Sani. He also comments that Malika-i-Pukhraj sang very good raga Pahari to which Maulana retorts that in this day and age she would have sung Katti Pahari. A member of the Muslim League (N) arrives followed by a modern woman, a supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. While discussing the PTI, it is mentioned that the party has three former wazeer-i-kharija (foreign ministers) in it, which makes a character remark ‘kia yeh kharija saraon ki party hai?’ The introduction of a Bangladeshi character takes the play into a sensitive domain, as the character, in spite of his humour, is a poignant reminder of Pakistan’s past. It hits where it hurts the most when the Bangladeshi comments that West Pakistan to his nation had become Waste Pakistan.

A touch of glamour is introduced with actress Veena Malik’s arrival in the lounge and her reading of Iqbal’s line ‘wujood-i-zann se hai tasveer-i-kainat mein rung’. As expected references to her famous photo shoot in India are given to typify her character.

Then a serving colonel comes. When the three leaders come to know of his profession, they talk to him about the army’s duties, which is to guard the borders. The colonel too reads one of Iqbal’s lines ‘paivasta reh shajar se umeed-i-bahar rakh’, explaining that the bahar (spring) is martial law and shajar (tree) is Malir Cantt.

The drama moves forward, and a woman belonging to a religious party joins in. She is followed by a Mohajir and a Sindhi. The former is talking on the phone and taking the name of the Quaid, which makes Maulana and Iqbal think that he has recognised Quaid-i-Azam. It turns out that the Mohajir is referring to Quaid of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The banter between the Sindhi and the Mohajir is free-of-all inhibitions as both throw barbs at each other in contemporary parlance - there are references to the 90s, Zulfikar Mirza and so on.

After that a woman member of the All Pakistan Muslim League and leader of the PML (Q), Chaudhry Shujaat, appear on stage further causing disillusionment among Quaid, Maulana and Iqbal. As soon as they become utterly despondent, a child makes an appearance and tells them that he is travelling alone because his parents were killed by people he does not know. However he quotes Iqbal and sounds sensible. This instils the three great leaders with hope and they hand over their luggage (Quaid has a map and Iqbal has his dreams in the suitcases) to the child. The play ends with the national anthem.

‘Ponay 14 August’, directed by Dawar Mehmood, had only one hero: Anwar Maqsood. Among the actors, Aamer Agha played his part with the necessary gusto and feel. The rest (and it was a big cast) played their parts quite well. However, Umar Sultan and Talal Jillani, as Quaid and Allama Iqbal, respectively, acted more like children from a tableau presentation.

Umar Sultan throughout the play kept one arm behind his back for reasons best known to him and Talal Jillani acted Iqbal as if he were a budding poet, giving a teenager’s reactions to every line that he was required to react to. Though this was no fault of the actors, the director should have worked more on their mannerisms to make them look the parts.

The use of the spotlight when Quaid delivers a speech was shoddy: the entire stage (it was a very simple setting, mind you) was visible in the background. And yes, the English that Quaid was speaking did not make him sound like a person who had studied and spent a fair bit of his life abroad.