‘I wish there was something wrong with me. My head isn’t like what is used to be - but I can’t tell my dad. If I had cancer, then at least I would have a reason.’

This is what goes through Gulzar’s mind while hastily swallowing sleeping pills in an attempt to end the unbearable moods which have overcome him recently. Cancer would give him a clear reason to talk about what is going on. But it’s not cancer what is affecting him, it’s something else. Something we don’t like to talk about.

Gulzar, a boy from a middle-class family in the midst of his adolescence, is the lead character in the play Suno!, a theatre production being performed at the Arts Council in Karachi from the 27th to 30th April. Suno! is written and directed by Hamza Bangash, the creative director at CityLights Productions, whose previous play Baraf Paani was awarded the prize for best production at the IAM Karachi Arts Festival last year. The play traces the journey of Gulzar’s mental illness, beginning with the mysterious circumstances of his grandfather’s death which Gulzar’s mother and grandmother seem unwilling to discuss. Gulzar's journey encompasses much of what other sufferers of mental illness go through: a fall out with his friends, a feeling of rejection, complete meaninglessness and disconnection, the critical step of coming to terms with his mental illness and ultimately, his journey of recovery.

Gulzar’s character is inspired by the life of Ramis Akhtar, who has suffered from bipolar disorder and is a member of Taskeen, the organisers of this play. Taskeen is a mental health and emotional hygiene awareness initiative of mental health survivors, those who have either suffered from mental illnesses themselves or have accompanied a loved-one on this rocky road. In many ways, however, what Gulzar suffers from is secondary in this story. What really matters is the stigma Gulzar encounters and the way his family attempts to deal, or not deal, with his illness. While the character of his grandmother is desperately pushing for Gulzar to receive professional help, his father and uncle deny what is happening and approach a faith healer to heal Gulzar from the ‘bad spirits’ which have overcome him. ‘What else could have made Gulzar behave as he did?!’, his uncle wonders. They want Gulzar to move on with his life before anyone recognises anything. They refuse to directly address the issue at hand or talk to Gulzar about what he feels and how he might be helped in a way that is meaningful to him.

The silence surrounding mental health is exactly what Taskeen is trying to tackle. Considering that one in four Pakistanis is affected by mental health problems, the prevailing silence seems counter-intuitive - but the stigma attached to mental illness persists. While Taskeen spreads awareness through emotional hygiene community workshops, social media campaigns, TV and print adds, theatre plays have become an additional avenue for Taskeen to spread awareness. ‘Theatre is an opportunity. If created well, the audience will have empathy for the actors.’, explains Alizeh Valjee, one of the founding members of Taskeen. ‘We want the audience to see things from Gulzar’s perspective for a change.’ Suno! achieves this in a brilliant fashion by embedding Gulzar’s story in what many Karachiites can identify with: youthful rebellion, teenage love, parental pressure on children to perform in school and an archetypal grandmother overseeing family affairs. Embedding Gulzar’s story in such a narrative, however, was a long journey itself.

Hamza Bangash recalls:

‘Writing a piece that is entirely fictional is one thing. But writing about a story inspired by the life of a real individual, about what he experienced regarding a topic as taboo as mental health - well, I had my concerns’.

‘I spent weeks interviewing Ramis. I wanted to know about his fears, his family history, what it was like growing up in his home. After speaking with him, I realised that Suno! was more than a personal story. It is one about every Pakistani family, about anyone who has ever been depressed and looked to their family for consolation, for advice, and for hope. I think that’s what we have created here with Suno!. The play has been through a lot of work-shopping to get it to where it finally stands, and I think, now it is a story that Ramis could be proud of.’

The remarkable thing about Suno! is that it achieves to approach a serious topic through an entertaining narrative. Hamza Bangash does not tell a sad story, but a humorous and heartwarming one. As its title suggests, the play is an appeal to listen to what those suffering from mental illnesses have to say - an appeal to give mental health sufferers and survivors a platform to express their experiences. Come to the Arts Council and join Taskeen to watch when, finally, mental illness takes centre stage.