Saadhay Chauda August – the many highs, the few lows

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By Maliha Rehman

Jinnah, Gandhi and the eternal debate of whether the Indo-Pak partition should have had taken place in 1947 – Anwar Maqsood and Kopykats Productions’ Saadhay Chauda August pits together the most powerful figures in subcontinental history. The Chauda August omnibus, journeying over a span of nine odd years, has caricaturized a number of figures that are relevant to Pakistani politics: pre-partition heroes like Iqbal and Maulana Shaukat Ali and post-partition decision makers such as Bhutto and General Zia. It was only apt that the final edition to the series should encapsulate the ultimate clash of ideologies – it really can’t get bigger than Jinnah and Gandhi.

But is this much-touted, long-delayed-due-to-the-pandemic last edition as big as its predecessors? The past Chaudha August contenders were all hit plays that can be credited for having revived theatre in Pakistan and establishing Maqsood-Kopykats collaborations as forces to reckon with. Based on the enthusiasm with which it has been received by audiences in Karachi, where the play made its premiere about a month ago, Saadhay Chauda August is a powerful presentation. The script is peppered by the highly intelligent, nuanced one-liners that are quintessential Maqsood. Even in scale, Saadhay Chauda August is extremely ambitious, with several well-conceived stage setups, an extremely well-choreographed ‘item song’ adding entertainment value and a performance that extends to about two hours.

However, content-wise, this play comes with its pros and cons.

Jinnah and Gandhi have been brought back to life in present-day because of a court case that seeks to investigate who is responsible for the partition of India and Pakistan and the turmoil that has ensued ever since. In order to gather ‘evidence’ in their defense, the two visit different cities; starting off with a warring, bloody Kashmir, moving on to a politically driven but colorful Lahore, the political machinations within Delhi and finally, London, where they encounter overseas Pakistanis and Indians.

In classic Maqsood style, there are incidents that draw laughs and others that make one draw a heavy breath. The banter between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers in Kashmir may be witty but there is certainly nothing funny about the gunfight that ensues later or the Kashmiri girl quailing in fear. The prostitute that Gandhi encounters while in Lahore is entertaining. “Umrah kar kay airport say seedhay yahan aa gaye?” (Have you done your Umrah and come straight from the airport to this place?), she asks Gandhi, referring to the white dhoti that he used to wear at all times. The dialogue has been recounted by Maqsood several times prior to the play’s premiere, while he was still finalizing the script.

In Delhi, Gandhi and Jinnah find themselves in the middle of the shooting of an item song for a movie. In London, a raucous Sajid Hassan plays a Sindhi who has managed to evade the Exit Control List in Pakistan and find his way to foreign shores. They also meet a PTI enthusiast and – possibly one of the play’s masterstrokes – MQM leader Altaf Hussain makes an appearance to resounding applause. Somewhere in the course of the story, Reham Khan turns up for just a moment. Political parties battle it out – Hindu nationalists in India while in Pakistan, PPP, MQM and PTI loyalists ready to burn each other to the ground.

Here’s an entertaining snippet from the play: a school teacher brings a rowdy lineup of young students to see the Minar-e-Pakistan and proceeds to lecture them on how they need to set aside regional differences and identify themselves as Pakistanis. She asks each students where they were born. One smirking little girl announces, “Miss mein Imran Khan ke dharnay mein paida huee thee. Ami dharnay mein gayeen aur ek maheenay wahan phans gayeen” (“I was born in Imran Khan’s dharna. My mother got stuck in it for a month.”)

It’s all hilariously funny and a cursory observation of Saadhay Chauda August makes one conclude that it is, like the previous editions in the series, a laugh-out-loud, poignant political narrative.

Somehow though, unlike the past plays, there are certain problems that simmer just beneath the surface of this storyline. Most ostensibly, the caricature of Gandhi teeters far too often towards being offensive. The drama’s entirely Pakistani audience may be willing to poke fun at India’s founding father. This is, nevertheless, sensitive territory. Make fun of another country’s hero and you give them the leeway to retaliate similarly.

This is not to say that India doesn’t also create stories that ostensibly spew hate against Pakistan. There is no hatred within Saadhay Chauda August’s narrative, just derision here and there. And to be fair, there are times when Gandhi’s ideology is presented in a balanced manner but there are other instances when he is painted out to be more ridiculous than a visionary. This characterization would have had been easier to accept had Jinnah been similarly portrayed but he more or less remains fine, upstanding and disinterested in unnecessary fripperies.

Many of Kopykats’ plays have been such successes that they have ventured beyond Pakistan and have won acclaim in other regions with sizable Urdu and Hindu speaking audiences. One wonders how this particular play will be staged abroad, unless changes are made. The ex-pat Pakistanis may find it hilarious. The Indians probably won’t be as pleased.

There is much more that must be appreciated. Tanveer Gill is brilliant as Gandhi. Director Dawar Mehmood has enacted Jinnah before and he does so yet again effortlessly. Veteran actors Nazar Hussain and Sajid Hassan are brilliant in their short roles. Danish in his small appearance as Altaf Hussain is memorable.

The item song that has been criticized rampantly by some members of the audience as ‘unnecessary’ is actually quite the entertainer. The dancers move with impeccable synchronization. They are a treat to watch.

Also, whenever the curtains get drawn for a change in set, actors rush out for small performances. In Lahore, they dance and play games. On the train that goes to Delhi, the pain of Indo-Pak migration is depicted with entire families massacred and women dragged away by leering men.

There isn’t a moment when the play doesn’t keep you in its grip and credit for this goes as much to the inimitable Anwar Maqsood as to director Dawar Mehmood and his motley crew at Kopykats Productions.

Saadhay Chauda August, the way it is now, several weeks since its premiere when there were certain very obvious flaws that have now been ironed out, is an entertainer. I can’t say that it is my favorite from the Chauda August series – I have seen them all, written pre-release curtain raisers for them and reviewed them later – but it still offers a sometimes hilarious sometimes thought-provoking theatrical experience.

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Saadhay Chauda August – the many highs, the few lows