Shahid Mahmood Nadeem, playwright and of late, the director of Ajoka in Lahore, and Sohail Warraich, a long time Ajoka member in various guises and capacities sat down with Fawzia Afzal-Khan for an exclusive interview to Daily Times. What has it been like getting involved in the day-to-day running of things in Ajoka over these past 3 decades? Also sharing, in a way, with Madeeha, both the excitement – and the challenges surely – of being two strong people with very particular ideas about how to do theatre? From the outside it look like a very successful teaming-up, but what were the things that you two quarrelled about in terms of theatrical and political issues that inform your vision. Do you see eye to eye on everything? SMN: I think the essentials of theatre, the role of theatre and let’s say the goal of Ajoka, we shared that, which was to promote theatre as a platform for political discussion, awareness about human rights, social awareness etc. So Madeeha Gauhar’s main concern, or I would say the preference, would be to do good plays, aesthetically good plays with a lot of costumes, music and culture although with strong message and my challenge was how to create a script which is socially meaningful as well as artistically beautiful and enjoyable which audiences from all classes can join in and appreciate. That’s how it started. Madeeha was a very strong willed domineering director. You can’t interfere too much with direction. So although as a script writer available all the time , I could have played a more active co-director role, that did not happen until just lately after she became ill. Mostly we would discuss the play before it was written and once it was written it was her baby and she would nurture it. At least initially I didn’t interfere too much. So that’s how it developed. One thing which although as a political activist I would have been more concerned about but it was Madeeha who insisted that we should use as much Punjabi as possible. Write in Punjabi, she would tell me. Because as a director she realised that when actors (because our actors came from different social classes mostly Punjabi speaking background) start speaking in Urdu, it brings a lot of pressure on them which ends up affecting the quality of their performance because they are not trained actors. The moment you let them speak in Punjabi, they suddenly feel empowered and they open up. And secondly, she believed that in terms of communication Punjabi would be a better language. And that was something that she introduced. My utmost concern was to give political and social content which is relevant and which is also enjoyable. This is like walking on a very tight rope. On the one side you have entertainment which can become banal and on the other you have content which can become propaganda and dogmatic. So I have been walking this tight rope and Madeeha has been decorating that tight rope. I want to ask Sohail who has been with Ajoka from pretty much day one. So you can talk a little bit about your role in Ajoka, how has it changed through the decades and what attracted you to Ajoka. How did you get involved with it in the first place? SW: 11, 12, 13 May 1984 were the dates when Ajoka did its first play Jaloos (trans: Protest March, written by Indian playwright and theatre director Badal Sircar). These were the dates when I was visiting Lahore for my admission in the University of Engineering and Technology. I came here for the submission of application forms etc. And did you come from Sargodha? SW: Sargodha, that’s right. I did my intermediate from Cadet College Hasan Abdal and was visiting Lahore. I used to stay with friends. I learnt that a play was being staged in a house. But I didn’t know what the play was. Later I read a review in a newspaper. Coincidently in those days, there was a long teleplay in which Madeeha was acting. Nisar Hussain used to produce those long plays. What was that play about? SW: If I can correctly recall, it was about a Bureaucrat’s life and his wife whose name I don’t recall. I only know that Salman Shahid was playing the other role. You can read between the lines and there were some political lines, with that oppressive situation. It was between the line and there was political content in the life of a bureaucrat and all that, imagine it was Zia’s era. That I watched. A few days later. How did you like that performance? SW: So three things happened: I learnt that a play has been staged in Lahore, I saw Madeeha in the long TV play and then I saw Madeeha’s interview in TV Times done by Adil Najam. In that article I learnt that she is not only an actress but a political person. There were a few lines in that article about Jaloos and the way she described Ajoka that really appealed to me It is quite strange that so many actors were once Engineering students. No? SW: We were the highest number, then came students of Government College and the third was NCA (National College of Arts) in that first grouping, and one actor was from King Edward’s Medical college. The same guys I used to hang out with. Is it true that most engineering students were men? SW: Yes it was mostly men. From UET, Qamarunnisa, she was doing electrical engineering, she was also there. Then I used to hang out with the same guys in the university politics, so I learnt about where Ajoka stood, politically speaking. Then I requested Adnan Qadir, who was from the UET and is currently a civil servant on long leave. I said Adnan, you know , they were rehearsing Chaulk Chakkar (an Urdu-language adaptation of The Caucuasian Chalk Circleby Bertolt Brecht). This was Ajoka’s third play, third production in September ‘85, so I requested my friend that I wanted to join Ajoka and I told him that I used to be a debator and very active in student politics against right- wing political ideologies. There used to be a lot of violence on campuses, and we were fired upon directly by the Jamaatis (student wing of the right wing religious political party, the Jamaat-i-Islami) several times. I have seen the violence when it was its peak at the campus. And the Jamaatis used to have two MNAs (Members of the National Assembly)-Hafiz Salman Butt and Liaquat Baloch, they brought Kalashnikovs to the university, you could see them handing over guns to Jamaati students. So we were really in the hotbed of political clashes in the university. The unions too were banned on the campuses. Was it after Shahid left? SW: Shahid had left in 70s, he had left for England, and was in exile, because of his involvement in student politics, which had made him dangerous in the eyes of the establishment. SMN: if you see the first cast of Jaloos, the list of names and see as to where they are now, it will be very interesting. There is Rana Fawad, who claims that he brought me in to Ajoka. He is now the owner of Lahore Qalandar team of the Cricket Super League. What a celebrity and a wealthy one. Does he support Ajoka? SW: Yes, he came to see one of our plays a year ago. He came up to the stage of the performance and said “my beginning, my start, my political consciousness was all with Ajoka.”He gave a long speech. But no donation! Dr Farhan, a wealthy doctor now in the United States, is another of our early cast members and supporters. He makes it a point to take all of us at Ajoka out to a nice dinner whenever he visits Lahore. And Rashid Rehman has been an Ajokan too. He was the old man in Jaloos, back in 1987.He was a big time leftist as you know, even had to go underground for supporting the Baloch nationalists at one point, and was, until recently,the editor of the English-language newspaper, The Daily Times. SMN: Then there was Hamid Mir. SW: Yes, he was also in Jaloos in 1987. These things attracted me and I told Adnan and others of my progressive college friends thatAjoka is a tool of political expression and I want to be part of their mission. Madeeha did ask me two three questions and then said, OK. So you became an actor first? SW: I played up to seven roles, I can’t even remember all of them: farmer, trader, servant, sepoy, petition writer etc. I kept changing roles on stage, and even in my life—very Brechtian! Coincidently there was one scene where there was suspense and we were performing on the terrace of the Goe the Institute. Chaak Chakkar was the name of the play (adaptation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle). We made a river by the edge of the terrace using old sarees. Faryal was the lead actor. We had massive press coverage, and a big photograph of our production appeared in The Star newspaper. We got a lot of encouragement,and massive press coverage. Those were the days when Zeno(Safdar Mir), Sibt-e-Hassan, Hussain Naqi, Ahmad Bashir, IA Rehman, you name them, all well-known progressive writers and human rights crusaders, they used to come, sit and watch our plays, write about us. The Star used to give us the maximum coverage. And Viewpoint also, edited by the legendary Mazhar Ali Khan. Has The Star faded now? SMN: Yes, it used to be a major publication of the Dawn group; it gave a lot of coverage to culture and the arts. Published in Daily Times, May 21ST 2018.