Ajoka’s ‘dead dog’ lights up Lahore

Sterling performances by debutant actors gives new life to an old Punjabi play

Ajoka presented the play “Marya Hoya Kutta” or dead dog in Alhamra Arts Council on Saturday during the ongoing theater festival there. The play was directed by Nirvaan Nadeem, written by Shahid Nadeem and the performance was an outcome of the Masterclass held by Ajoka to train new actors. The play revolves around a day in one of the many intersections in Lahore’s old city. There is a street vendor called Pehlwan who sells halwa and a barber called Jeera. Pehlwan was played by Mohammed Atif Nazir, who wore a dhoti, mustache and accurately depicted the character of a former pehlwaan now at the end of his youth. Jeera, the young hairdresser, was played by Danish Ali Khan. Jeera is said to be a father of eight children but continues to dream of romance. He is much more colorful and youthful than the pehlwaan. The two are often at odds with each other and get into funny fights. However, this morning, when everyone begins their work day, they are greeted by a dead dog. The drunk Christian sweeper Jumman refuses to tow the dog away. One beggar, who is said to be mentally ill and called pagal (crazy) by everyone, takes a fascination to the carcass. He starts drooling over it, gesturing towards it, burbling to it and trying to catch everyone’s attention towards it. Jumman the sweeper, played by Mohammed Makki, is always drunk and has the funniest responses to being asked to work. He is basically an alcoholic always in need of some extra cash. Makki’s presentation was so perfect that one found it hard to believe that he wasn’t actually drunk. Another character who played his character with much precision was the beggar. Aniq Anjum, who played the beggar, was not just presenting a mentally challenged person but also someone who was physically debilitated and usually on all fours.

The most lively and hilarious character was probably Appa, played by Faiza Amin. Appa was a typical middle-aged lady of the house who cannot mind her own business and likes to share the neighborhood gossip with everyone. She also has a son or a nephew whom she leaves at school but he escapes and runs across the stage periodically. Faiza depicted the character with panache, her screechy and loud voice, Punjabi catchphrases and even facial expressions bought Appa to life.

The play was written by Shahid Nadeem, Ajoka’s pioneering writer, who says the Punjabi play was the first one he ever wrote

The street is visited by various characters. There is the elitist Khan Sahab who seems to be from an old elite family and is now aging, the maulvi (cleric), the sweeper and the chairman who has recently won an election. The maulvi played by Matiullah Baig and the chairman played by Mohammed Faisal Zulfiqar were depicted as each other’s arch-rival. Both supported mosques of different sects. The maulvi’s love for halwa and constantly failing to resist its temptation was a little stereotypical, though the crowd was amused by it.

These three characters spoke Urdu, while everyone else spoke Punjabi, each one with a distinct accent and dialect.

Every performer captured the ethos of Lahore’s inner city and gave a nuanced performance. Despite the loud tone of the play, none of the actors went overboard with emotions and expressions. Each actor was a debutant and it was hard to believe that such refined performances had been extracted from relatively untrained youngsters. Though the play was well-directed and written, it was the performers who infused a vibrant, new life into the script.

Nirvaan Nadeem later commented that the actors are individually trained over a long stretch of time and attention is paid to their “vocational, emotive and physical skills”.

The play was written by Shahid Nadeem, Ajoka’s pioneering writer, who says the Punjabi play was the first one he ever wrote. Nadeem says he conceived the play before he ever met Madeeha Gauhar or came across Ajoka. It was heartening to see a Punjabi play being performed in Alhamra after a long time. The play had the usual elements Nadeem is fond of – beggars, powerful women who speak their mind, authority figures like policewallas who try to compromise the helpless people and a religious figure who is more greedy than spiritual.

The event was free and the hall was packed. Not only the seats but also all the staircase was packed with people. They cheered at the characters and clapped enthusiastically on important scenes. Jokes and humorous dialogues sent a wave of laughter and cheers through the crowd. Though there were many families and women, there were many youngsters as well.

The executive director of Alhamra Arts Council, Atta Muhammad Khan, spoke favorably about the play. He also fondly remembered the late Madeeha Gauhar who founded the Ajoka Theater. Well-known actor Naeem Tahir spoke after the performance and highlighted the significance of symbolism in the play. He said that every character in the play is disowning the dead dog and diffusing his or her own responsibility when it comes to the problems in their community.

The play received a massive and well-deserved applause at the end. The most amusing performers were greeted with the most cheers.

The writer is based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her work can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com

Published in Daily Times, September 11th 2018.