By Zia Ur Rehman
KARACHI – Street-theatre groups are popular among the poor Pashtun neighbourhoods of Karachi, featuring local amateur actors have been playing weekly free dramas for 30 years.
The street-theatres focus mainly on social issues such as domestic violence, lack of education, corruption, injustice, current affairs and family issues.
”]These actors, most of them from Swat and tribal areas, petty labourers by profession, produce, act and direct hundreds of open street theatre and dozens of video film plays, despite severe financial problems and criticism from local clerics.
Muhammad Zada, a scrap vendor and father of six, is among these passionate theatre actors. He has been performing in Pashto theatres for the past 15 years, playing in Gulshen-e-Buner, a Landhi’s slum located far from the city centre. Zada’s father came from a peasant family and migrated to Karachi from Swat in the late 1960s to earn a livelihood.
Zada was fascinated by Pashtu movies and always dreamt of becoming an actor. “Three decades ago, Pashtu movies had a good market in Karachi and got a good response from Pasthun filmgoers,” Zada told Central Asia Online.
He joined a street theatre group of local amateur actors in his teens, headed by veteran local actor Syed Ali Shah, known as Syed Baacha, said Zada. Zada has kept his passion alive by acting before an audience every Sunday for the past 18 years.
“Just after offering Asr (evening) prayers, around 300 people, old and young, with many children – most of them from local religious seminaries, come to witness our performance,” Zada said. “The number of regular spectators in our theatre programs was around 4,000 five years ago but it has now decreased due to TV Cable services which is common in Pasthun vicinities.”
“In our theatre dramas, we talk about the social issues and problems our poor people face in daily life – such as family problems, domestic violence, lack of education, social injustice, workers issues, drug-peddling and crimes,” Zada added.
Opposition and resistance from the local clerics is a problem for them. “Once a local cleric provoked the local population against us by terming our plays as unethical and un-Islamic and even tried to stop our play forcibly, but we fought the odds and have our way.”
Syed Baacha, who is considered a local celebrity in Pasthun populations, encouraged young Pasthun labourers to come forward and act out their tales to entertain friends and community. Baacha told them how to write a story for stage and helped them in rehearsals as needed.
“Most of our actors are inspired by the performance of the famed actors of Pashto cinema, such as late Badar Munir, Asif Khan, Naimat Sarhadi, Jamil Babar and Bakht Bedar, and tried to adopt their style while performing”, Baacha told Central Asia Online.
“Our acts directly affect our spectators and there are numerous examples when someone in the audience becomes excited and starts to curse us”, he added.
“Once a man became excited and shouted at our fellow actor because the latter threw his father out of his house in a play. It was about how sometimes boys treat their parents who are getting old,” Bacha said.
Most actors have abandoned the theatre due to financial issues and pressure from the community; others spend a big portion of their salaries on it, said Iqbal Khan, another actor from the Charbagh area of Swat valley.
“We asked our fellows to play the female characters because we can’t recruit women to do the job”, Khan told Central Asia Online. In video movies, we used to recruit the eunuchs to play the female characters, he added.
Swat has always been the centre of cultural activities and the valley blessed the Pastho film industry with its first hero, ‘Badar Munir,’ Khan said, adding that the late Munir was his hero and he was really inspired by his acting.
“It is fun and I really enjoyed it,” Muhammad Din, a 60-year-old vegetable seller, said of street theatre. “It is a free source of entertainment of the poor people like us who can’t afford to go to cinema or other recreational places.”
Ajmal Khattak, a school teacher and social activist, said the lack of parks and recreational places in Pasthun neighbourhoods brings working class people to see the theatre performances at a playground, one corner of which is filled garbage, while the other is used by children to play cricket.
“The actors help the people to laugh, relax and think through their acts and (the most) interesting thing is that they are doing it on self-help basis and without any financial aid,” Khattak said.
The government and the media should promote street theatre and train amateur actors, Khattak added.