Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THEATER REVIEW: Karachi The Musical ‘Haar Na Mano’ (Don’t Give Up)

Published in Daily Times / Wednesday, November 30, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

Though Karachi of the shiny flyovers, sprawling malls and violent impulses has been billed as the star, the one with the Spartan tastes, colourful khokas – and, of course the violent impulses steals the show. That tough neighbourhood with the dusty streets and a no-go sign hung at the gate – that is Lyari; home to odious bandits, obscure boxing coaches, soccer aficionados and predatory politicians. Folks might say there is little of value in this wilderness. But for a brief moment, they will greet this troubled piece of land with a hearty cheer instead of an involuntary shriek thanks to a sweet musical extravaganza that welcomes them aboard its famed boxing clubs and, by default the dreaded hood for a show and tell.

Lyari, in its latest incarnation serves as the backdrop of a new stage play that recently concluded its three-week run at the Karachi Arts Council. Nida Butt & Hamza Jafri’s brainchild - ‘Karachi – the Musical Haar Na Mano’ proceeds to dress the restive heart of the city in festive shades making it fit for company. A bracing trip through the mean streets of town to explore its boxing scene inevitably goes through the underworld. The green boxer from out of town – a disheartened coach living in the past – the wicked don with his wicked, wicked ways - these form the outer perimeters of a classic tale.



Because a love of sports binds all together in an unholy trinity – the play noisily pounces on Lyari’s passion for boxing to drown out the disconcerting sound bytes. The director’s decision to line up some tried and tested themes – courage determination, redemption, faith, only to toss them in the vortex generates the requisite compassionate tone. The audience yanked from its comfort zone, is hustled along quickly to the ring where the true action lies and then thrust in the midst of a tug of war. By the time they realize that this version has been sanitized for stage, they will be knee deep inside no mans land, breathlessly watching punch drunk citizens prepare for the ultimate fight.

According to a local newspaper, one man who runs a boxing club and helped the cast acclimatise found the depiction a tad sensational for his taste. That bandit with the bounty on his head – the one who aspired for the Senate seat and was hailed as a local celebrity; now that was sensational. His glowing epitaph delivered by well respected public figures – again sensational. The saga looks tame when compared to Lyari’s real life shenanigans. The musical sidles up to these outrageous looking charges but then veers off to explore a more promising lead that opts for ‘family drama’ over ‘family’ drama. The team’s biggest achievement is perhaps that by taking down the customary barricades they allow both sides to bond with the lovable underdogs over, of all things - a round of boxing.

Now boxing – real or imaginary may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Nida Butt’s direction elevates it to an art form worthy of the yelps of delight that were reportedly overheard. One does not need to be a die-hard fan to share the adrenaline rush. Or be from Lyari to relive its recurring nightmares. The echoes of terror are fairly widespread. Maybe this is one of the reasons this tale resonates, because for all their differences – the same brutal strain runs throughout the city.

While it is impossible not to dwell on these violent tendencies however, before anyone spirals into darkness, the play enlists the help of the city’s indomitable spirit to pry apart its soulful centre from the malevolent gatekeepers. Which means that the most jarring notes from the hood have been toned down. Without being lightweight, the writers’ employs irreverent humour and a brisk pace to keep audiences engaged. Using some nimble footwork this carefully crafted comedy allows tragic undercurrents to seep unchallenged but retains its playful tone and upbeat mood. Seen through a romanticised haze, this artist’s rendition softens some of the rough edges infusing a whiff of fantasy and a bit of forced glamour to partially mask but not completely suppress Lyari’s deadly urges. Whatever is visible does not apologise for its grotesque features. Nor does it hide its true nature.

Nida Butt is an old hand at theatre. This happens to be her first attempt at an original production that relies on Urdu. This simply told story quietly ensures that the message ‘Don’t Give Up’ resounds across both the hood and suburbs. Live singing and dancing is a high wire act and a rich musical score, near perfect casting and an engaging narrative arc proffer a convincing counter argument to advocates of bigotry. From the smouldering opening montage that shimmers with intensity to the buoyant finale that ripples with hope – Lyari is ‘the’ place to be this year. Karachi - the Musical Haar Na Mano reportedly takes its bold voice on a nationwide tour in 2012.

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