September 11, 2023
By Asra Haque
As part of the caretaker government’s ongoing crackdown against purported obscenity in stage plays, Lahore’s Shalimar Theater was officially re-sealed under directives of the Assistant Commissioner (AC) Lahore Cantonment.
While talking to the media on Sunday, Punjab Caretaker Minister for Information and Culture Amir Mir stated that no plays will be staged prior to amendments to the Dramatic Performances Act 1876. He further provided that Shalimar Theater sealed for flouting the existing ban on stage performances.
On August 26, Mir announced the closure of over 10 major theaters in Lahore for allegedly violating provisions under the Dramatic Performances Act. However, on September 8, the Lahore High Court ordered the reopening of Gulistan, Mehfil, Naaz, Nageena, Ravi, Sangam, Sitara and Waseem theaters.
A week earlier, Mir ordered the removal of the directors of the Punjab Arts Council in Faisalabad and Gujranwala for allegedly failing to curb obscenity in theaters under their jurisdiction.
On September 7, the Punjab Arts Council issued notices to its divisional directors to annul all stage scripts due to repeated “violations of the code of conduct”. In lieu of the notice, AC Lahore Cantt delivered the same to the Shalimar Theater on September 8, revoking approval for all scripts.
Mir has stated that theater plays and dramas will resume after amendments to the Dramatic Performances Act are introduced, approved and subsequently implemented. Under the amended law, which is yet to be tabled, dances will be prohibited in plays. Furthermore, all scripts, rehearsals and shows will be monitored by officials of the Punjab Arts Council as well as the DC offices, while plays will be recorded by government appointment camera persons.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, Mir stated that a draft of the amended law will be presented in and likely approved by the Cabinet in its next meeting. The proposed law will tabled in the Provincial Assembly after approval from the Law Minister.
“Our plays are no longer the same as they were in the days of Omer Sharif and Amanullah,” he explained. “There is a lot of competition among these theaters, so they are trying to one up each other with these ‘dances’. The evidence we have of what is going on in theatres… people are no longer visiting them to watch plays. They are there for the ‘dances’.”
He further stated that the purpose of the amendments is to reinstate a standard in theaters.
“We want plays to be entertaining, we want them to adhere to a high standard of quality and of art,” he said.
Executive Director of Olomopolo Media, Kanwal Khoosat, however felt that with the introduction of more stringent laws meant to target obscenity in stage plays, all sorts of theater and performance will be the ultimate casualties.
“They have already killed theater. All we have left are stage plays which they have banned just now, or festivals where there may be a dramatic performance thrown in somewhere. Our universities cannot even establish drama departments or even offer it as a course,” she told Voicepk.net.
Although she stated that it was due time that a law from the 19th Century was updated, the government’s approach to further restrict the space for the performing arts were regrettable.
“Per my knowledge, no one I know in the media and theater industry has ever been invited by any government to consult them on legislature pertaining to the media and theater.”
Powers of a caretaker setup
Under section 230(a) and (c) of the Election Act 2017, a caretaker government is expected to perform its functions to attend to day-to-day matters necessary to run the affairs of the government, and restrict itself to routine activities that are non-controversial, urgent, in the public interest and reversible by the future elected government.
However, on July 26, 2023, the outgoing PDM government approved amendments to section 230 of the Act to empower the caretaker government to take important decisions regarding “existing bilateral, multilateral and ongoing projects” already signed with international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).