September 3, 2023

Maryam Missal


In the city, renowned for its rich cultural heritage and vibrant artistic scene, a tumultuous battle is growing. It is a conflict between the fight for the preservation of artistic expression – even as several artists struggle to make ends meet – and the fight to clamp down on “vulgarity”.

In the most recent of clashes between these two forces – both struggling to establish an everlasting stronghold – the Punjab government initiated a crackdown on the theatre industry, resulting in the closure of theatre houses and raising pivotal questions about the future of this once-celebrated art form.

On August 16, arrest warrants were issued for two stage actresses, Shama Rana, who had performed in the play Chaand Ki Chandni, and Payal Chaudhry, known for her role in the play Naukar Wohti Da. Both the performing artists managed to evade police custody by securing pre-arrest bail.

It didn’t stop there. The situation continued to escalate, leading to the booking of 16 other stage performers under obscenity charges. This, in turn, resulted in a temporary ban on commercial theatres throughout the Punjab region.

What may be even more worrying is that Punjab’s quest to constrict its theatres is so urgent that in the latest developments, Punjab’s caretaker Minister for Information, Amir Mir, has gone so far as to express his intentions to amending theatre laws in the province, specifically the Dramatic Performance Act of 1876.

This archaic, colonial law, now 146 years old, is being reconsidered by the caretaker provincial government to exert control over Punjab’s theatres. The law already makes it abundantly clear as to the nature of what can be shown on stage, yet another layer of repression is being added to performing arts.

More worrying is that the application and true execution of the existing law is at the expense of the livelihoods of hundreds of workers across the province.

The abrupt decision to shut down theatres across the region has had far-reaching consequences, affecting not only actors but also a vast network of support personnel.

Each theatre employs a minimum of 80 people, including stage actors, technicians and crew members. The sudden closure has left over 3,000 people unemployed, prompting an outcry from the affected individuals and their families.

Nawaz, a daily wage worker at a theatre in Lahore, shares the agony of surviving day-to-day, with nothing saved for the future. He laments the lack of responsibility among theatre workers for what transpires on stage, yet it is the crew that bears the brunt of the consequences.

“Today is the 14th day of this misery, None of us are responsible for what goes on the stage, yet we are the ones being punished for it.”

Multifaceted Factors

Senior artiste and actor Salim Sheikh believes that while issues surrounding theatre have also surfaced in the past, recent actions by the government seem to prioritize political interests rather than the betterment of society.

This crackdown, he believes, has led to the near-extinction of a cultural treasure, leaving behind a mere shadow of what was once a thriving theatrical culture.

Comparing Lahore to Karachi, Sheikh highlights the stark contrast in the approach to theatre.

In Karachi, theatre thrived because actors were formally trained, viewing acting as a discipline. In Lahore, however, a worrying trend emerged over time. The stages became crowded with comedians, often asked to perform without scripts, leading to a decline in the quality of theatrical productions.

The misery of theatre is reflected in the line that is often uttered in front of the stage performers, moments before they appear in the spotlight, “Jao jaa k jhooti laa ao” [Go, take a swing at it]. Without preparation and script, they hop onto the stage garbed in clothes that hide every inch of their body and yet are so tight that they leave nothing to the imagination.

Raheel Shah, a seasoned producer and director at Lahore’s Alfalah Theatre, shared insights into how the industry took a wrong turn.

After having watched four decades of theatre unfold before his eyes, Shah believes things could have gone differently if art had not been kept at the bottom of the priority list.

Shah shares how commercialism overshadowed artistic quality over time.

“Producers began prioritizing revenue over the content’s quality,”

leading to a decline in the standard of production, says Shah

While Lahore’s mainstream theatres maintained some degree of quality control, peripheral areas witnessed deviations from scripts and the exploitation of actors to boost revenue. Shah stressed that this tarnished the theatre industry’s reputation.

Shah felt embarrassed introducing himself as a part of the theatre, as he felt that the image of the Punjabi theatre became synonymous with vulgarity.

Mastana Aamir Sohna, another stage actor, called for monitoring of content while maintaining a family-friendly theatre atmosphere.

While sharing a personal anecdote, My mother used to come to watch my plays and now I cannot bring her to the shows, I am embarrassed by what theatre has become,” said Mastana.

The theatre industry’s decline has been multifaceted. Families stopped attending, ticket prices soared, and government departments failed to invest in theatre. Consequently, theatre lost its appeal and its financial viability.

Reasons to Stick by

Despite the layers of challenges, theatre remains a crucial cultural asset, as evidenced by the overwhelming presence of comedians on television shows. What unique value does theatre offer that television or film cannot replicate?

According to Sheikh, theatre provides a shorter-term investment. A well-prepared script can yield returns within months, whereas the production of a drama or film can take years and significant resources. To succeed in film, the budget must be substantial, and the story must be courageous.

Nasir Mastana, a seasoned stage actor, with his chest soaring with pride for Pakistan’s theatre industry, says Punjabi theatre is an inspirational cultural asset. He believes that even neighbouring countries have drawn inspiration from Pakistani theatre for their comedy shows.

He asserted that while dance is a legitimate form of performing arts, it should not overshadow the essence of theatre.

The Way Out

Sheikh argued alternative measures could have been explored before resorting to such an extreme step. He emphasized the need for educating actors on the art of theatre and advocating for better regulation within the industry.

Shah questioned the government’s decision.

“Worldwide, we see the criminal is punished, but here the entire system was shut down because of a few wrongdoers. We stand with the government, but not at the cost of our livelihoods,”

he decried.

However, he believes that government officials, primarily bureaucrats, lack an understanding of theatre and its nuances. Rather than isolating the problem, they opted to shut down the entire theatre ecosystem, shocking those who had dedicated their lives to the art form.

Shah urged government officials to collaborate with senior artists in the theatre industry, leveraging their expertise as consultants to combat obscenity while allowing the industry to flourish once more.

In the face of adversity, Lahore’s theatre community perseveres, cherishing the irreplaceable essence of this age-old art form. While challenges persist, the resilience, passion, and hope within these artists shine through, illustrating the enduring significance of theatre as a cultural cornerstone in the heart of Punjab.


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