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instep profile
Meet the Orlando Bloom of Islamabad
They liken him to the British heart throb. The resemblance is striking, but there is much more to Osman Khalid Butt than what meets the eye…
By Maria Tirmizi

As a poetic and love-struck Christian in Moulin Rouge, a brash Irish journalist in Freedom Bound, a charming candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, a side-twitchingly hilarious Stanley Gardner in You Only Marry Twice and an adorably quirky, cross-dressing Jerry in Some Like it Hot, Osman Khalid Butt, at the vernal age of 21, is the new darling of theatre in Islamabad.

Son of the renowned thespian Dr Khalid Saeed Butt, Osman's incredible comic timing and invigorating dance sequences had already made people sit up and take notice back in April 2005 when he played the lead in Moulin Rouge, a play directed by Shah Sharabeel. Even in his subsequent comparatively minor roles, including the duo roles of Edmond Dante's father and a seedy banker in Count of Monte Cristo in June 2005, directed by Raja Zia ul Haq, and a candlestick called Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast in August 2005, directed by Ghazala Siddique, a part for which he dyed his hair ash blonde and was made to carry heavy fiberglass candle-stands while performing, his stage presence shone so bright it could only have been the making of a star.
When he played a hopelessly funny lodger caught between a neighbour's bigamous marital woes in You Only Marry Twice, again directed by Shah Sharabeel in 2006, his performance alone stole the show. In November 2006, a play called Freedom Bound, directed by Tülin Khalid and dealing with more serious undertones of humanity, will power and survival, his depth and range as an actor was much admired.
But by far, it was his ability to pull off his recent directorial debut, Some Like it Hot, without corporate sponsorship to a full house for 14 straight days that not only significantly raised his own profile, but also made people grasp that there's more to amateur theatre in Islamabad than Shah Sharabeel.
Amateur theatre has been around in Islamabad since Sharabeel's Centre Stage Production, formed in 1990, took the city by storm in 2004 with his play Phantom of the Opera. It provided a much needed boost to the cultural activity of the city of Islamabad, which had long been infamous for being deader than a graveyard.

"Prior to Sharabeel's entry, there weren't a whole lot of plays to watch in the city. Theatre was restricted to activism, with socially relevant plays organized by a few NGO's to raise awareness. But these weren't for the general public. Sophisticated Urdu plays, also dealing with socially relevant messages, were brought to town by Lahore's Ajoka Theatre. Now and then, Goethe-Institut, a German institute in Karachi brought a good show in Islamabad for a select few to watch in Marriott," said a senior cultural correspondent.
In the last three years, with Sharabeel staging five successful consecutive plays in Islamabad and Capital Development Authority (CDA) Chairman Kamran Lashari providing considerable patronage through his Margalla Festivals, the city's profile in terms of parallel and amateur theatre has significantly elevated.
"Credit for bringing real entertainment in theatre to the masses in Islamabad goes to Shah Sharabeel. He gave a platform to young, local talent, making them perform consistently. He paid attention to minute technical details exceptionally well. Basically, he brought a lot of music, fun and dance to Islamabad. Now, plays are being watched and performed at a whole new level," she continued.

After Phantom of the Opera, Sharabeel directed Moulin Rouge, Dally in the Dark, You Only Marry Twice and the recent Bombay Dreams, each ensuring an Islamabad Club auditorium packed to capacity.
"At least now there is something to do in Islamabad," a 26-year-old girl working at an NGO laughed.
Soon, others joined the scene. People like Ghazala Siddique (Beauty and the Beast) and Tülin Khalid (Freedom Bound) came forward to nourish the plant Sharabeel had planted.
Alliance Francaise, the French cultural center also stepped up their efforts for theatre in 2004. Their play Paradise Lost, written and performed by their very own creative writing team, and produced and directed by Fizza Hassan, was well-received, starting a process of annual plays by the institute since then.
Nabeela Ahmed, Cultural Coordinator of Alliance Francaise and the Embassy of France said, "Theatre is now rampant in Islamabad. Many producers and directors have sprung up, some good ones, some bad ones. It's a very productive way of channelizing the energies of young people since there aren't many things to do in Islamabad."
With some brilliant, formerly-unknown talent like Osman Butt, Natasha Ejaz, Ali Rehman and Mariam Saleem, and some plain eager performers pouring in from schools and colleges, locals started looking at theatre as a much anticipated annual/biannual event with lots of social intermingling coupled with pure entertainment. Funny, modern adaptations of plays and films, incorporated with a lot of hip, current music, stirred cheerful applause from an audience that was beginning to know what it likes.

The crowd that started filling in the seats of Islamabad Club auditorium no longer consisted solely of teenagers looking for a good time, but families and the older age bracket as well, who showed genuine interested in theatre. Though some innuendos were deemed slightly inappropriate for a father and daughter to appreciate together, the overall climate in the auditorium was civilized and appreciative, with a large cross-section of the city, from students, to bureaucrats to grandparents, having 'a whole lotta' fun'.
The seed that owes its sowing to Sharabeel has now begun to grow with a life of its own. His recent direction, the tragic-themed Bombay Dreams, failed to mesmerize the crowd the way his earlier plays had. One could clearly hear snickers from the audience when the lead characters began dying one by one and apart from one or two actors who performed remarkably well, including a transvestite named Sweety (Faheem Azam) and a snotty actress named Rani (Nida Ali), most of the other characters seemed wooden and forced.

But one must keep in consideration that though theatre is growing here, it still has a long way to go. The scene is amateur and the actors have no formal training. Just to encourage the trend of young people at least giving theatre a shot by defying some established norms and standing up on stage, an act that itself takes enormous courage, a director has no choice but to work with what he's got.
Though the audience did not have gushing praises for Bombay Dreams, the director's name alone, along with A R Rahman's music and dance sequences by the talented Lahore-based choreographer Atif Khan, still managed to ensure a packed auditorium.

People in Islamabad are now starting to get choosy about what they do or do not like. They just don't want to wait for Sharabeel to come once or twice a year. They want other people to join in. Everyone is eager for the next play. The process has started and it can't be suppressed.

Which brings us back to Osman Khalid Butt. First discovered by Sharabeel, he has preferred to sit behind the captain's wheel rather than be just one of the better crew members. His charming, quirky comic instinct, boyish good looks and an innate knack for scriptwriting and directing transported him rapidly from one of the lead roles of Moulin Rouge to the grander role of a successful director, producer, scriptwriter and choreographer within a short span of two years, breathing even more life into the growing theatre scene in the capital.

Tulin Khalid has said about Osman, "I like to imagine he was born under the wings of the muse Terpsichore, surrounded by poetry and music. He transcends the lines, breathing life into all he does, taking us along on his remarkable journey."

Natasha Ejaz, his assistant choreographer and one of the main characters in Some Like it Hot, told Instep, "There is a pleasure sure in being mad that none but mad men know. That is Osman for me."
Also affectionately called the 'Orlando Bloom of Islamabad' by friends, he describes himself as having a "Simon Cowell-like" sarcastic sense of humour, an outspoken personality to the observer, but a personal side he prefers keeping to himself. He traces the origin of his passion for theatre to genes inherited from his father and his family's 'steady diet of Bollywood films", amusingly recalling his brother's bedroom walls splashed with posters of Sri Devi.

The first time he saw a staged production in Islamabad, Dracula, back in 2004, he remembers being absolutely spellbound. The aspiring actor in him nudged him hard to audition for the next play, which landed him the lead role in Moulin Rouge.

After winning the city's affection in four subsequent plays, he staged his own production and directorial debut, Some Like it Hot, (a 1959 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe) in March 2007. He adapted the play's script from a candy-fluff comedy of the 50's to a more meaningful, relevant theme, choreographing for it, and also playing one of the main characters, a hilarious, trouble-seems-to-find-his-way kind of fellow named Jerry who dresses up as a woman to escape an underworld gang, and ends up fending off the outlandish advances of a middle-aged man. He simultaneously launched his company, The Living Picture Productions, and quit his job as Creative Head at Grapevine.

The journey from idea of the play to its execution saw numerous hurdles, from two actors quitting on him during rehearsals to cynics from amongst those he least expected telling him he was making the worst mistake of his life. Each morning, he would go looking for sponsorships and faced rejection after rejection. This was a real blow to him, making even his own actors doubt whether the play would ever see daylight.
"It illuminated the inside workings of this business. It's so easy to sponsor established names, but if you don't help out young, emerging talent, where would people like us go?" he says.

But he also feels that getting no sponsorship turned out to be a blessing in disguise, giving him immense creative freedom. Yet all is not a bed of roses when it comes to breaking new ground in the capital. The conservatism of certain sections is not very receptive to Osman's vision. Some people even went to the extent of calling him 'cheap and chauvinistic' for using images of women to lure the crowd to theatre.

"I was taken aback by these comments because they could not have been further away from reality. Most people made them without even bothering to watch the play. Some lady objected to the poster of the play Some Like it Hot saying it degraded women, but the poster, very creatively done, only showed the silhouette of women, along with that of men as well. And the very subject of the play, that talent is often overlooked for outward beauty, had a deep social message in favour of women and very relevant to our society," says Osman.

But faith and pure talent ultimately knocked down one hurdle after the next and the success of the play defied all odds. People came to watch it again and again, applauding whole-heatedly and pouring praises on Osman and his team, making him relish in the euphoria for which he had worked so hard.
He is also proud of the fact that according to him, the play considerably destroyed the "pass culture" in Islamabad, with his strict "no pass" policy.

"If people are willing to pay 10,000 rupees for a fashion show, why can't they pay a little amount for being thoroughly entertained and encouraging the city's young talent? I believe if everyone is coming with free passes, theatre is being disrespected."

Not one to be satisfied with just one successful venture, he is currently busy contemplating his next project; which may either be Mughal-e-Azam, the first movie he ever watched as a child, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He also remains involved with other projects, like his recent role in Pakistan's first internationally-distributed horror film Zibahkhana, in which he played a rebel teenager who finds himself in the middle of a zombie infected forest, and he has also helped write the script of another short horror amateur film. His company, The Living Picture Productions, is not solely restricted to commercial plays; its sphere will soon extend to fashion show choreography, as well as theatre workshops and drama festivals in schools and colleges.

He also feels passionate about bringing back Urdu theatre as a respectable medium, regretting the fact that our beautiful language has been resorted to the level of a secondary language.

With such attempts, along with stepped up efforts for the construction of a theatre exclusively for performing arts in the capital, and increased patronage from the corporate sector specifically for emerging talent, theatre in Islamabad can go much further.

Khadija Qureshi, who also performed in Some Like it Hot said, "Islamabad's theatre scene is definitely on the rise. First it was all about fun and comedy, but now people are starting to watch plays with a soul."
"Some of the best plays in Islamabad have come out from people who have been born and bred here. It's only a matter of time till the amateur theatre scene out here turns into a professional one," said Natasha Ejaz.

Responding to a question on his future goals and aspirations, Osman jokes that he already has an Oscar-accepting speech prepared since he was 13. Pulling a serious face on a humbler note, he says that he hopes to set a strong foothold in the entertainment industry.
We prefer rooting for the former.