"Theatre in Karachi as well as Lahore
is trying to survive, and when you're just surviving, there can't
be any competition." – Vasay Chaudhry
Vasay Chaudhry is one of the very few young playwrights in the
country who has such an in-depth insight into Punjabi culture,
theatre and films and who is so comfortable about this heritage.
In this interview with Instep, the man who crafted the hit play
Inspector Khojee speaks about his love for the medium, theatre
wars and everything that really goes down backstage...
Hani Taha Salim
Chaudhry is a strong believer in all things desi and a great propagator
of originality and clean humour. He has been writing since his teens
and his claim to fame, the much loved and hugely popular Jutt and
Bond capitalised on the stereotypes of Punjabi heroes and the quintessential
hero himself - Maula Jutt – that brought an interesting slice
of humour to television. He recently came back onto the stage with
the insolent and ribald offering Inspector Khojee that left audiences
reeling with laughter and managed to haul in fans that repeatedly
attended performances! Instep talks to the funny man to ask him what
other tricks he has up his sleeve.
How did you get into theatre? Did you study theatre?
Vasay Chaudhry: I didn't study theatre, but I started theatre
back in 1998 when I did this play called Desperado that I
had just a 45 second role in! So I started off with a role
- that calling it a cameo would be a disgrace! I began to
pursue theatre seriously when I went to LACAS for my A-levels
where I met Zain Ahmed (actress/director Samina Ahmed's son)
and acted and assisted him on his play, Bloodbearing. Then
I became the Dramatics Club head and directed an old Urdu
play called Bari Dair Meherban Aatay Aatay for the Rafi Peer
Theatre International Theatre Festival. In the summer of 2000,
I wrote the play Jutt and Bond, which I practically did in
two weeks because I didn't know how to write! Although the
television version was widely acclaimed, those who had seen
the theatre version preferred it to the TV play.
those days the play Family Front was hugely popular and my friend
Zain's (Ahmed) mother was the producer/director so I approached
him for guidance, since I had found a financier, confiding in him
that I wanted to do a comedy play myself. I still remember that
he was in a bad mood that way, and I didn't know him that well at
that point, so he turned to me and bluntly said "comedy play
tu koi nahin hoga! Khud hee likho!" That's how I embarked on
this story of a local super hero and then kept searching for this
desi equivalent for James Bond and there was only one super hero
- Maula Jutt - that I could use or make a true super hero out of
for Pakistan. Because I realised when you say James Bond a certain
image comes to mind, of Pierce Brosnan for instance, like for Indiana
Jones its Harrison Ford. In India there has never been a super hero;
the name Vijay elicits Amitabh Bachchan. But Maula Jutt is a name
that you can say at LUMS, at GC, in Peshawar, in Karachi - it recalls
the image of that one man. And Jutt and Bond was the most original
copy that one could do of Maula Jutt.
You have thoroughly lampooned a certain popular director in
VC: (Cheekily) YOU say so (with a glint in his eye and laughs)…
Instep: So…what was the inspiration
for Inspector Khojee?
VC: We did Inspector Khojee for TV first. The central character
and the story are very much from the 1980s PTV character Khojee
and he's a fat man who has his own twisted ways to solve mysteries.
I had the option to pick the story directly from those plays
but I wanted to make an original theatre version of it. So
I decided to have a murder on stage to make it more interactive.
And thanks to the Lahore grapevine I came to know of this
theatre war between Sharabeel's production house and the whole
Chicago episode where Nida Butt attributed her lack of success
in Lahore to Sharabeel's policy of handing out free passes.
The majority were unwilling to buy her tickets. Honestly people
were not accustomed to buying tickets so pricing tickets at
1500 rupees is ridiculous. Perhaps if the tickets were priced
at 500 rupees, Nida may not have incurred such a loss.
last original play was done in 2000, which was Jutt and Bond. The
only original thing we did after that was Oop Singh in 2004 and 2005
and that's about it. At that time we used to sell tickets. It's only
in these last few years that this whole trend of free passes has begun.
Instep: Inspector Khojee was a very interesting social critique on
Lahori society but also time specific in its references…
VC: Jutt and Bond was also time specific but it didn't draw much from
the outer world since I was just 20 years old. And it's been nine
years since, so even I have grown up and hence you can see that the
dialogues for Khojee draw on society and politics. So even though
it has references that are time specific such as Facebook and the
whole Taseer thing, it is a contemporary play. It could be a mind
set with people to not be time specific, to write plays that are classics.
But I didn't want to do that. I knew what I wanted from my script.
The two things that are crucial to my writing are to ensure that no
content is vulgar or religiously controversial. If I can steer away
from these two traps then it's a job well done. I have grown up in
the PTV era so I wanted to create entertainment that is catered to
the family. Whenever we watched PTV and NTM I knew that I'd never
be embarrassed to watch it with my mother or sister. And I hate people
who try to get kicks out of religious controversies.
What's your take on the contemporary Pakistani theatre scene?
VC: Well the major chunk of Pakistani theatre is happening in
Lahore. There's the Punjabi theatre then there's the few shootouts
like Sharabeel and Nida Butt. The Punjabi theatre scene has
really gone down in the last few years, since the Nargis era.
Before that, from the early 1990s till the early 2000s, Punjabi
theatre had a rocking time. There were no
dances, just good acting. Khalid Abbas Dar was heading these guys
- Babu Baral, Amanullah, Sohail Ahmed – and they were rocking.
If you ever get the opportunity do watch the play Shartian Mithan,
which was the highly grossing play in history, you can even get the
DVD. It is the Titanic of Pakistani theatre. Khalid Abbas Dar doesn't
do plays anymore and Babu is in a bad state these days. So the only
one left who did put up a fight against the Nargis era was Sohail
Ahmed who hauled in the police and ordered a crackdown at the theatres
and put her in jail. But she's got support, which is why she keeps
getting bailed out and is still on stage. The new entrants into the
theatre therefore rely on double meaning dialogues and obscenities.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and her previous breakthrough
flick Cruel Intentions (1999).
– Release: 2009
Instep: Then who do you think are the main players in theatre these
VC: Well, there's the Urdu theatre in Karachi that has started to
pick up since NAPA - which is great. Then there is this whole marketing
gimmick English play, which is elitist theatre. There's nothing to
it but glossy ads and billboards. Even I was a part of this kind of
production, I did the lights for Phantom of the Opera for Sharabeel.
The one thing I realised when I did theatre this time and had free
passes, was that he would get a hall that could accommodate 900 people
and to fill it he gave away free passes. He started this trend of
free passes since he had his sponsors covered and got his full halls.
The problem started for new kids like me who were not a Sharabeel.
By the way, when I started writing in 2000 - and you can go and check
with Alhamra on this - there were 34 amateur productions in that year!
There were 40 in 2001 and now all the halls are empty!
The issue of free tickets seems to incense you, so why did you have
free passes for Inspector Khojee?
VC: Since people are just not into paying for tickets, I didn't
want to suffer the fate that Nida Butt did. But it's not just the
audience, even the sponsors have gotten into this – 'we will
give you money but give us 2000 passes'. Now the whole system has
evolved into this 'free free free' thing. This way theatre will
not work since there's only one Sharabeel, Nida Butt and Vasay Chaudhry
who can get their own finances - but what about the rest? I shouldn't
even count myself with them since I just entered the field after
eight years. So these two people can do just one production in a
year. What about the rest of the ten months in the year? Next time
even if I have to sell my tickets for 30 rupees I'll do so just
to create that culture of buying tickets and paying for entertainment.
I just don't want to fill up the halls and honestly our marketing
sucked! So the initial few days were slow. But thank God –
it worked for us by word of mouth.
Do you see any difference or competition between theatre in Karachi
and Lahore? It always seems to be at daggers drawn.
VC: It's not like Bollywood that there would be a competition. Theatre
in Karachi as well as Lahore is trying to survive, and when you're
just surviving, there can't be any competition. Every night 3000-4000
people watch theatre in Lahore. There is the Alfalah theatre, Tamaseel
theatre, Crown theatre, Alhamra theatre, Bagh-e-Jinnah open-air
theatre - so that's five theatres in Lahore. I don't know that much
about Karachi. But the theatre culture has always been prevalent
in Lahore. Though the Sharabeel theatre moves in cliques; it's in
English and just catering to those living in Defence. Only a certain
crowd is targeted.
What are you seeking to do?
VC: Nothing. I'm just doing my work. I have been doing this since
college and it's been 11 years now. I don't have other businesses.
So this profession is my bread and butter. I did theatre after 8
years; I've been working for TV. My work is just to entertain people.
What are your plans for the future? We've been hearing that you're
doing a movie…
VC: I'm not jumping into anything. I do have a couple of stories.
But next time it might not be this great or work as well as it did
now. Yes, there has been a rumour floating around but nothing is
going on. Shaan and I did discuss the idea. But I'm not doing it
right now - maybe if something works out. Shaan and Juggan Kazim
are doing a project and Juggan introduced me to Shaan. Nothing practically
has been done about it.
portrait by Saad Qureshi