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instep Q&A

"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...

By Hani Taha Salim

Vasay 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.
nstep: 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.

During 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.

Instep: You have thoroughly lampooned a certain popular director in your play…

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.

My 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.
Instep: 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 days?
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!

Instep: 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.

Instep: 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.

Instep: 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.

Instep: 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.

- Vasay's portrait by Saad Qureshi