I saw Nida Butt's "Karachi, an original musical" last week. I admire the energy of the entire cast ad crew. I like their vivaciousness, their defiance, their taking life by the horns attitude. I admire their ability to jiggle and shake to irreverent choreography, which, to me, is the equivalent of being caught in a horror movie. An actor struts onto stage and displays his muscles in an over the top, almost comic style. A women reporter tumbles in in her skintight jeans and wafer thin body. Its a new generation of people raised by parents who gave them a "like" for everything they did, told them the value of a useful major, and the importance of making money.
The city is filled with capitalist entrepreneurs like the play's producers. They provide guitar, piano, yoga lessons; they run art studios; manufacture kid furniture, deliver sushi, stitch bridal outfits; some are middle class while others own luxury villas.
The problem with mixing this type capitalist entrepreneurship (for a niche affluent market) arises when the project involves a theatrical rendition (for profit) of a community that has been destroyed by the very same capitalist system.
Either you overlook the political implications of your representation, or you don't. McDonalds sponsored the publicity for the event. The tickets were priced at Rs. 1,500 and was inaccessible to most Lyari residents. Cynics will say that this is naivety. Without sponsorship and costing, theater will perish as there is no government support for it. Hence, the Coke studios, the burger musicals. There is no way out. The show must go on. Artists will join the activists after the revolution is won.
But its not so simple. In allegiance to its patrons, artists must necessarily keep the message apolitical or muted. You can not really ask the hard questions. Why is it that some people consume 300 rupee meals at Mcdonalds while others barely have salan to dip their rotis in? Should foreign corporations be allowed to drain profits from a consumer market in Pakistan? What are the stories of subsidiaries of foreign corporations exploiting the workers of Lyari?
Here's the thing - you can't make a play about about poverty without purporting to examine poverty. You can't ignore displacements, dengue, inflation, unemployment suffered by the people you are representing. This is imperfect documentation of history. The setting may as well be a Puerto Rican ghetto in New York.
Unless you create a sense of Lyari in its gritty, material reality, show why its people endure daily violence and mafia rule while being ignored by the state and cheated by businesses -- why pretend to be social commentary. Its just out and out fun. Even the rich need mirth in their lives.
The play's theme was boxing in Lyari. A young man from Multan aspires to train with a famous boxer in Lyari who has long since given up training. His ex-friend and nemesis, a gang leader, shot and murdered one of his boxers, and he is thus in a permanent state of mourning.. As linearity would have it, he is effortlessly pulled out of his depression; he trains the Punjabi; boxer goes onto defeat the nemesis's man. Good reigns supreme. Lyari bursts into song and dance of resilience. Little homes and shops, decorated in kitschy style - Dil Lage Pan Shop et al - walls with a touch of graffiti and paan -- depict (or compensate, with fondness) the destitution you would normally find in a Karachi slum. You see bangle shop filled to the brim with glimmering glass. In the flats upstairs, tiny tinnish rooms light up. These matchbox quarters are to give a sense of overcrowded humanity, lurking disease -- but they look more like merry roadside dhabas in Haiti. An artist's fantasization of what a happy, universal slum must look like.
The characters don't say much that would give you a sense of who they are, how what they are saying is unique to Lyari, yet common to people all over the world.
A few examples: The Multani boxer cruises onto stage during a song and dance sequence in Lyari, and we have no idea what his reaction is to the unique squalor of Lyari. He grins broadly and joins in the fun. The mafia leader has a woman by his side. After she loses her son, she switches loyalty and gives herself over to the leader's opponent in order to live a life of honor and dignity. Woman needs Saviour. There are several women on stage and are supposedly hanging out on streets; we are never told their stories and how they are asserting a supposed equality to share public space with men.
I suppose its good not to take ourselves too seriously. Wrote the following on November 19, 2007.
Our interface with lyari is when the bikers and the gadha gari racers come out to the Clifton bridge on their way to the seaside. It is a PPP stronghold in an MQM city.
On Thursday, last week, two young boys, ages 11 and 12, were killed in Lyari as shop keepers and PPP workers fired at each other. The police joined the gun battle later. The PPP workers were supposedly forcing traders to close their shops in protest of Benazir's house arrest.
Lyari has not been sensationalized in film. Its violence, gangs and political fiefdoms have not become fodder for (exploitative perhaps, voyeuristic certainly) cinema - favelas in Rio have, Harlem and inner cities in the U.S. have.
Hell, even the red light districts of Calcutta and Lahore have.
Lyari has not produced rap, hip-hop, or spoken word. what art has it produced? It has, though, had its communities uprooted, in large numbers, to make space for the lyari expressway. In anticipation of protests last week, schools in lyari were shut down. It has its share of woes.
What is needed for art to grow? Does it grow only in the art rooms of shiny art schools? In middle and upper middle class homes of boys strumming guitars?
If lyari has produced art, it has not been showcased by the tv channels. So much for opening up the channels of communication. Its only for the over-represented voices.
(Lyari is known to have produced some good soccer players for the national team though.)
I saw two pictures of police brutality against Baluch youth in Lyari. It is terrifying to imagine what would happen to them in custody. There are "stolen lives" projects in new york city for youth that have lost their lives at the hands of trigger happy and racist cops. Where are the stolen lives projects in Karachi?
We are segregated and ghettoized.