Of taxed and gagged theater | Pakistan Today

Of taxed and gagged theater

While performative elements are present in every society, it is customary to acknowledge a distinction between theatre as an art form and theatre as an entertainment form.
In Pakistan, after Zia ul Haq’s regime, theatre as art was instantly suppressed and crushed under the weight of the military boot. But even during these times, theatre as pure entertainment managed to flourish, albeit under difficult circumstances. Stage actors who are still considered the biggest names in the entertainment industry such as Omar Shareef, and the late Mastana and Babbu Baraal, have undoubtedly been the largest part of the theatre in Pakistan especially for mass audiences.
Yet somewhere in the niches, entire spaces have always been occupied by groups such as the Rafi Peer Theatre and the Ajoka Theatre Group, which are usually termed as ‘quality’ theatre. However, since no benchmark of quality has ever been established, except by “highbrow art lovers”, the theatre for the masses cannot be sidelined ever as being cheap, or vulgar.
In fact now about thirty years after suffering from the trauma of Zia ul Haq’s oppressive regime, theatre as art and even as entertainment is reviving slowly, even though it is not directly supported by the government.
Muhammad Waseem, a director from the Interactive Resource Group, confirms this by explaining that the tax the government has levied upon any form of entertainment that should be staged in its auditoriums, has indeed discouraged the art from flourishing. But despite this tax, small theatre groups and clubs are opening themselves up to the public and performing plays, some very elaborate and heavily self funded or sponsored, some very simple and restricted to school or college level.
“I do college training and I know that colleges such as UET and GC are doing many theatre performances; it is in fact relieving to know that this will speed up in the future and help this art form survive,” he says. “New faces are now coming up in front of us, and mostly these are young people – young people who perform for other young people, regardless of the language used.”
Speaking for his group, Waseem says that the IRC has and is still doing plays in rural areas concerning social issues including violence against women, slavery, etc.
“Public response is great,” he says. “Let us not even for a moment believe that the Pakistan public does not appreciate theatre. If people are given choices, they will definitely go and see a play or skits on stage.” He says. “Bombay Dreams was a pirated play by Shah Sharabeel which TV channels condemned while it was being staged. But did anyone see that there was houseful every time it was performed?”
It is often also assumed of the public, that they do not understand serious issues through drama, and look for mindless entertainment, the kind that is performed every night at small time theatres.
But a worker for Laal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Younus Choudry disagrees.
“Its not that the public is unable to understand serious issues its how they are fed these issues. I think Ajoka is an excellent theatre group, but sometimes it gets difficult to digest issues in such seriousness. The play Sabz for instance tried to do a more pleasant job in expressing their ideology – through a very unique and entertaining musical. That is not to say that people don’t understand Ajoka. But simpler plays have become more appealing nowadays.” But one issue has been discouraging producers and directors for a long time now, especially in Punjab. The tax levied on performances is about 65 per cent. This tax was levied on cinemas as well, but then it was reduced. However theatre groups like Ajoka have been complaining publicly about this issue and Madeeha Gauhar has said that there would be no point in making new plays if more than half of the revenue goes to tax. “We cannot even cover our costs, how do you expect us to produce newer plays each time?” she told Pakistan Today in a previous interview.
Besides this, the issue of ‘morality’ has often disturbed government officials and has led to banning of plays by the Pakistan National Council of Arts, such as Burkawaganza by Ajoka.
“Morality for theatre has been decided upon by some clerk type of person, who thinks he knows about art,” says Muhammad Waseem. “These issues keep happening, where they term certain plays ‘vulgar’, but it is all actually nonsense.”
Long time veteran Imraan Peerzada from the Rafi Peer Theatre Group, also feels that the government has throughout the history of Pakistan stopped the creative potential from growing in not just performing arts, such as theatre, but also other fields including sports. He says he has often faced the harsh and ridiculous rules and laws of government-run departments or governmental laws. For instance, paying tax before the tickets are sold.
“This is so stupid, if you come to think about it, to pay the tax before you know how many people will turn up in your audience. And the amount of tax is just atrocious.”
But overall, Imraan is much more positive now that he sees more colleges and institutions turning up in halls and auditoriums, performing plays written, and directed and acted by their own students. “This is the best learning experience and it is so wholesome…to do everything on your own. Only this can help boost theatre in Pakistan.”
Throughout the years Rafi Peer’s activities such as the Youth Festival and the World Performing Arts have also encouraged to make students feel that they can have their say and do their bit in this field.
“Theatre may not be reviving in the best of conditions,” says Imraan. “But the good thing is, that its there.”

One Comment;

  1. Aneeq Zaman said:

    Zia was a major shadow on Pakistani art. Creativity stopped, when he came

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