Obsessed With Laughter: A Conversation With Anwar Maqsood
Pakistani playwright brings his brand of humour to Dubai theatre buffs
Every time an Anwar Maqsood play comes to town, it is a sure shot sell-out. With a writing career spanning over fifty years, this maverick scriptwriter and playwright who has seen his fair share of criticism from the authorities, admits that the biggest reward that keeps him going is receiving the adulation and encouragement from strangers on the streets. A connoisseur of music and a champion of creativity, Anwar Maqsood is also a renowned artist. Masala! Talks to him about his upcoming play 'Dharna' and the budding theatre scene in Pakistan.
Most of your works are inspired by political events and incidents? Why does politics attract you so much as a subject? What other themes do you enjoy working with?
My forte is comedy and satire, and till date I haven't found a more appropriate subject to base my comedies on. But of course, politics is the funniest subject! And it has been so for the last 60 years, in Pakistan!
What inspired you to write for the stage?
Dharna is actually my fifth play for KopyKat Productions. It all started with Pawney 14 August. Few years ago some youngsters from Islamabad came to see me and they wanted me to write a stage play. Having zero experience with the stage, I explained to them that I only wrote for the television and have been doing so for the past 50 years. But, they were adamant. They refused to budge for 3 days, and said that they would only leave with a script. They persuaded me to write my first stage play, a slapstick comedy. The play depicts a series of events in the aftermath of the partition of British India with characters like Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, and our very own Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Plays in Pakistan, generally run for about 4 days to a week. This play ran houseful for four months straight! I had to insist that the cast was now tired after performing 3 shows daily, for 4 whole months! My current play ‘Dharna’ is again politically inspired. It is based on a live talk show on stage, just like we have talk shows on television.
Have you faced any criticism from viewers at home and abroad for talking about sensitive issues?
Of course, the journey has been a rough one, where I have had to accost rivers of fire, metaphorically speaking! My TV shows and plays have always been a hit with the masses but I have never been nominated for any awards. Once, Indian journalist M.J Akbar came to Pakistan during the time of General Zia Ul Haq. Akbar is a dear friend of mine and wanted permission for me to write for Doordarshan. To this the general retorted "Anwar has always been writing for Doodarshan, he has never written for us! Why does he need our permission now? Take him!"
This was published in the Sunday Times from Calcutta and since then I have become the target of more criticism. But, I have always maintained that I only write the truth.
Most of your plays have been satires and have used the medium of humour. Do you think it’s the best way to convey a serious message?
I am completely anti-message. All our TV programs are didactic, and they have no effect at all! Then what good will a message from Anwar Maqsood do? I want my work to reach out to the common man and talk about everyday issues that touch our lives, like education and health. If I were to approach them in a serious manner, there would be harsh repercussions, so I treat them in my own unique style using humour and mirth. And what makes it all worthwhile is when I get the feedback, not from the media or newspapers, but from complete strangers on the streets! The bus driver or the newspaper vendor would stop to embrace me in the middle of the road and ask me to continue with my work. I don’t need any more encouragement.
Have you performed in Dubai before? What has been your experience?
Yes, we performed Pawney 14 August in Dubai last year and it was sold out completely. About 200 disappointed people had to go back from the venue because they couldn’t get tickets.
How robust is the theatre scene in Pakistan today?
Stagecraft is still in an amorphous phase in Pakistan. It is very unlike India, where the theatre scene is so mature. Take, Calcutta for instance, there is a stage round the corner in every locality. Karachi has a population of 20 million and there is only one theatre with the capacity of 400 odd persons. But, over twice that number turned up to watch my plays. They bought tickets and then stood in the aisles or sat on the floor and watched the play!
Do you enjoy acting on stage? Why haven’t we seen you too much on stage as an actor?
I am a painter by profession. I ventured into writing as a hobby about 50 years ago and have been writing ever since. After hosting talk shows on television and a couple of small acting stints, I believe one should stick to the field one excels in. My strength lies in my writing.
Creativity runs in your family with your son Bilal Maqsood being known for his music. Have you both collaborated in any of your productions?
Yes, my son Bilal is a member of the popular band Strings, and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to pen the lyrics of all their songs. My connection with music runs deep; I have a lot of regard for Hindustani classical music and have developed a collection of over 600 hours of recording of Ustad Vilayat Khan.
In my library you will find Elvis Priestly just as much as The Doors and the Beach Boys, and you will also find Ravi Shankar and Lata Mangeshkar. In fact, I have a collection of 18000 songs by Lata Mangeshkar!
What are you working on after Anwar Maqsood ka Dharna?
There is a lot of work to look forward to in the coming months. For starters we will be taking our play Pawney 14 August to London soon. After that, I am working on another politically inspired play about a young girl. I have decided to call it ‘Miss Management’!
If given a chance, which international celebrities would you love to interview on your chat show?
I would love to interview Modi Sahab on my show Loose Talk, which has already aired 492 episodes! I am a big fan of Dilip Kumar and would love to have him on my show too.