Amanullah made comedy a staple diet for Pakistani audience
Amanullah was different from most other actors who made a name for themselves in the theatre of Pakistan over the last six decades or so. He was a cut above the rest. He paid due regard to the theatre as a form that was not wholly dependent on the actor’s skill for quick-fire repartee.
In many parts of the world, including Pakistan, theatre is seen as a one-man show. Its star is a stand-up comedian who has immense wit, is quick on the draw and can keep the audiences engaged with spontaneity or apparent spontaneity centred round topical matters in the society, the region or the world.
The repartee is considered to be the true asset of the performer and if he/she also has a finger on the pulse of his times it has the potential for instant resonance with the audiences.
The entire focus has thus been on the actor. It may be a single actor or a number of them taking on one another, thus making a play, the entire play, if it can be called one, a series of rapid-fire remarks. After seeing and hearing it for the entire duration of the play, the audiences are sateel.
The repartees were mostly double entrendre, and like theatres or standup acts all over the world, the source of humour was often discomfort about sex. This was even more pertinent in a society like Pakistan where sex is a big taboo and theatre becomes a source of a communal release, liberation from the state of holding back all the time. In such circumstances, an overkill is always looming.
The Pakistani stage is frequently a victim to it. The constant interaction with the audience goes to the actors head and often overrides the awareness that there is always a point where one must stop to achieve the maximum impact.
Amanullah was not just a repartee man. He was more than that. He always created a situation or a character, an archetype of characters in this society. They usually were from the lower and lower-middle classes, spanning the rural-urban divide, manifested through the language. They were often found grappling with the issues and the values that they were born into and were expected to live up to, but could not. They encountered situations that were thrust upon them and they were forced to play a certain role.
He did not stop with the repartee, ad libbing and double entrende but created the archetypes and prepared for the stock situations that the archetypes encountered all the time. It was not just verbal magic. There was also the character encountering the situation and interacting, coping and dealing with it according to its innate understanding and layered upbringing.
The plays were mostly reliant on one liners. There were no scripts in the conventional sense and the actors did not deliver the lines as scripted. There were many reasons for this, including censorship. The scripts were mauled, all the meat taken away with nothing left for the actor to translate into action, so over the years a tradition developed of treating the script as a secondary grid. This also gave the actor plenty of opportunity to be on the ball, in synch and to be free to add or subtract as his wit dictated at the spur of the moment.
Urban theatre in Pakistan was a very limited affair. It was sporadically sponsored by Alhamra, then called the Pakistan Arts Council and by other councils with a few private organisations chipping in in the form of sponsorship for amateur groups. The plays were usually adaptations from Europeans plays. There were very few original scripts.
When Faiz became the secretary in the late 1950s, he gave a fillip to the activities at the Alhamra and the alumni of some colleges; Government College in particular took up the cudgels and did plays regularly. It was not as if a living could be made out of the theatre. It was at best part-time activity.
Gradually, by the late 1960s, demand increased and a temporary second stage “thara” was set up on the lawns of Alhamra as the old hall was too rickety and too small. A little later the old Alhamra structure was knocked down to make room for a bigger building completed in the 1970s. The “thara” stayed and even spilled over to Bagh-e-Jinnah Open Air Theatre and other makeshift venues.
The theatre eventually transformed into a self-sustaining activity and people associated with it could finally make a living out of it. The theatre previously was hugely subsidised, and later it continued to be so as the money started filling the coffers of the NGOs. These funded the staging of plays, usually on topics that they were working on, and this issue-based theatre became quite visible from the 1980s onwards.
But theatre that was in Punjabi or in colloquial Urdu became a thriving activity and producers, directors and actors started to make a living out of it and it became so big that the number of avenues available for it fell short. The actors became household names — and the frontrunner among them was Amanullah.
He was a mere shadow of himself in the many television shows as comedy became a staple act in the late evening programmes. It was concentrated on repartee and pulling one another down. Amanullah was more than that, but he never got the opportunity to display his talent as characterisation and stock situations were not part of the shows’ DNA. That was replaced by rapid-fire exchanges and Amanullah at times was left out of the brutal verbal exchange which had little scope for exploiting the dramatic potential through an interaction between the character and the situation.