Karachi musical makes song and dance of gang wars

KARACHI: A hit musical about gangland violence in Pakistan’s largest metropolis is bidding to revive Karachi’s once-rich stage culture while shedding light on its grim addiction to violence.

Fierce sectarian and ethnic conflicts have been responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 people this year alone and are an all-too-familiar tale to Karachi’s 18 million residents.

But the gritty realism portrayed in “Karachi – The Musical” has nevertheless provoked a huge response, playing to large audiences since it began in October for a month-long run due to finish on November 13.

It tells the story of a rookie boxer from the eastern city of Multan who comes to train at a boxing club in Karachi’s notorious Lyari neighbourhood – better known for its mafias than its sporting talent.

The ambitions of the protagonist, Saif Salaam, spark tensions between his coach and Daud Islam, a mafia don who controls the local gambling, drugs and prostitution rings and wants to thwart the boxer’s success.

With many twists and turns in the story set to a dozen songs, Daud attempts to kill Salaam, just as he had murdered another rising star 20 years earlier.

Mirroring grim realities on Karachi’s streets, the mafioso Daud is only stopped from killing the boy thanks to the intervention of another bad man – a more powerful don whose influence reaches higher into the corridors of power.

“It depicts the situation which we are facing nowadays,” said one theatre-goer, Aleem Akhtar.

“We are infested with mafias and gangs of killers and every mafia is well protected, so we can survive only with the blessings of some good bad men.”

The director of the first original musical to grace the city said that the show represented a defence against the very harshness it was based on.

“Today, art needs more support than ever in Pakistan because it is not only a reflection of the times we live in, but also of a brighter future we can create,” said Nida Butt.

“Theatre is not for the faint-hearted – it’s a labour of love, long hours and hard work that often results in more (money) spent than earned,” she added.

The once-thriving stage scene in Karachi, which was known for its opera before the partition of British India to create Pakistan in 1947, was lost largely due to the growing Islamisation of the country, say artists.

They particularly point the finger at military dictator General Zia-ul Haq, blaming him for worsening the gun and drug culture, encouraging sectarian and ethnic parties and crushing liberal forces during his 1977-1988 rules.

Art began losing its way under Zia’s predecessor Ayub Khan, they say, but it crumbled as culture became an early casualty of Zia’s regime, which nurtured religious fanaticism.

Syed Ahmed Shah, who heads the Karachi Arts Council and whose theatre is staging the production, says his organisation is the only one with a dedicated auditorium for plays and theatrical performances in Pakistan’s biggest city.

“Our resolve is to fully revive the city’s old cultural status so that it is here to stay,” he said.

“Particularly in a situation where fear and anxiety are the order of the day. Culture is the only remedy to rely on,” he said.

Hamza Jafri, who composed the original scores, said that “Karachi – The Musical” drew on the various strands of the city’s musical culture – a mix of rock opera, indigenous beats and big band jazz.

“The music is edgy, contemporary and completely inspired by our research into Lyari and the boxing gangs there. The songs talk about us, about Karachi and our lives in this city today,” he said.

But those living among the conditions depicted on stage complain they cannot see it because they are priced out of the market, with tickets costing 1,500 rupees (18 dollars) each – five times as much as a first-class cinema seat.

“I would love to watch such plays but it is getting too tough to enjoy theatre and cinema nowadays,” said Maula Bakhsh, 35, a fruit vendor in Lyari.

“We hardly feed our families because of price hikes. How can we spare money to spend on that luxury?” said Bakhsh – adding that he had to abandon his own boxing career to support his family.

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