FTM Exclusive: ‘We Are Like A Sitar And Guitar Combination’; Dawar Mehmood On Working With Anwar Maqsood

Dawar Mehmood

“Theatre runs with one rule, the show must go on,” says Dawar Mehmood, theatre director and actor with his sheer elegance and passion has delivered a string of commercially successful plays with veteran playwright Anwar Maqsood. While having received no prior formal training in theatre, Dawar has earned this reputation that a play helmed by him has to be unique. Dawar’s latest project Saadhay 14 August is a trilogy that started a decade ago as Pawnay 14 August, then Sawa 14 August, and ends on Saadhay 14 August. The young director had a lot to say about the final leg of the trilogy when he appeared on Khalid Malik Morning Jam on FM91. Read on…

Dawar Mehmood

Khalid Malik (KM): Theater is one of the hardest modalities to pull off successfully. Does it require a unique mindset and personality? 

Dawar Mehmood (DM): The rules of theatre are the same as they apply to any good school. You got to have that discipline, punctuality, and rehearse over and over again to eliminate mistakes. There’s no room for drugs. One has to be active, should have an RJ’s voice, expressions of a film star and above all a fighting spirit. Only then you can become a stage actor. The theatre training helps actors in the long run because it’s a cakewalk for them when they join TV and films.

(KM): How did you pop out the trilogy series with Anwar Maqsood?

DM: I did a theater play at the age of 18 in Islamabad and earned thirty-five thousand rupees. Then, I was told to go to Karachi as it’s a big market to explore. Once I came here, someone told me about Anwar Maqsood’s residence. Every day, I would go to his house in the morning and evening. After listening to infinite excuses about his busy schedule for around twenty days; one day his wife asked me to come inside and made me meet Anwar Sahab. He is a man of few words so I was struggling with what to talk about. Thankfully, he asked me about my work and then I briefed him about my portfolio.

I asked him to write for theatre, to which he replied that I haven’t written for stage. But he agreed, to do it and told me to come over in the evening. I was happy when he told me the idea of doing a play with the theme of Quaid-e-Azam, Allama Iqbal and Maulana Shaukat Ali coming to Pakistan on August 11 and going back on August 15 to Islamabad. Their tickets are on chance and they stayed in Karachi for four days, and no one recognized them. So, that is how the play started. I asked him about the title to which he said Pawnay 14 August. The year was 2011, I was 18 then, and now I am 32. The show was a success, we repeated it quite some time with around six hundred shows.

I don’t belief in trilogies and sequels until Anwar Sahab randomly cracked a joke that it’s time for Sawa 14 August. Within no time that joke turned into a reality and this time Jinnah came back again with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq. This time it was a much bigger success which we weren’t expecting. After that, there was a gap of ten years and we were kind of scared to revisit it. In between, we did Siachen, Haaf Playt, Aangan Terha, Anwar Maqsood Ka Dharna, Kyun Nikala and Naach Na Jaane. I believe Saadhay 14 August was destined to happen now.

(KM): After working and spending so much time with Anwar Maqsood, what is your biggest takeaway?

DM: Oh, there’s so much. I am the crowd of the 90s that is kind off struggling in their 30s. We are a product of one television channel, where we got to watch just one drama in the 8 to 9 slots. Our humor, confidence, communication skills, and jokes are inspired by the benchmarks set by writers like Anwar Maqsood and Haseena Moin. Anwar Sahab is my best friend, he’s like a fatherly figure. We have spent so much time together and share a love-and-hate relationship. For instance, he makes a scene, I change it, he disagrees, and we have our reasons for it. It’s more like a culmination of thoughts of three generations apart. It’s like a sitar and guitar combination that works and is loved by the audience.

Dawar Mehmood

(KM): Give us an inkling about Saadhay 14 August. 

DM: The plot revolves around Winston Churchill, who registers a case which states that for the last 75 years people of the subcontinent including Muslims and Hindus are abusing me for dividing India. The allegations include the killing of five million people, and two and a half crore people gone missing during the partition. I am innocent, it’s the fault of Jinnah and Gandhi, so punish them. His plea is accepted and Jinnah and Gandhi are arrested and summoned to court in 2022. The play is a case of their lives as world-class barristers. It’s like a fantasy match, Muhammad Ali VS Mike Tyson; something the audience always wanted to see but they can’t. Saadhay 14 August allows them to experience it.

(KM): You are a perfectionist and don’t settle for anything less than what you have in mind. Tell us about your state of mind during the rehearsals.

DM: I can’t think of anything else other than what I have imagined. When I picture a scene in my mind and want exactly that to happen, that’s all (smiles). People don’t like this trait of mine, especially actors who have a problem with it as they are concerned with creative freedom. At times, an actor gets it within an hour or takes twenty-five days to get it right. I want that specific performance from my actors, it’s a long tall order, putting it in a practical thing, and remembering it for like two hundred days. But due to extensive rehearsals, it becomes second nature to them. I get irritated to see mediocre stuff. All I demand is perfection. That’s it.

(KM): You have tough schedules of hundreds of shows across various cities. How do you do to detach yourself?

DM: In the initial days, I used to hang out with the cast and crew. But now, I don’t do that anymore. As the show begins, I spend the first twenty days with them, make the final changes and let them be. I feel I’ll die at a young age when watching and reacting to some silly mistakes. Like once during an important tense finale sequence, the actor had to shoot his colleague and guess what? He forgot his gun backstage. To make up for it, he pointed his fingers like a gun and completed the scene. Just imagine a crowd of five hundred people paying Rs. 2500 for a ticket and that too in these times of inflation, instead of crying started laughing. So, in situations like these, you lose it. To avoid such situations, I have set some rules that I tell them in the first fifteen days. A, to be within their limits, I specify in particular which lines to cross and which not to cross. B, don’t get too excited to see the audience etc. Then there’s this plethora of internal politics, fights, and love affairs that reflect on the stage. After sorting all of it, I am off for a vacation.

(KM): Have you learned the craft?

DM: No. Not at all! I come from a strict Punjabi family that has strong Islamic values. Most of the members of my family are judges, bureaucrats, and army men. For example, if a child of the family secures a silver medal in CSS exam, he would be labeled as a loser. Imagine! For me venturing into this field was a big shock that was very difficult for them to digest. It’s a sad reality that we don’t have any acting schools in Pakistan, and my family didn’t have enough funds to send me abroad to learn the craft. So, one after the other, I did a play, then another and kept going. But now, they love my work, and my mother is my biggest critic.

(KM): When is Saadhay 14 August coming to other cities?

DM: Saadhay 14 August is running in Karachi till November 15. It will then move to Lahore for a month starting from the first week of January 2023, at Alhamara Arts Council (Mall Road). Finally, we will move to Islamabad in February at the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA).

(KM): Which part from the series is your personal favorite?

DM: Well, that’s a tough one to answer at this moment. We are designing a Kopykats festival in which we will be casting thirty actors; running it for five months and performing Pawnay 14 August, Sawa 14 August and Saadhay 14 August together for a month each. Maybe I can answer this question accurately after the festival.

(KM): How did an item song happen on Saadhay 14 August?

DM: The thing is Anwar Maqsood’s plays are packed with huge numbers of audiences. So when people with different mindsets watched an item song in a Quaid-e-Azam play, they were like ‘Aag Laga Dau Aag’ (Chuckles). Saadhay 14 August is the journey of Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The item number was required as it was a part of that era; so we had to plug it in. It took me six months to convince Anwar Sahab, he was like, ‘Dawar, Mere Play Mai Item Number?’ Are you out of your mind? To this, I replied, when India’s Gulzar Sahab can write an item song why not you? Finally, he was convinced and he wrote the lyrics. I asked Shiraz Uppal to do the score for it. Sung by Neha, the track is titled ‘Aja Jani Paan Khila De’. Since it was the last part of the trilogy series, so I thought of taking the first and last panga. Why not let the audience savor a complete 12 masale wali chaat.

(KM): After giving so many years to theatre, do you think it’s a viable business?

DM: Yes! I’ll tell you why? The team of Saadhay 14 August features almost 50 actors, around 100 to 150 extras, and approximately 60-70 dancers. The capacity of the auditorium is 438 people. So the team working on the play is of 570 people working for 8 months. So, theatre is a surely a viable business, once you make the structure and everyone can be happy.

Dawar Mehmood

(KM): Lastly, any advice you would want to give to aspiring actors who want to join theatre?

DM: This is a really tough one to answer because we don’t have acting schools or academics in the country. But, I do have a couple of important tips for aspiring actors. Firstly, don’t design your character in front of the mirror. Just ignore those people who advise you to do it. It’s simply a crime. Secondly, when going for an audition, keep your scales high, keep it amplified and don’t be shy. Many times, you just have to say what’s required, nothing extra nothing less. Lastly, avoid method acting. In case, you opt for it, see the repercussion on paper first. For instance, you don’t have to consume alcohol to play an alcoholic. Study about it, otherwise doesn’t jump into it.

Saadhay 14 August is showing now at the Arts Council Karachi. Tickets are available at box office and ticketwala. You can also DM Kopykats productions on their Instagram, and Facebook OR call at 0213 8781654.

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