Malika-e-Tabassum? More like Malika-jee-kab-hansun?

I had the rather unfortunate experience today of witnessing the trainwreck of a one-man-show being sold as a “stand up comedy” sketch called Malika-e-Tabassum. The house music was stolen straight from Pirates of the Caribbean and should have signaled to me from the get go that things were going to sink fast. 

Lo and behold, after a 15 minute “technical difficulty”, Malika-e-Tabassum herself, the enigmatic Bushra Ansari Descended from the heavens in a chair held up by strings, the motors of which stalled halfway through (for comedic effect). What the audience didn’t know was that the writer of the show had inadvertently planted a metaphor for the show to come, which also totally lost steam half way through and was dragging its corpse to the finish line by the end.

You may think I’m being overly harsh about this, but in that same theater, I had the good fortune to witness the brilliant writing and execution of “Siachen”. Mr Dawar, the man helming this show hyped up Bushra’s performance by calling to mind those fond memories straight from the get go and claimed “Siachen” as one of his writing credentials. Suffice it to say I was on the edge of my seat, waiting with baited breath to explode with peals of laughter. Sadly 10 minutes in, I was wincing with absolute “cringe” as the youngsters call it, watching the highly scripted and totally uncomfortable audience interactions, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Mr Dawar also highlighted the uphill struggle of selling a “female performer” in a “solo performance” and that too “a stand up comedy”. Taking a dig at producers and sponsors about having to play the “woman card” to get this approved in first place.  “Mubarak ho woman card to aap ne khel liya” – but you dug a grave for the future of stand up comedy in the process.

I would like to invite Mr. Dawar to first google the definition of “Stand up comedy special” and then watched some good examples of it, because what I witnessed did not fit the definition of a “comedy special” in both content and execution.

Not taking anything away from Bushra Ansari’s acting/singing chops but playwriting/Drama writing and stand up comedy are two entirely different things. Exceptional capacity in one does not guarantee any ability or success in the other(sadly). Before the play even started, i had a note in my notebook that read “Is this a play or a comedy special, I can’t tell” and after watching the whole thing, if you were to put a gun to my head and ask me the same question, the only thing i could say is that it isn’t stand up comedy, although it tries to “pretend” really hard that it is.



As I mentioned before, the show starts with a highly scripted moment in which Bushra Ansari calls out a member of the audience for being on the phone ( all this time her mic is malfunctioning ). She strides gracefully across the stage into the pews and divests the hapless ( actor/audience member ) of their phone and proceeds to talk to “Rahim Carpenter” on the other line. Proceeds to hand the phone back to the individual claiming that his wife is “very masoom” ( for believing rahim carpenter ka hi phone aaya tha ). The wife then proceeds to walk out of the show getting incensed at this indiscretion and the husband follows. I spoke to people after the show, and barely half the people understood the scripted interaction. It was so subtle that it flew way over people’s heads and absolutely missed all funny bones in their bodies. 

The mic goes out soon after, and the lights do too, cue a scripted scene in which stagehands light up the play with cell phones. This part would have been believable had they not taken every single person’s cell phone in the beginning of the show at the check in, giving coupons to people to fiddle with throughout the sketch. Thankfully I had brought a notebook and a pen to take notes, otherwise this review wouldn’t have been possible. 

If you haven’t been following along, this is what we call a logical inconsistency, why would you even stage a scene like the scripted audience interaction of the ringing cell phone and later asking the cellphone deprived audience to light the show with their cellphones when you literally asked them to check their phones in at the beginning of the show. 

All of what i’ve described happens in the beginning of the show. The show further devolves into a disjointed and incoherent thread that could only have been written in a fever dream. We witness a scene where saying “Pak Army Zindabaad” turns on the lights of the theater, to watching a parade of Bushra Ansari’s family pictures trotted onto the stage quite literally on “Street Carts” implying her life is like a product on display. 

The show goes on further with Bushra Ansari narrating an episode of visiting Nargis’s Stageshow performances and later bashing it and calling it a “Gandi Jagah” to casually phone sexting with her sister’s husband-to-be to a somewhat out-of-left field entry into a discussion of Noor Jehan with full parody. 

This scene shambles awkwardly into a somewhat more serious discussion and some serious Noor Jehan-esque singing to get some claps and get the blood flowing as by this time the audience had started to succumb to the magical stupor of Malika-e-Tabasums content which in the humble opinion of this writer is made with the strongest formulation of valium lased with whatever sasti charas the writer smoked while writing it.

When the singing finally ends (the singing part definitely overstays its welcome) Bushra Ansari talks about Dawar’s attempt to show her American and Indian stand up comedy where she mocks the likes of “Dave Chapelle” and some apparently ” Unnamed fat Indian female comedian” for being a bit too “haram” for pakistani sensibilities and sarcastically remarking how halal her own comedy sketch is. I’d like to remind the audience that no fewer than 3 times Bushra Ansari at this point highlighted the fact that she had underdeveloped breasts in her teenage years. So much for intellectual honesty. 

A few moments after that the show abruptly ends and Bushra Ansari walks off the stage. And Mr. Dawar calls her back saying “show abhi baaki hai” which cues a man to come onto a stage carrying a cheque for her balance payment while Bushra Ansari exclaims “Jitnay Paisay Milen Unta hi Kaam Karna Chahiye”. This weird play-esque sketch serves to highlight the point that this isn’t a stand up comedy show, rather a sketch that Bushra Ansari is acting out only for a paycheck. Having lost a love for her art apparently decades ago, I’m assuming. 

Once the mock-cheque is safely pocketed in her purse, lukewarm criticisms of Aurat March and the LGBT community ensue that barely make a point and seem to be tacked on just to cause enough controversy to make the show go viral but make absolutely no point in the process, not that the writing had any intelligence to make any points on any topic anyway.

At this point in the play these were the following lines I wrote in my notebook. 

“Spent a long time wondering when the jokes were gonna come from”

“When they do come they are outdated and Stale”

“Siachen wala maza nahi”

some other noteworthy “notes” are as follows

“Dated material full of dated tropes” (served in a rather lukewarm presentation)

“Stand up comedy ya Monologue?”

Because at this point Bushra Ansari had spent around 10 minutes speaking about something or the other, with barely a mock-giggle from the audience. I pity the people who would be spending Rs.3000 of their hard earned money to listen to this tripe.

This further devolved into Bushra Ansari trying to make jokes about her sister dying, or her mother dying and having to deal with fans at her mother’s grave while she’s there to pay respects. At this point I felt bad for Bushra Ansari as well as the audience there, because some people laughed at jokes that were clearly not meant to be jokes, while others were offended at those who were laughing. In my entire life participating in stand up comedy shows, and watching countless shows from pakistani, indian, british, american, south african, french and irish comedians from around the world, never have i felt a moment of tragi-apathy quite like this.

This is followed by a sketch where Bushra Ansari basically calls all her fans idiots and showcases how much she hates them, and proceeds to talk about stories from her entirely unrelatable life with some saucy details and more references to her lack of cleavage thrown in for good measure (Refer back to segment about Halal Comedy) 

I didn’t laugh out loud once during this “stand up comedy” and here’s why I really want to hammer home the fact that this isn’t a stand up special in any way, but more of a “One-Man(or in this case Woman)-Show. 

Take the example of a comedian from across the border “Zakir Khan” the “Sakht Launda” who went viral on youtube for his amazing stand up performances – who recently toured the US delighting American-Indian expats at Madison Square garden. Or our own Homegrown Akbar Chaudhary of Youtube “ranty ronay” fame who recently toured all across Pakistan taking his comedy show on the road. 

These comedians are content curators. They look at the world around them and suck up stories like vacuum cleaners, refine them in their minds and add a dash of wit here, a touch of sarcasm there and share their creations with us on the stage. Comedians speak to us, which is why we love stand up comedy. They write their own material and know how to perform it to get a reaction from a live audience. They train for years on live audiences and know how to “riff” and “play” on audience emotions. Sometimes even coming up with content on the fly. 

When a comedian steps up on stage, they have jokes ready, but the art of Stand Up Comedy lies in knowing what joke to play, and when to play it. Where to pause and let the laughter breathe and where to pull it back, or even how to deal with hecklers, all in service of getting the audience to laugh their butts off and have a good time. Stand up comedy is an Interactional experience. You don’t TALK AT your audience, YOU TALK TO them. YOU PLAY OFF them, YOU BUILD OFF their reactions. And that is exactly what this show didn’t do. Failed to Do, Pretended to do at times but never really quite achieved it. 

Malika-e-tabassum is what happens when you take a veteran actor who has spent their entire life performing behind the camera, behind the comfort of reshoots and retakes, and plop them down in front of a live audience and ask them to “perform”. 

“Paisay ki dugdugi baja kay aik veteran actor ko bandar ki tarah nachwa kay Stand up comedy show nahi bantay” 

On stepping out of the theater, positively livid about the intellectual dishonesty, stewing in the smells of desperate-star-studded money grabs and stale passions. I stood with the rest of my brethren of the press, among veteran actors. hearing them pander to the production calling it “brilliant” and “daring” and all manner of positive and “affirming” adjectives under the sun. While I kept wondering about the nation’s economy, the 3000 Rs Price point of the ticket and the need of the “everyman” to feel relaxed and enjoy good content (which this was not) and i was dismayed at the future of stand up comedy as a whole.

I heard in passing some veteran actor or the other mention that the content changes daily, and that tomorrow’s audience would experience a whole new set to which i scribbled quite aggressively in my diary “I hope they do”

In summation I’d like to say, I know I was a bit more aggressive than intended in penning my thoughts on this production. Perhaps I was unduly harsh, or ruthlessly so. But this isn’t the level of content I expect from veteran actors and content creators. 

But as we say in Pakistan “Sach karwa hota hai, aur bolnay wala bharwa hota hai”

Give leave to this “Bharwa ” for expressing his honest opinion for today, and forgive my pen for all its misgivings.

Perhaps this is the last time I “dare” to cover a high budget performance.

But if it’s not, you’ll see me again sometime in the not-too-distant future.

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