Playing With Silence: Fawad Khan Speaks with Richa Nagar and Abdul Aijaz

Fawad Khan, Richa Nagar & Abdul Aijaz

Aijaz & Richa: Fawad, we would like to begin by asking about your general vision of literature. How does theatre—and especially, the medium of play/ khel/ naatak/ drama—give life to that vision? What do you want to play with in your plays?

Fawad: I think of all arts as something similar to music. What moves us in ‘music’ has something to do with its composition, its arrangement, at times also what we are going through in life, its craft—in short, something that is abstract but has its own laws. In a song, lyrics are of secondary importance. This is one reason why we are willing to dance at parties to songs that objectify women, something that would be revolting to us if they were just read out without music. I feel the same for drama and poetry. So, you could say that I believe that the most important thing in all art forms is their musicality.

But it is not like I don’t give importance to what is being ‘said’ in an artistic creation. For example, if I find a play misogynistic, for example COMRADES by August Strindberg, I just cannot bring myself to direct it. But TILISM-E-HOSHRUBA—a Dastan that also tends to, in a lot of places, objectify women—is something I love to perform. Perhaps because its language and poetry and thus its musicality, take precedence over everything else.

When it comes to writing though, I feel I am equally and acutely concerned about both the musicality or craft of the play and its content. The play should ideally be subversive without being prescriptive and there should not be any compromise in its aesthetics. It can be pleasing to the senses and subversive at the same time. It can be disturbing (ideally, for everyone) and still have its aesthetics intact.

I just mentioned that it should ideally be disturbing for everyone, but I don’t think I have succeeded in creating something like that. A lot of leftists love the ‘progressive’ or ‘subversive’ art but never really question if that art disturbs something inside them.

I am not sure if all of the rambling above can be considered a vision, but I struggle with these questions and positions all the time, and that is what gets translated into my work eventually.

Aijaz & Richa: Your play, Chup, does a wonderful job of not taking sides—politically or emotionally. For example, between Salmaan and Zain/Saad, or between Salmaan and Mother. You present a complex picture of our social reality without judgements. What has inspired such a commitment for the arts for you? Was there ever a time in the making of Chup where you found your political position and your artistic vision colliding with each other? What did you do then?

Fawad: Perhaps, the plays that I have always enjoyed watching or reading the most were ones that did not give simple answers. Jean Anouilh’s ANTIGONE is one fine example of such a play where the audience constantly keeps shifting its side and, despite being drawn towards Antigone emotionally, cannot fully grasp or understand her. I have yet to write a play as complex as that. However, this is just one example for my inspiration.

One more inspiration, or you could even call it borrowing that I did, was from Arthur Miller’s play, ALL MY SONS. There is also a son who has not returned from war and his brother wants to marry his missing brother’s fiancé and the mother is unable to believe that her son could have died.

Definitely, the decision to write a play about a family in which one person has been missing had its roots in my own political involvement with that issue. We were protesting for the recovery of missing persons and I could see how the state wanted no conversation about it. We used to have a space called The Second Floor. Sabeen Mahmood used to run it. She held a discussion about Baloch Missing Persons there and that very night she was murdered. At that time just bringing this subject on stage was a political act. And I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do it in a simplistic or prescriptive way.

But when its first draft was written it turned out to be too much on the nose and simplistic. You could say that in that script my political position was rather obvious. One of my teachers, Rahat Kazmi, read that draft and said that he liked it only until the point when things were hidden and that it lost its beauty later on. So, I sat down wanting to hide things. This is when I really started turning this act of hiding into the main theme of the play. I realized that I could build an environment of fear and deception, even self-deception, through this inability to communicate at multiple levels that we all feel all the time living in Pakistan.

Regarding your question about how I don’t sit in judgment on my characters, I guess, that has also happened because I love all these characters. They are very much inspired by my own family members and writing this play was as much of a personal experience as it was political and artistic.

Aijaz & Richa: What you say about sitting down wanting to hide things, and then turning this act of hiding into the main theme of the play, is powerful. Could you say something about how this thinking translated into the creation of Salmaan, who is both a hero and an anti-hero. What does this simultaneity of hero/anti-hero in Salmaan enable? Are there other characters in the play who share this quality of simultaneously being hero and anti-hero? What does it allow you to achieve artistically?

Fawad: As I mentioned earlier, I borrowed this character of a guy who wants to marry his missing brother’s fiancé from Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS. So, Salman started there. However, Salman and his frustrations and his yearning for a mother’s love and all, are very much based on my own brother and his relationship dynamics with my parents.

So, I loved Salman, too. What this hero/antihero image does is that it does not give simple choices to the audience and you also stay away from demonizing your characters.

The mother also has her weaknesses. She forced her younger son into a marriage that he didn’t want. Why did he not want it? What were his reasons for not wanting to marry? She had completely shut herself from that. On the one hand she is a brave woman who is willing to go to protests and raise voice for her son but at the same time she is highly conservative.

Aijaz & Richa: Fawad, what made you trust Richa with your script? Did you perceive any risks in the play being taken up in India? Could you share some thoughts about what this kind of border-crossing by Chup has meant for you thus far? Relatedly, do you think the play has a universal relevance or is it context specific, or both? Does the play easily lend itself to being transported to other contexts or does it resist border-crossing?

Fawad: I met Richa when she came to Karachi and she and I had conversations about theatre at T2f (the same cafe that Sabeen used to run) and I just liked her. I am also a budding playwright and if anyone is interested in performing my play, I will be more than happy. And if someone like Richa wants to take it somewhere, it is more than I could have asked for. It was also going to be directed by as accomplished and experienced a director as Tarun Kumar. I had to say yes to it.

Initially, I did not think about any repercussions of its performance in India. I was more concerned about its relevance there. I kept asking myself if it was too topical and too specifically about conditions in Pakistan. However, when it was eventually performed and Tarun shared pictures with me I just hesitated sharing them. What did I fear? I don’t know. Perhaps, an anti-national label. I didn’t want unnecessary attention to the play’s performance, and that too, negative. Now, I feel that maybe the fears were not that well-grounded. I don’t think I am important or famous enough to be a threat to authorities here.

As I mentioned earlier, when I was approached for a performance of this play in India I did think about its relevance there. I thought of Jammu and Kashmir and the living widows. I thought the play could resonate there, too, but I was not one hundred percent sure. What I came to realize later on was that, apart from the issue of missing persons, the audiences related to a lot of other things in the play. For a lot of people the parents and their relationship with their children and their inability to communicate with and listen to one another was a lot more important than the political debates.

With every performance of Chup I have tried to take out specific things as much as possible so the play could be less topical.

Relevance is also something that the people who read it or watch it can tell more about. When I wrote it I wrote it primarily for a Pakistani audience. If it resonates somewhere else then one could say it is coincidental.

Aijaz & Richa: The play has a Becketian quality to it, the repetition of mundane everyday routines, the quick repetitive dialogues, the ominous refrain of dastak and the phone rings, the absence of Zain/Saad haunting the stage/play—all these give an existential feel to the play. Is there a way out of this utterly despairing situation? Is there a hope in the absence of Saad’s/ Zain’s return and in the face of Salman’s failure?

Fawad: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t know how long we will continue to live like that family in this limbo of a state.

Aijaz & Richa: What was it like for you to see your script translated into a performance? Were you ever afraid that you could meet Saad’s/Zain’s fate yourself after such a poignant critique of the oppressive state apparatuses? How would that feel when real life would interrupt fictional borders and put Saad/Zain and Fawad in the same world—of absence, disappearance?

Fawad: This calls for a long story. Zain Ahmed was the head of NAPA Repertory Theatre and they had organized an international festival in which Zain wanted new plays to be performed. He asked me to write one. I sent him the synopsis, almost sure of being rejected because it was too political. Zain, being Zain, accepted it. So, I had two and a half months before the performance and no script. I wrote the first draft that was only thirty minutes long and shared it with Sunil Shanker (director)  and other potential cast members like Bakhtawar Mazhar and Kaif Ghaznavi. I told them this was the first draft and I would work on it during the rehearsals and make it better. They agreed and we started reading and improving the script. Every other day I would come up with new additions and changes. The changes kept coming even four days before the first performance. However, the cast also improved some of the rhythm of the dialogues and since I was acting as well I kept making and noting down minute changes in its rhythms that were working in the rehearsal. That’s how we did our first performance. My director and actors were all aware of the risk due to the subject matter but they were also excited about it. It was performed in front of about 120 people for two nights in the festival. People loved it and it was received generally with a lot of love and admiration.

We had our fears but it went smoothly. Encouraged by such a response we decided to do another five day run. This time a review got published in one of the major English newspapers and the journalist’s name was also Fawad. This review got the attention of the authorities.

I had just come out of my class at Habib University when I received a call from NAPA (National Academy of Performing Arts) that MI (Military Intelligence) people were there with the review and wanted to see me. I made an excuse that I had another class and could not come at that time. I was asked to show up another day for a meeting at the headquarters of the military. I called Sunil Shanker and told him that MI was there and that he should go and see Zia Mohyeddin (Chairman of NAPA) and tell him about it and get some advice from him. Instead of doing that he went to the office where MI guys were sitting with the review. Now, Sunil Shanker being Hindu, he was interrogated by them for about an hour or so. Questions like: Where are you from? No, originally where is your family from? Have you guys named Intelligence agencies in the play? Where is the script? Can we get a copy of it? Is there a video recording of the play? Why did you do this play? What did you want to portray? Where is the No Objection Certificate of the production (we had done it without one)? And a lot more such questions.

Then I called another friend and took the contact number of the head of HRCP (Human Rights Commission Pakistan), Anees, and informed her that I had been asked by MI to visit them at GHQ. She tried to reassure me and asked me to keep her informed.

Next, I called Bakhtawar and before I could tell her anything in detail she was like she also had something to tell me and that she could not say it on the phone and I should see her at her place.

Sunil and I went to her place in the evening. Apparently, someone had come to her house enquiring about her, but at that time only the servants received that person and the identity of that person was also unknown. When Bakhtawar got home and was told about this strange guy she had no idea who it was and she never found it afterwards either. While we were trying to figure out what this was all about I received a call from MI. They asked me my name and how educated I was. When I asked them why they needed to know that, they said, “We just didn’t know how educated you were. The rest we found out.” Now, I didn’t know what to make of that. Was that just a casual remark or another warning or I don’t know what. This was a tough day for us. We indeed ended up like the family in Chup trying to figure out what these strange vague events meant. Thankfully, the similarity between fact and fiction ended there.

Things have gone smoothly since then. A year later we were asked to do a performance at Karachi Literature Festival of Chup and it was performed in front of more than a thousand people this time. Then we had another run at the Arts Council theatre festival and some shows in Lahore as well. It has been over four years now since we have performed Chup anywhere.

At the time when MI came to enquire about the play it scared the shit out of me but over time I have started feeling that I was overreacting. I am not such a huge threat and also a nobody. This almost sounds like a thrilling adventure now. There are people who have gone through much worse and faced a hell of a lot more than this.

Aijaz & Richa: We would like to end by returning to vision and hope. What is your vision, your hope, for art in the face of brazen and all pervasive oppression and state-led organized violence?

Fawad: Well, these days I feel a lot more dejected by what’s going on around me. NAPA is no longer the place that it used to be. New NAPA administration is a little too paranoid and even things that wouldn’t create any problems are approved with a lot of difficulty. I don’t know what the way forward is. I do feel that the space is shrinking everyday. I am doing what I can under the circumstances. There is this verse by Ghalib:

لختِ جگر سے ہے رگِ ہر خار شاخِ گل
تاچند باغبانیِ صحرا کرے کوئ


laḳht-e-jigar se hai rag-e-har-ḳhār shāḳh-e-gul
tā chand bāġh-bāni-e-sehrā kare koī[1]The veins of each thorn have blossomed red like a flower-branch.
How much longer one might garden the desert?

I can’t translate it but this is what it feels like even living in Pakistan. The country has not had the kind of brain drain that is happening nowadays. Sunil Shanker has left Pakistan. He is now in Australia. A lot of my very close theatre friends have left for other countries.

Suggested citation:


1 The veins of each thorn have blossomed red like a flower-branch.
How much longer one might garden the desert?

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