Napa's ‘Betaali Prem Katha’ is an enchanting offering

Napa’s ‘Betaali Prem Katha’ is an enchanting offering

by Pakistan News
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With the play, academy alumnus Fawad Khan brought to life a timeless and rather sensual masterpiece


Tales that transgress the boundaries of time and space don’t age even after being retold and reimagined through new techniques and forms, still passing for fables that leave a stark impression on anyone who indulges. Stories that consume you and characters that stay with you for years to come – they feed your subconscious which then struggles to let go of the magical land it has seen, and the emotions it has experienced. Such tales are similar to the ones our grandmothers held in their hearts, ones that were passed on to whoever was thirsty enough for the enigmatic quest.

With Betaali Prem Kathaa, Napa (National Academy of Performing Arts) alumnus Fawad Khan brought to life a timeless and rather sensual masterpiece that consumes you with all its emotions, magical realism and demonic adulterated twists whilst still upholding humour that bonds the audience. It offers you a world of its own, inhabited by traditional musicians and original soundtracks, kings and princesses, a Brahmin wanderer eager to infiltrate the kingdom and frankly anything outside of it too, a blood-thirsty raconteur jinn, a huge cloud of desires and lust, some unfulfilled wishes and a few wrong but curious experiments.

Adapted from a Sanskrit epic Kathasaritsagara, Khan drew inspiration from author Intizar Hussain’s body of work. “Unlike writers like Manto, Krishn Chander, Ismat Chughtai who wrote in a form that had its roots in the west, Intizar Hussain started looking for forms that were rooted in our culture. He wrote stories in the language of the Sufis, Gautam Buddha, Mahabharat, Quran, Kathasaritsagara, and even the way his grandmother used to tell stories. This was both a search for one’s own roots as well as an attempt at decolonising our literature,” Fawad told The Express Tribune.

Betaali Prem Katha is his attempt to follow the legendary author’s suit and bring indigenous writing to theatre, especially hoping to create a nautanki-style musical. And without any doubt, he succeeded to bring forth a stage play that not only brought a dramatic mystical Indian tale to life but also played its part in challenging the conventions of the performing art itself.

The play begins with a dance sequence that introduces you to the natak [drama] that’s about to unravel. Draped in cotton and silk cloths, the cast moves in coordination with Bhagat Bhoore Lal and Ahsan Bari’s compositions and you find yourself easing into the enriching show of movement and sound amidst red and black drapes until Prem [Rahil Siddiqui], a Brahmin wanderer, takes the stage.

Curtains open and the mythical land of Roop Nagar stands there to hypnotise you with its beauty—all props to the set designer Tariq Raja for symbolically using colours to his advantage and showcasing darkness and deception through them. Standing in the spotlight is a confused Prem, who’s now lost in his grand scheme of catching sight of the ever gorgeous Rajkumari Chandra Prabha. In a monologue of his own, Prem ends up meeting an upside-down Betaal wrapped in curtains– the devil played by Sunil Shanker.

Napa's ‘Betaali Prem Katha’ is an enchanting offering

Prem, in disbelief of Betaal’s appearance, challenges him to narrate a tale but it comes with its conditions—the land of magic operates on ifs and buts to keep the potions working. With an evil laugh, Betaal jumps to shift positions mid-air and announces that a question would be asked at the end of the story; if Prem gives the right answer, his life would be spared, and if not, then he would smash his skull into pieces and drink his blood. Although scared, Prem takes on the challenge and goes on to live his love stor(ies)—and so do we.

While Prem’s constantly juggling between genders puts a smirk on your face throughout the play, the mind does dig deeper and provokes questions on sexuality, gender, souls, deception, and love. It makes you laugh, tap your feet to the beat, fall in love with the characters, break with the characters, and learn with them. Shankar’s mesmerising multiple avatars, from the royal Maharaja to the devilish Betaal each one better than the other deserves an award for mastering the land, the air, and the ever-changing wigs.

Another character that takes the bait is Shabana Faizan’s Premlata— Prem’s female avatar. Her shift from a playful flirtatious woman to a passionate lover —Shabana owned the stage with grace and vileness, both the story and the character like it was her reality; like she’s truly frustrated about her identity.

Apart from Shabana, Sunil and Rahil, all the other performers were great too but that’s for you to watch. There are no buts about this play, it is a masterpiece through and through–one that should be experienced the way it deserves to be, the way it’s curated to be.

Napa's ‘Betaali Prem Katha’ is an enchanting offering

While the world of Betaali is mythical with its supernatural powers and gendered potions, the life lessons it relays are for today. At the end of the natak of Prem’s journey of love in Roop Nagar, an infuriated and confused Prem asks Betaal why his story felt like it had no head or tail, had no closure, and left him hanging clueless.

Jeevan katha ka natak be sar pair hee toh hota hai [The show that is life also does not make sense at times], concluded a wicked Betaal, and with that, the swinging devil disappeared into his barren tree yet again waiting for yet another story-hunter to restart the natak as life desires.

The city’s fragile drowning state might stop you from giving this a chance, but if you decide to brave the weather, Betaali Prem Kathaa will make you laugh and love like none before only for you to walk away with a treasure that you can live with forever. Catch the remaining shows at the Zia Mohyeddin Theatre at Napa on August 20th and 21st at 4 pm and 8 pm.

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