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Love, Land, and Liberation in Sohail Ahmad's 'Ek Tera Sanam Khana'

Title: Ek Tera Sanam Khana

Year: 199(?)

Country: Pakistan

Language: Punjabi

Genre: Comedy-Drama, Stage Play

Director and Writer: Sohail Ahmad

Key Cast: Sohail Ahmad, Amanullah, Nawaz Anjum, Sakhavat Naz, Javed Kodu, Jawad Waseem

Summary: The Punjabi stage drama, "Ek Tera Sanam Khana," paints a narrative eerily familiar to many in Pakistan. It unravels the struggle of a village against powerful forces threatening their land. As they teeter on the edge of despair, their hopes rest on an unconventional hero, Moti Dogar. This Punjabi play deftly interweaves the tragedy of dispossession with vibrant humor, underscored by subversive socio-political commentary. Praised for its brilliant portrayal of rural life, representation of societal issues, and the perfect blend of critique and comedy, "Ek Tera Sanam Khana" is an enduring masterpiece of Punjabi theatre that captures the essence of the common man's struggle against towering adversities.

An unnamed township is under attack. Its inhabitants are not only facing the risk of displacement but also losing total control of their lives, and possibly their deaths too. The small population gathers at the town square as a gangster walks in and tells them: I can displace all of you whenever I like, but I won’t do that as long as no one tries to live the life of their own accord. Life? I won’t even give you the death of your choice, he says. The inhabitants look dejected and afraid. But then there’s ominous music and a man makes a Sultan Rahi-esque entrance on the stage. He kills the gangster. Everyone erupts in joy. The chants of ‘Moti Dogar’ (the character of a savior played by Sohail Ahmad) go up. It wasn’t the police, the military, or any other bureaucratic entity that came to their rescue, but a people’s hero, someone who knows how all systems are designed to work against common people and takes it upon himself to deliver them justice. That is the plot of the Punjabi stage drama, Ek Tera Sanam Khan (created by Sohail Ahmad – the exact date of its premier is unclear but a rough estimate would suggest that it came out in the middle of 2000s), but the tale it tells is eerily familiar to us in ways more than one. In Pakistan, from Khyber to Karachi, we have seen how small towns and villages have been pillaged, their inhabitants displaced, to make way for gated societies, all in the name of ‘development’ but all built over the life and land of people who couldn’t resist such a violent takeover because they were not only up against powerful property tycoons but also a state that lends all its apparatuses to aid in the violent dispossession of indigenous land. Not only the land is taken, and the villages erased to the ground, but the state also tries to erase those injustices from our collective consciousness by repeating the narrative of ‘development’ and how creating gated communities and large malls for the profit of the powerful few will propel this nation forward. By displacing the poor and turning indigenous lands into housing societies for the rich, they want us to believe dispossession is actually development. That is how the vocabulary of neocolonial violence and capitalism operates in Pakistan.

When everything is tilted in the favor of the oppressor, people long for a hero, a deus ex machina, a savior who can stand up and fight forces clearly stronger than him. Moti Dogar is that sort of a figure for the inhabitants of the township in Ek Tera Sanam Khana. Of course, the concept of a people’s hero has lived long in the imagination of the people of Punjab, given how many there have been in history; from Jeona Maurh to Dulla Bhatti to Ahmed Khan Kharal and Bhagat Singh. All these names have stood up for justice and the rights of common people against the tyranny of different rulers, which is why they are not state’s but people’s heroes. And that is also why they have mostly survived through literature and folklore, and not through state-sponsored history books. The character of Moti Dogar looks like a direct inspiration from the Lollywood movies of the 1980’s; those films in which Sultan Rahi was at loggerheads with a powerful feudal somewhere in rural Punjab, and while all systems were working against him, he had people’s support that conjured enough willpower in him to fight for justice.

The death of a sole gangster at the hands of Moti Dogar is not quite enough to save the township, as more powerful evils await their turn to occupy the land of poor inhabitants, but in between all that, there are many subplots and stories that slowly unfold. As the primary purpose of the Punjabi stage drama is to make people laugh, there are plenty of juggats (repartee) back and forth between Amanullah, Nawaz Anjum, Sakhavat Naz, Javed Kodu, Sohail Ahmed, Jawad Waseem, along with other stage actors and comedians. The show begins at the town square where Amanullah and Sakhavat Naz are making fun of Javed Kodu’s short height. Amanullah calls him Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for kids. Then Sakhavat Naz turns his focus towards Amanullah and says: “He once got badly beaten up in an airplane. He was in such a hurry that he told the pilot to start the plane, fly off, and we can get the rest of the passengers on our way.” And when Sohail Ahmad comes on with his gun and typical gangster-seriousness on his face, Sakhavat Naz asks him: “Are you a gangster,” to which Ahmad replies yes, and Naz further questions, “Do you get wet when you jump into a canal?” Ahmad again nods his head, to which Naz retorts, “I, too, get wet. What sort of a gangster are you then?”

After a series of juggats at the town square, another gangster comes into the township and shoots Moti Dogar. It is unclear whether he has been shot dead or whether he has survived the wound. He is taken off-stage. Another man named Walayat Khan, who speaks Urdu and looks like an urban businessman, a property tycoon, comes onto the stage with his goons and makes his intentions of occupying the township and displacing its inhabitants evidently clear. The inhabitants gather after his exit and ask each other about the fate of Moti Dogar. No one has any clue about his whereabouts or whether he has survived or not. One of the men says he was shot but I’ve hidden him somewhere because if they know he’s dead for sure, we will not be able to save our homes. Amid this mayhem, they all contemplate electing a town representative, a president, someone who has the ability to listen to and alleviate the plights of townspeople. Amanullah offers his services and so does Javed Kodu. Because of Kodu’s height, Jawad Waseem tells him: “Presidents like you cancel their tour of England to enjoy a tour of Joyland.” Meanwhile, Amanullah is already acting like a president and says he has done this job before: “Getting elected as a president hurts like an injection, but you can always patch up the wound with a prime minister. I remember a time when the wound really got bad, my assemblies were swollen, but as I was the president I dissolved them straight away.” Sakhavat Naz adds: “Yeah, there were MNAs and MPAs all over his body. To treat them, we had to put the councilor on.” What are they referring to by equating the body with the state? There’s something absurd and laughable about the whole act, but one cannot laugh at it without feeling a tinge of discomfort. It’s a nervous laughter. It’s as if you are laughing but you also want to ask a question that you yourself don’t quite know yet. Underneath all the comedy and giggles, sometimes, especially with Amanullah and Sohail Ahmad, there is a subtle tapping into the most serious social and political questions of our times. In another instance, a junkie says he will think first and then vote, to which Amanullah says: “Who even does that in this country?”

After a while, the townspeople are taken off-stage, and we are introduced to a household setting of a transgender family. Sohail Ahmad plays the character of the ‘guru’ (mentor) of the house, while Sakhavat Naz (Reema) and Nawaz Anjum (Soofiya) play the characters of ‘chelas’ (protege), and the family also includes several other transgender characters. A while ago, Sohail Ahmad with his hyper-masculine gait and deadpan attitude was Moti Dogar, and now all of a sudden he comes out as this transgender guru. The audience must wonder: has he gone through a transition? Is this a double-act? Or is he hiding after the gunshot and all this is a mere disguise? We never quite find those answers. Perhaps Moti Dogar is a gender-fluid character who can summon the masculine gangster within him whenever he likes, and she’s also perhaps a transgender mentoring two dancers by taking them under her wings. The dialogue and the tonality of the characters change. The in-house banter between them is an apt representation of transgender households in the rural spaces of Punjab. Soon, Jawad Waseem from the township comes to invite them to dance because he has had the birth of a son in his house. In the rural areas, although now the ritual has almost entirely disappeared, whenever a family had the birth of a son, the local transgender community would come to their house to not only perform dance but to give their blessings to the newborn, which was something taken very seriously. In rural areas, people used to say: “Never ever offend a transgender because if they put a curse on you, it’s pretty certain that you will be doomed because God takes their prayers and curses very seriously.” Not to say there’s no transphobia in the rural landscape, but it’s certainly a lot less as compared to the situation in urban spaces, where violent acts against transgender communities are committed out of pure spite. In the rural areas, they mostly have access to housing and community space, and while they are not completely assimilated into the larger culture, they are not far off either. There are certain rituals where their presence becomes a must. Again, that doesn’t mean there are no systematic injustices and exploitation of the transgender community in the rural spaces, but they certainly have a lot more agency in the villages. Sadly, acceptance and agency are only guaranteed as long as they are either ‘dancers’ or ‘beggars’ – only two professions deemed fit for them in our collective imagination.

Soon after, Moti Dogar appears on the stage again. This time he is at the town square, and although he’s wearing men’s clothes and has a gun in his hand, all of his masculinity is gone. Even when he tries to be aggressive and masculine, he keeps reverting back to his transgender self. The town folks are utterly bewildered by what’s going on. Is he Moti Dogar? Or is he his doppelgänger? He refuses to answer those questions and keeps shifting back and forth between his gender identities. Then, his girlfriend appears and is pleasantly surprised to know that Moti Dogar is still alive. When Moti Dogar tells her that he is not what she’s taking him for, she cries and tells him to take his words back, to which Dogar replies: “I am not a man, so I don’t have to take my words back.” The girl says even if he is not Moti Dogar, even if he’s someone who merely looks like him, it’s enough for her and she’d still love whoever he is, to which he answers, “You can love me all you like but please don’t expect any love in return.” Jawad Waseem walks on the stage and tells Moti Dogar, or the transgender guru, that even if he is not Moti Dogar, his picture would be enough to scare the goons who want to occupy the lands and homes of the inhabitants of the township. All of a sudden, a goon walks on to the stage and calls everyone to the town square. He says: “All the residents are told to take their children as well as other belongings and leave their houses.” Everyone comes out, including Moti Dogar, who says: “I had become a transgender to feed myself, now I must revert to manlihood again to save our honor.” He shoots the goon but the property tycoon, the real man behind the attempts at occupation of the town, Walayat Khan, comes on. Only he and Moti Dogar are left on the stage. Walayat Khan tells him: “You’d have to give up this land,” to which Moti Dogar replies: “Give up this land? This land that won’t feed us if we don’t love it. This land where we have to dance to make ends meet. This land……we won’t give up on it. Its spirit lives inside all those who live here, even inside a transgender.” Walayat Khan laughs an evil laugh and warns Moti Dogar that if it escalates, none of them would survive, as they’d be powerless against his wealth and resources, and then a helicopter approaches to take Walayat Khan away but in the middle of all that chaos, he is shot dead. No one quite knows who kills him. Was it Moti Dogar or someone else, it isn’t quite revealed, but as soon as he falls, Javed Kodu, who was one of the residents of the town, escapes by climbing on to the helicopter, which suggests that he was in cahoots with Walayat Khan and his goons, the typical inside-man. Watching that scene, Moti Dogar ends the drama with his final dialogue: “It’s a pity how the real traitor always survives.”

"Ek Tera Sanam Khana" is a profound reflection of the issues facing many small towns and villages in Pakistan. It tells a tale of resistance, bravery, and the human spirit against the backdrop of neocolonial violence and rampant capitalism, which ensures dispossession of the poor for the riches of the affluent and powerful. The play's adept blending of comedy, social commentary, and plot twists offers an insightful portrayal of the complex societal landscape of Pakistan. A rich tapestry of communal life, socio-political critique, and comedic jest unfurls itself in this celebrated Punjabi stage drama.


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