The Humor and Heartache of Babu Barral's Shartiya Mithay
"Shartiya Mithay" (Sweetness Guaranteed), was first staged in Lahore during the early 1990s.
Growing up, on our cable TV, we had two unnamed channels that only showed Punjabi stage dramas. They were run by the cable operators and had us glued to our screens. At random moments in the day, when we were not at school or playing outside, we would turn on the TV and consume those stage dramas, which were our only entertainment along with sports. Elders in the house would often worry because the content was supposedly 18+ and we were in our early teens. Most of the juggats (repartee) were crude, and additionally, getting exposed to Mujra Dance that early on wasn’t a part of the ideal upbringing parents usually have in mind for their kids. For some reason, I never thought of Mujra as something that had a sexual dimension, something that was supposed to turn me on. I saw it more as a skill, or an art form, though I couldn’t quite put it in those words. At 15, I thought Nargis was the biggest superstar and Amanat Chan was the funniest man in the world. We didn’t just stop there. We started learning those juggats by heart and used them on each other at school. I still vividly remember most of those: “Your face is so big, you can probably fit a couple of drawers in there.” “Look at Mr. Smartass here. His parents throw him out of the room whenever they have something serious to discuss.” “Why are you looking like a smashed can of Sprite?” They seem quite silly now but we were left in stitches back then.
Full show "Shartiya Mithay" (Sweetness Guaranteed) / Babbu Baral (R) and Ammanullah (L)
We didn’t even remember the titles of most of the stage dramas because we saw them in parts. It was very rare to watch from beginning to end in one go without any interruption. At times, it was time for homework. At other times, load shedding would get in the way. Later on, we started exchanging our favorite ones via CDs and USBs. We would hide them underneath our school books to make sure they were not confiscated by the school teachers or administration. When I recently saw Shartiya Mithay, perhaps the most popular Punjabi stage drama of all time, I instantly went back to childhood and saw myself sitting in front of our 14-inch Sony TV. I had seen it in parts before, and had heard a lot about it from friends, but didn’t know its title back then. As I was watching it, I kept moving effortlessly between years, between now and my childhood. It was quite a surreal experience.
Written and directed by Babu Barral (original name: Ayub Akhtar), Shartiya Mithay (which translates to ‘sweetness guaranteed’ and is used by fruit vendors throughout Punjab) featured an iconic cast that included, apart from Babu himself, Sohail Ahmad, Amanullah, Zarqa Butt, Abid Khan, Ashraf Rahi, Sonia Abbas, along with a cameo played by Sahiba Afzal. Although the play reveals its didactic message at the end and is centered around the plight of special children – in the case of Shartiya Mithay, two blind children – there’s a lot more to it. It was first played on the stage somewhere around the early 1990s, the exact date of the inaugural show is unclear, but it must have been around 1992, the year Babu Barral returned to Pakistan after performing stage shows in North America for some time.
The story revolves around a family of beggars. Abid Khan (Abba Ji), the patriarch of the family, runs a group of beggars in the city of Lahore. His two blind sons, Roshan and Chiragh, played by Amanullah and Babu Barral respectively, are pushed into the same profession from early on in their lives. The name of the blind characters is clever wordplay: Roshan and Chiragh both essentially mean light, and while both are deprived of the gift of sight, they are not deprived of enlightenment. As Babu Barral says: “We are not blind, it’s just that we cannot see.”
Among the group of beggars working under Abba Ji, we are also introduced to a beggar with a Master’s degree, who dresses and talks fancy, smokes a pipe, and says he has an M.A in fakeeriyat (begging), which entitles him to get more than an average beggar.
The idea of a Master’s degree in begging might border on the absurd but in Pakistan the absurd and surreal often border on the normal.
A couple of years ago, there was a video of a beggar who spoke almost perfect English. I also remember seeing another video where a beggar says the real Shahid Afridi disappeared years ago and the one we see on our TV screens adorns an Afridi mask. He also goes on to reveal his own cricketing prowess and says he once smashed Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillie, for 4 sixes in an over in a match that was organized by Arabs in Russia, and as those matches weren’t played under International Cricket Council’s provisions, they were not recorded or broadcasted on TV. After that, he takes it to another level when he says he is the real inventor of DNA. It’s easy to laugh off and dismiss these stories as absurd but there’s genuine creative imagination from where they come. They are making it up but they also have the audacity to own those stories and make them sound believable, and as far as imagination is concerned, they are not that different from fiction writers. So, having a character with an M.A. in begging isn’t far-fetched, because beggars in Pakistan have invented DNA and hit premiere fast bowlers out of the ground in Russia.
Sohail Ahmad plays the role of a flirtatious grandfather to Roshan and Chiragh and runs a tuck shop in the corner, where he has a picture of Sonali Bendre, with whom he keeps having an imaginary conversation every now and then. Roshan and Chiragh, along with the support of their mother, grandfather, and widowed sister-in-law, are hell-bent on getting married, while their father is opposed to that notion and wishes to keep them in the begging business.
While the family keeps fighting over whether Roshan and Chiragh are fit for marriage or not, we are introduced to a journalism student, Shirin (Sahiba Afzal), who wants to interview beggars. Both Roshan and Chiragh get flirtatious with her but she tries to keep it professional. Sohail Ahmad asks Shirin: “You are writing on beggars, have you run out of pages?” When she asks Roshan about his education, he starts talking about his experiences with people from different cities of Punjab whom he had encountered on his begging route, showing that he might not have been privileged or lucky enough to have gone to the classroom, he still knows a thing or two about the world and its people. He says: “In Gujranwala, people are generous with their money as well as the subsequent beating. There I once earned 90 Rupees but spent 250 for the treatment of my wounds.” In Faisalabad, he says, “You ask someone for money and their meek response would persuade you to give them some from your own pocket.” For Sialkot, he says, “It’s difficult to get money out of those people because they are cunning and will have you talking about something else instead.” He doesn’t only reveal the characteristics of people from these cities, but he also mimics their unique accents, something Amanullah was an absolute master of.
Both Amanullah and Babu Barral had their own distinct style of comedy. They were never loud or trying too hard. It seemed as if they effortlessly got into the character they were playing and acted accordingly. Most of the time, their responses are one-liners, often uttered in a low-pitched voice, almost muttering under their own breath. At one point, Amanullah gives a monologue on who really is blind, and he says it’s not really us. It’s those who make the big decisions. Those who have created different syllabi for Aitchison College (preppy colonial times school in Lahore for the rich) and a different one for government schools. Those who are responsible for poverty and class inequality and injustices. Hearing so much truth from his blind brother, Babu Barral responds: Do
you plan on dying, man? Such political commentary has been part of the Punjabi theater for as long as we can remember. In their own subtle and clever ways, these comedians have spoken against dictatorships and powerful institutions of the state.
At the start of the play, Abid Khan (Abba Ji) upon hearing something from a beggar, says to him: “You have gone too soft. You need to read up on Pakistan’s history. Only those who have been harsh have survived. Recently one survived for 11 years,” which was a direct reference to Zia’s brutal dictatorship that had ended only 4 or 5 years ago, leaving a deep scar on the collective consciousness of the nation. Audience laughs. They also applaud.
After a lot of effort and struggle, the family finally manages to convince another family to come and meet Roshan and Chiragh as potential partners for their daughters. Abba Ji is sent away. Roshan and Chiragh wear a suit and glasses to hide their blindness. Sohail Ahmad, after seeing their blind grandsons in that attire, says to them: “Why have you dressed up as detectives? Do you plan on hijacking the wedding?” A man comes to their
house with his daughter-in-law to meet Roshan and Chiragh and deems them a perfect match for his daughters. Everyone else leaves and only Sohail Ahmad and the guest are left on stage. Sohail Ahmad starts telling him about his family’s fortunes and exaggerates a great deal. He talks about the cars they own, the lands they have bought, including the liberty market, and how at one point they were also thinking of buying Gaddafi Stadium. It was a great satire on how people act in front of families they are trying to marry into. It’s just that Sohail Ahmad takes the lies and showiness to a whole different stratosphere. The guest is left in utter bewilderment. Later on, we see only Chiragh and Roshan. The light goes dim and they start imagining how beautiful their wives will be. Soon a fairy lands on the stage and starts talking to them. When the fairy tells Chiragh how she loves him, Roshan says: “It seems as if she is blind too.”
Before the second visit of the family, Chiragh and Roshan get into a terrible accident and are left in bandages. At that point, we also see a well-dressed man, who is actually a clerk, come to the house and say he’s here for a job interview, to which Sohail Ahmad responds: “But we don’t let an interview into our house” and asks him to leave. Shirin, the journalist, also makes a revisit and says she really wants to talk to beggars about her story. Soon after, the guests arrive but so does Abba Ji who insists that his sons are actually blind and that their prospective father-in-law has been tricked into believing that they are normal. Roshan and Chiragh say they are not blind and that their father is just lying. The guests take a test, which they easily pass. They reveal that they had recovered their sight after the accident, and they don’t want to beg anymore and live normally, but the guests leave because of the chaos and confusion. The marriage is off. Chiragh and Roshan are left dismayed but are ready to make a sacrifice for the sake of their father. After that, the clerk comes again and brings the cops with him. He says to Abba Ji that he knows about the underground drug business he has been running under the garb of begging. They search the house and find drugs, and as they are about to arrest the father, Roshan and Chiragh step up and take responsibility for the drug crimes of their father. Abba Ji is left shattered and the play ends with Sohail Ahmad’s dialogue: “Whether they are educated or not, whether they are blind or with sight, one thing is for certain, the sweetness (humanity) of the sons is always guaranteed.”
Shartiya Mithay went on to become one of the most famous stage dramas to come out of Punjab. Much like many other stage dramas, its humor is untranslatable, and it often loses its potency when translated, because the language used in Punjabi stage dramas (like Punjabi in general) is not standardized and the type of humor used has a very local scope.
Shartiya Mithay's director and writer, Babu Barral, who also played a number of roles in other famous stage dramas like, Aashqo Gham Na Karo, Basheera In Trouble, Suhay Lal, hailed from Ghakkar Mandi and started his career as a small-town comedian who performed at wedding functions. His big break came in 1986 when he played the character of a dholki wala in Naheed Khanum’s play Sun Baba Sun. Babu was a man of many talents.
Along with writing, directing, and acting in a masterpiece like Shartiya Mithay, he also released a studio album by the name of ‘Beetiyan Rutaan’ (Days Gone By). He was not even 50 when he was diagnosed with cancer and kidney disease. Babu didn’t have much money and requested the state to take care of his medical expenses, but much like many other stage performers, he died fairly young and in poverty. Those artists who remain loyal to the art form of stage dramas do not make much and are often left to fend for themselves. Others, like Sohail Ahmad, Iftikhar Thakur, and Nasir Chinioti, to name a few, who go on to appear on TV shows and sanitize their humor to cater to the respectability of the audience, make much more money and live quite comfortably. After Babu Barral’s death, in August 2015, his nephew Chand Barral wrote and directed Shartiya Mithay 2, which also had a couple of dance numbers and some cast members from the original. The play did rather well commercially but the original Shartiya Mithay was something else, given how much it influenced other stage dramas and stage actors in Punjab's theatre circuit.