Sarmad Khoosat has been sleepless lately. He was prepping for what might be called his most ambitious project yet — a 24-hour long performance, titled No Time to Sleep, where the noted actor and director slipped into the skin of a death-row prisoner “Z” who is isolated in a cell, inspired by the real-life inmate named Zulfiqar Khan. Khan was reportedly executed in 2015 after having served 17 long years in a Pakistani jail. He is also said to have studied for two Masters’ degrees during his time in prison, besides teaching hundreds of fellow inmates.
No Time to Sleep was streamed live on social media and the daily Dawn’s official website, to an overwhelming response. The audiences could also catch the performance at Evernew Studios, Lahore, where the set of a solitary prison house had been specially erected for the show. They would drop in at the ‘black box,’ so called because it was meant to not distract the performers, and leave at will.
Tough rehearsals and the able direction of Kanwal Khoosat (Sarmad’s sister and the founder of Olomopolo Media) allowed a multiple-camera set-up on this purposefully unscripted show to never miss a cue throughout the length of the performance. It also afforded those watching it on the web an equally immersive experience, marked by long, menacing silences, and little action on the part of the prisoner who mostly lies on his back on a prayer mat, one arm folded to cover half of his face, inside the claustrophobic cell; or connects briefly with a warden (played by Sarfraz Ansari) because of a shared proclivity for Sufism. At one emotionally charged point, the prisoner who is fondly called “Master ji” is visited by his family members — an anguished father (Irfan Khoosat), two daughters and a son.
The idea behind the performance, as related by American poet and podcaster Ryan Van Winkle, was to create empathy for the helpless man on his way to the gallows, to humanise such prisoners, and to start a conversation on capital punishment which came back in force in Pakistan, after a six-year moratorium, following the brutal killing of more than 140 innocent children by armed terrorists inside the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.
Put together by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a not-for-profit organisation working to address the grievances of prisoners, No Time to Sleep rode majorly on Khoosat’s star power. The seasoned performer, who registered last in the eponymous role of the controversial Urdu writer Manto in a 2015 biopic, was in complete charge as Prisoner Z.
He was ably supported by Ansari’s friendly warden who is there when the performance begins, and is back to his four-hour duty shift when a forlorn Master ji can’t collect himself in the final moments right ahead of his execution.
Kudos is due to both Khoosat and Ansari whose improvised ‘scenes’ together never fall out of sync.