The audience had a big case of deja vu last time Howzat was staged in Dubai.
“Literally we had people come in and say, ‘During the play we were just nodding at everything, all this happens to us,’ which was our point of view, [we wanted them to say], ‘Yes this is so true,’” explains the show’s producer and actor Asad Raza Khan.
The example: The famous weekend brunch. “One girl came up to us [and said], ‘Yaar, a big percentage of my savings goes into brunches with my friends,” he says, laughing.
Now the tale of tolerance and cultural mixing is back at the Junction in Al Serkal Avenue until tomorrow — with an update, says director Priyanka Johri. The plot centres around an Indian and Pakistani family living on the Palm who find the wall separating them has crumbled to dramatic, comic and illuminating effect.
At the time the previous story was written by Khan and Australian playwright Alex Broun, relations between the two Asian neighbours were strained and sour. “Pakistani actors got banned [in India] and tensions [escalated] across the two countries,” explains Khan, referencing the period of rife caused by turmoil in Kashmir.
Then came an open letter from His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, last year, which said, “What makes us proud is not the height of our buildings but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.”
This spurred the troupe, which had earlier taken on productions from Broadway or historic productions such One Flew Over the CuCkoo’s Nest, Mouse Trap, Dracula and Hamlet, to think along the angles of promoting peace through two mismatched, yet similar neighbours.
The show takes its storyline, jokes and characters from people living in the city — which was another goal of the group. The result, Johri says, is an amazing script.
She adds, “The most difficult thing about this actually is the rehearsals with the actors: The most difficult thing was keeping a straight face.”
Pay attention to the words when you go see Howzat, for it boasts an onion-like reveal.
“You should give your old clothes the opportunity to make new memories as well”, says one character, taking a dig at the materialistic spell that seems to weave itself over residents, while “Why do you hate me when you don’t even know me? First get to know me, then if you want you can hate me,” is a comment on the us versus them mindset that’s rife across the globe.
To deal with people with rationality rather than knee-jerk hostility, that’s what the story promotes. At a time when popularise is a virus plaguing the world, the idea resonates.
The fact is however Howzat needed a diverse cast to tell the story. But the crew has that sorted.
The phrase ‘melting pot of cultures’ features many times both Johri and Khan’s interviews with tabloid! And they are convinced that for their mission to be fulfilled, to get their message of tolerance across, they’d have to set it in Dubai.
“We have so many cultures living here, so we thought, ‘Why not bring all of these concepts together and write a story where we can promote peace, we can have a Pakistan-India angle, show Dubai as the melting pot of cultures, and ethnicity and do it in a humorous way. And that’s how Howzat came into being [in April 2016],” says Khan.
In the play, tensions within the Modern Dubai families escalates when there is a [cricket] match — and how this tussle reaches a resolution formulates the story.
Howzat, staged completely in English, had a popular showing the last time around. What made it relatable was even though the protagonists are from the Asian countries, the experiences they share are not restricted to a person’s roots — it’s completely tailored to the expat experience in Dubai.
Khan is quick to point out that the bulk of those cheering their stage antics were not from India, or Pakistan. “Last time we did this, 30 per cent to 40 per cent [of the audience] was white, they were not Indians or Pakistanis. They raved about it more than desis. Because it’s totally Dubai, like every concept in this [play] is [something] all expats can relate to. That’s why we had an Australian writer on-board as well, so we [could] bring all those elements in,” says Khan.
And now, to keep the tempo up, they’ve updated the storyline. The older version had dialogues that were relevant “like four-five months ago. So the updates are just in keeping up with the times to make things more relatable,” explains Johri.
She says the changes are not limited to the script either. There’s been a change in cast, too. “This time around we have two new actors, but each of them brings a new flavour to this [re-telling].”
Greek actress, Christina Papachristou, finds the project a happy one. Besides a good story, it’s got fun peers. “My ingredients for happiness ... [are] smiles, love and being surrounded by talented and wonderful people! Howzat project includes all the above ... and I know that this recipe is always a success.”
With an international cast and some desi flavour, Khan and gang are out to prove that making friends — or at least being civil — to people who are different than you is easy.
As one character says: “Everything can be sorted if all we do is talk and listen.”
Old lessons, of peace, tolerance and friendship, presented a fimilar wrapper with a laugh.
Now that sounds like it’ll cause a sense of deja vu, no? Be prepared.