Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Birdcage, distorted in Pakistan

Originally published in Express Tribune

Having first learned of the theatrical debut of ‘BirdCage’ in Lahore, I could not help but feel jubilation and mirth.

A gay-themed play? I almost fainted with anticipation. This was something I was definitely going to watch.

First things first. The producer Dawar Lashari, co-producers Waleed Zafar and Shaheryar Khan and director Ijlal Khan must not only be thanked for bringing us this light-hearted comedy amidst these insane times to our country, where one cannot switch to news channels without expecting another macabre breaking news, but also they should be lauded for their courage to even think of staging a gay-themed play.

However, as sometimes happens, Birdcage turned out to be one of those productions which are anticipated with joy and mirth but leaves us with disappointment and heartbreak. Even if crtieria for judging the play was simply how many people it made laugh or how good the acting skills were,the play would still rank average. Although many jokes were spot on and were clear to the public, sometimes they stretched too long.
This could not have been more apparent than in the very first scene where, Armand (Ijlal Khan),the co-owner of a gay club named ‘Birdcage’, is talking to his eccentric partner and co-owner of the club Albert (Ian Eldred). What started initially as a joke about bending gender roles, soon stretched out too long. Playing too much around the stereotypical images of gay people at first may have made the audience laugh but after repeated jokes along the same line, it atleast made me yawn a big one, (save for the acting of Waleed Zaidi.)
While Ijlal Khan’s acting as Armand and that of Ian Eldred’s as Albert was par excellence,Waleed Zaidi (playing Agador Spartacus) simply stole the show and possibly even saved it.
However,while these three were great in their art, the others just lagged behind. Ayesha Akram,playing Miranda, perhaps could not differentiate between the act of speaking loud enough (a theatrical requirement) and screaming in a high pitched voice – enough to irritate anyone. Muhammad Hayat, playing Garry, failed to deliver a commendable performance. With lack of real emotions in his acting he made it all look premeditated – just like the play.
But wait till you would have seen the whole Bailey family! A. Shehzad Shah murdered the character of Senator Bailey with his performance of a teenager. The booklets awaiting the audience on our seats,inform us that Huriyeh Iftikhar received a standing ovation for ‘Anybody for Murder’. Perhaps it would have been better had she put in an iota of that same effort into playing the character of Mrs Bailey. The worst performance was that of Esha Khan, playing Elanour Bailey. Calista Flockhart, the actress playing Elanor in the film,would have had a cardiac arrest watching her role being turned into that of almost a mute extra, save for one or two lines at most.
To be just, it must be pointed out that perhaps most of these actors were on stage for the first or second time. It does not in any way seem excusable that a perfectly good gay-themed comedy should be wronged and murdered in such a way as to make all the wrong adaptations to the play and making none where they were needed.

The worst change in the story was not that of changing the character of Garry to brother instead of son or that of Miranda as a mother for that matter but the change in the ending of Pakistani Birdcage.

While the movie played around with stereotypes of gay people it did justice to the homosexual community. Why? In the end it did what homosexuals craved most even until the late 19990′s when the movie came out: humanise them and their sexuality.

That is exactly what the movie and the Broadway play did in the end when Garry takes the wig off Albert’s (who is posing as his mother because his real mom failed to be punctual) head, and announces to the Senator that Armand and Albert were leading what this play’s production team terms as ‘eccentric’ lifestyle (a slap in the face of Pakistani LGBT community) in the accompanying booklet and that they were indeed his real parents who raised him.

What was the message of the film?

That gay people are humans and can raise ‘normal’ children too.

What did the Ijlal Khan and his team do? They totally changed the ending.

A fuming Armand is tired of the whole cat and mouse game and starts to narrate the whole story to the Bailey family, including how Garry persuaded him to hide the truth. So after all the most important part of the whole story was cut out. The excuse is that it would have bothered homophobes is inane.

All you could see in the audience were English speaking people from the elite or upper middle class. Besides, everyone there knew from word of mouth that Birdcage is a gay-themed play. The fact of the matter is that no matter what the excuse, people who have watched the movie or the Broadway play are going to make comparisons between them and this play.

Perhaps if somebody would have enjoined the production team about this beforehand they would have done better. Add to this the hurt feelings of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans gender community in Pakistan. Some other queer friends and I stepped in to the theatre hoping the production would at least do justice to the movie. It went the other way round and we came back feeling like we had been slapped hard across our faces. The play caged was surely caged by homophobic undertones.

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