By Adnan Murad
Mushk is a technically sound play armed with a compulsive visual evocation of the location in which it is set. Director Kanwal Khoosat takes her time to dote on and savour the shallow material things we covet as human beings.
Everything seems perfectly in place for Kanwal to deliver a great play in Mushk, from excellent material to top-notch actors. Instead, there is something undercooked here. Even though the result is entirely adequate, it is inexplicably lacking in passion.
Mushk unfolds through dialogues and extended conversations between Sophia Noor (Nimra Bucha), a reclusive writer, and a self-proclaimed journalist, Zoey Kabeer (Sania Saeed), in the middle of an evening amid the mountains, where Sophia has settled to avoid the clamour of bustling cities. Zoey is here to interview Sophia after the success of her new book, Ishq Mushk.
As soon as Zoey enters Sophia’s home, there is the sense in that very moment that there is no going back. These women are starkly differently from each other—and it is very obvious too—but their lives continue to intertwine for the next two hours.
The colours of their dresses are also carefully chosen. Sophia wears a red gown, signifying passion, desire and burgeoning emotions. On the other hand, Zoey’s clad in a yellow sari, exuding optimism. It is clear that their character traits do not match, but both of them are unabashedly poetic in nature.
What follows their conversations is a slow-burning fuse of desire. Kanwal’s subtle direction of the actors makes it clear that these women want each other’s company. Halfway through the play, they also start revealing their personal lives. This tension should drive the play, but the scenes leading up to their inevitable confrontation come off as surprisingly dull and weightless.
On my second viewing of Mushk on Saturday in Karachi, I realised what disturbed me about it. Everything is just too painstakingly staged. The facade constructed around the protagonists is so fragile that even the slightest breeze could shake its foundations. There is pain in the story, but we are never allowed to experience it as anything other than a construct.
Of the three characters, Gauher Hayat’s portrait, created by Sophia and Zoey, impressed me the most. Gauher, who doesn’t even appear on the stage, gives the most interesting performance simply because the women in this play embody his passion with a glorious élan.
Sania Saeed, who is one of my favourite actors, has the hardest role to play here, and she does an excellent job portraying insecurity laced with the kind of intrepidness one only has when in extreme pain. On the other hand, Nimra Bucha, who mesmerised me with her career-defining turn in Manto, is just fine.
The real star of this play is Gauher Hayat and the way it looks, not the story it tells. Seemal Numan and Raabia Qadir, who have written this play, are in good form here, but also too ambitious to make an impact.
I hate being on the fence here, but for all its joys, I can’t recommend Mushk. It left me emotionally cold. I left the theatre thinking how this could have been made differently. How the director could have handled the actors better? How the writers could have lowered the bar of their ambitions to address, at least, one topic with finesse?
For this reason, Mushk ends up being a ‘yes, but’ experience for me. It is a smartly crafted play, but it stays on its polished surfaces only. It is intelligent enough to make a point, but not probing or risky enough to hit your conscience hard.
However, resolution only resides in the unresolved, which is why the play’s open-endedness is so apt. And in Mushk’s final scene, in which Zoey advances toward a waiting Sophia, the body movement of Zoey suddenly gets shaky to match her uncertain, excitable gait. The promise of closure, although crucially not its delivery, provides this play with its ‘one truly alive moment’ here.