There is a sense of doom in the opening scenes as the stage is enveloped in darkness, except for the spotlight that focuses on different soldiers bidding farewell to their respective families. There are flashbacks throughout the play, as the soldiers communicate with their families through letters. A mother, having already lost two sons in similar circumstances, is shown sending a third one to this outpost.
When the scene opens against the backdrop of the snow-covered mountain at 20,000 feet, the soldiers are bantering with the unseen enemy through mikes about cricket. Cricket seems to have become a metaphor and a symbol of the India-Pakistan relations, inciting primeval passions of war and competition, and making the England-Australian rivalry over Ashes a child’s play in comparison. I’m reminded of the recent Bollywood blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijan, where the pretty, deaf and dumb girl’s identity is revealed when she starts clapping for the Pakistani side to the horror of her Hindu hosts. However, in Siachen the stakes are higher, but the one-upmanship is juvenile. When the Pakistani captain arrives and tells his soldiers to back off, the faceless enemy shouts, “dar gaya” (you lost your nerve), a quintessential schoolboy response.
As the soldiers deal with the monotony and difficulty of everyday survival with shortage of water and rations, get homesick and pine for their families, Maqsood’s witticisms keep the audience entertained. One soldier ruminates that with the army busy in operation Zarb-e-Azb (military operation against the terrorists) and occupied in places like Siachen, the danger was that if there was a military coup, then the navy would have to take over. The audience roared with laughter at the prospect of the relatively small Pakistan navy trying to wield the reins of power.
The play became electric when Yasir Hussain made his appearance as an Indian soldier who loses his way and finds himself in the middle of the Pakistani post. Yasir, whose acting skills I have compared to Naseeruddin Shah in the past, was not only the architect of the well-crafted set for Siachen, but played the role of the Bihari soldier with a great deal of sensitivity. Speaking in melodious Purbi with aplomb, a version of Urdu spoken in eastern UP and Oudh, the Indian soldier comes across as just another human being, only concerned with saving his life. The pathos of this scene is interspersed with gems of Maqsood’s inimitable humour: when asked who the Prime Minister of Pakistan is, the Indian soldier answers, “Mian Muhammad Raheel Shareef”.
There is a dig at the western media too, as the naïve BBC correspondent arrives at the post; her presence distracts the soldiers, compromising their security.
Siachen is about the hardship, loneliness and monotony of our soldiers’ lives, stuck in the middle of nowhere, where time stands still. When one of the soldiers dilates at some length on his love for Pakistan and how he’d like to give the last drop of his blood for it, but quickly adds, if Raheel Shareef could get him a job in the Gulf, he’d be very happy to go. It’s a Maqsoodian reminder to the audience that all that the soldier wants is a better life, and an escape from poverty.
Anwar Maqsood has done a brilliant job of showing that the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in Siachen has the absurdity of a Sisyphean tale, and is out of all proportion to the human and financial cost.
The KopyKats have excelled once again, and the amateur actors have given a good performance, but the management of the gates and handling of media was an absolute disaster on the 31st of October. KopyKats need to work on that front.
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