Culture-clash play Howzat returns for a second innings
Pakistani businessman Ahsan Ali Khan lives with his wife in Dubai, next door to Indian hotel manager Gaurav Sharma, who is married to Greek national Sofia Sharma.
More than simply characters in a comedy-drama being staged this week in the city, they serve as a reflection of the UAE’s demographically diverse and vibrant society, and a way to explore the issues that arise as a result.
Howzat, a full-length English-language production, played to full houses when it debuted last year. It returns to The Junction in Alserkal Avenue on May 18, where it will run until May 20.
The story was developed last year by Alex Broun and Asad Raza Khan at the height of diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. When an Indian couple move into a villa next to a Pakistani family on The Palm Jumeirah, they discover that a wall between the two houses has fallen. The dramatic and comedic events that follow feature conflict, historic bias and a message of harmony.
The title of the play is a reference to the friendly rivalry between Indians and Pakistanis over cricket – “Howzat?” is the exclamation a fielder traditionally makes when appealing to the umpire over an out during a match.
“The concept of the play came about in a two-fold manner,” says Khan, who also plays the Pakistani character in the production. “Last year we decided we wanted to do something based in Dubai for Dubai.
“The second thing that prompted us to write this was the spat between India and Pakistan. We thought, people are often guided by what they have seen in the media, but in reality there is no such animosity between the Indians and Pakistanis who live in the UAE. So tolerance was something we wanted to highlight.”
Khan adds that the issues explored in the play do not only affect the countries the characters are from, and they also wanted showcase the wider cultural diversity within the UAE.
“We wanted to make it resonate with each and every expat,” he says. “So we also have a Greek character.”
He says the revival of the play is a reflection of the reception to the first run of shows.
“We had people from all walks of life connecting with the story,” he says. “It’s a representation of UAE life.”
Khan’s character is a 35-year-old self-made man, who lives a modest life with his wife, played by Dubai radio presenter Meghana Fareed.
“His story is just like many others who come to the UAE,” says Khan. “People come here to buy into the Dubai dream. He, too, [worked] until he made it big enough to afford a place on The Palm. Yet, he is frugal. He won’t invest in a flashy car and still likes to sit in his salwar kurta and read the newspaper in the morning. He is philosophical and righteous, but also has a humorous side to him and different shades.”
His Indian neighbour is extravagance personified. Played by Kailash Nair, Sharma is a top manager at a hotel who lives life in the fast lane. Christina Papachristou plays his wife.
“He is a socialite and believes all the show of money is what will take him ahead in life,” says Nair. “But there are layers to the character, as well. He comes across as rude and snobbish because he has had to struggle to constantly prove his worth to his father, who considered him a failure.”
Nair says the premise of the play resonates with him because he grew up in the UAE.
“No matter where you come from, the lines and differences between cultures are blurred here,” he says. “For Indians and Pakistanis here, they are completely disconnected from the animosity that the two countries breed against one another. In fact, we all refer to ourselves as desis – it’s a unifying term.
“We get a sense of belonging when we are together.”
Priyanka Johri, the play’s director, added some nuances to the characters this time around.
“The story is fantastic with really strong characters,” she says. “But I wanted to add more dimensions to some of them this time. For example, Asad’s character is more colourful, and the couple are more stylish.”
The team also play to certain stereotypes to add comedy.
“Greeks are considered hot-tempered, so Sofia is like that,” says Johri. “As the play progresses, you see each character’s mindset evolve towards one another.”
Khan says they want to avoid being preachy, but want to make the audience think.
“The message comes across subtly and masked in light humour,” he says. “You’ll be laughing at a situation and then feel: ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way.’”
He adds that residents in the country depict a model of tolerance that should be recreated in other parts of the world.
“People here find solutions by talking and listening,” he says. “We want the audience to feel good about themselves and where they live.”
Updated: May 17, 2017 04:00 AM