Ali Baba Chalis Chor

A preamble, first. When word first reached me that a play at Arts Council is all set to depict the age-old folk tale Ali Baba Chalis Chor, my excitement shot to the nines. Having read the original script from Arabian Nights in my teens, a live orchestration of the play was an enthralling prospect. I was also intrigued by how the a story told so many times before, would still galvanise the same attention from the audience. Also, a bit sceptic, as one is always before watching a remake, I feared if this would be the ultimate devastation of my favourite folk tale from childhood.

Last Sunday, the auditorium at Arts Council was full to the brim with children accompanied by adults. In a booming voice accelerating an intense opening to the play a narrator, [director, Umair Rafiq] pounces out at the stage and says, “Kisi gaun mein ek lakarhara Ali Baba raha karta tha…” And on cue came Ali Baba [Muneeb Baig], dressed in vibrant chata-patti waistcoat under orange harem pants and a cheerful swing to his walk as he tells the audience he got chocolates for his lovely, Marjina. Chocolates in an early Arab world? Yes, that’s a modern twist to your favourite folk tale. Marjina sashays to the scene, the intelligent and vivacious wife to the good-natured Ali Baba. In a comic exchange the wife tells him to go to the forest for his wood-cutter duties to which Ali weighs on how environmental changes and deforestation has divested them of any trees left to chop. But still a hopeful Ali skips into the forest to earn his livelihood. As he reaches the forest, a thunderstorm strikes stopping Ali Baba in his tracks! It takes us a while to realise that the thundering is not the weather, but galloping of forty horsemen who arrive to the scene. At this point the auditorium full of kids, having already established a fond rapport with the character – rise to warn Ali Baba, telling him to hide, immediately! From his place of hiding, he witnesses a bizarre incident unfold. Fierce-looking men clad in black apparels and sneakers (!) take their position next to an earthy makeshift enclosure. And as they begin to speak the audience has a hoot! The quick witty comic exchanges between the choorun ka sardar [Hammad Khan] and the thirty nine thieves was hilarious! Clean jokes, subtle political digs and interesting assertions didn’t miss guffaws from kids or their accompanying parents. In fact the very strength of the play lies in how it was made interactive, particularly for the kids. At each pivotal turn of the plot the characters paused and asked the audience (which comprised mostly of kids) about what will happen next? Or what they should do next? Sardar orders his men to shut their eyes and ears, and when assured of their oblivion, thunders, “Khulja Sim Sim!.” And the earthy enclosure slides open, revealing glinting golds and silvers, money and extravagant ornaments. At this point I was assured (also mildly relieved) that they didn’t make any major changes to the storyline and stayed true to the tale’s original script. But what was gratifying to watch, how they cleverly weaved pop-cultural references into the dialogues with terrific comic timing it was almost surreal. It would be a disservice to the performers, if their brilliant, and energetic acting is not given due credit. All actors, from the good-humoured Ali Baba himself to the lively Marjina and her greedy sister-in-law and her husband. The Sardar, too, delivered a thundering performance along with the other thieves as villain and ones who kept the children on their toes. It is safe to say that there was never a dull moment during any part of the play, where the audiences’ attention waned or drifted for a second. From the moment the narrator pounced in to open the first scene for us, to the play’s end where the chor try to trap Ali Baba, every single act was meticulously rehearsed and beautifully presented.