Ullu Aur Billi: A play that masters the art of toxic humour
Ullu Aur Billi is an Urdu adaptation of the play The Owl And The Pussy Cat (1965) written originally by Bill Manhoff and has been directed by Ansar Mahar, a NAPA graduate, starring Hani Taha and Qasim Shah. The play was staged for the first time this year at the Young Director’s Festival at the National Academy Of Performing Arts (NAPA), Karachi. It was the only play to be shortlisted from among the festival entries to be staged again as part of the NAPA Repertory Theatre showcasing.
With Covid finally taking a backseat, some robust theatre performances are sprouting at NAPA and for Karachi, a city that craves creativity and entertainment, this is a welcome change. Soon after staging several plays at the Young Director’s Festival, NAPA staged and commemorated its first post-pandemic repertory showcase as part of the NAPA Repertory Theatre with Ullu Aur Billi.
The story focuses largely on two characters, Naina (Hani Taha) and Sharafat (Qasim Shah) who meet circumstantially once Sharafat complains and has Naina kicked out of her apartment on account of ‘illicit’ activities which make him uncomfortable. The two bicker and banter with impeccable comic timing and that play is a fun watch if you like situational comedy. Sharafat is a frail, toxic, and highly egotistical character who feels he is morally superior to Naina because he is educated, literate, and a teacher by day and writer by night. He first belittles Naina then falls for her as she woos him. Naina is a self-righteous, underconfident yet forthright character who doesn’t think much of herself but begins to pull her socks up once she meets Sharafat, because she feels the need to somehow win his approval.
The relationship between Naina and Sharafat is like a sea-saw of toxic hyper-emotions with each first shoving the other to the ground, and then offering a hand in redemption out of guilt. Their dynamic will make you reminisce about attachment patterns, toxic exchange, power imbalance in personal relationships and why two people, despite caring for each other, are a complete misfit for one another. The beauty of the story is its focused narrative on simply two people, who are incompatible. The play’s arc is ironic, it progresses in a regressive manner: it starts off as a situational comedy but progresses to psychological and emotional abuse between two protagonists.
Commenting on the characterisation, the director Ansar Mahar said, “Both characters are radically different on the surface, but when you observe them closely, they are similar in nature. Sharafat feels he is superior to Naina because he has a socially acceptable profession and Naina is unable to let go of her insecurities and her past. Both their insecurities collide and they provide each other with a means for escapism from the world they inhabit.”
While Hani and Qasim fit the bill and embody their characters’ skin perfectly while performing, the production longs for more attention to detail. One reason could be that the set design was done by one of the leading actors, Qasim Shah so his attention to detail must have been divided between his performance and the set design. Most hats including the director’s hat were worn by the director himself, Ansar Mahar. He has also done the casting, sound design, and operated the lights on the day of the performance which is a lot for one person to take on. The set change could have been smoother and the lighting design by Hasnain Raza could have been a bit more evocative and the lighting had room to be more in sync with the ever-changing tempo of the play.
Overall, Ullu Aur Billi is definitely worth your time and is a contemporary relevant play that leaves every audience member with their own interpretation of the story, especially the disturbing climax scene. The director plans to take the play to different cities in Pakistan, so keep an eye out for this one.