Scent of the modern woman

Sania Saeed and Nimra Bucha deliver a power-packed performance in the play Mushk. Ammara Ahmad reviews it

Scent of the modern woman
The stage play Mushk, presented by Olomopolo Media, is an ode to the modern woman, her newly discovered freedom and her complex take on relationships.

The play is about a journalist called Zoay Kabir who goes to a distant mountain-town to interview a reclusive (not the often cliched) writer Sophiya Noor. Sania Saeed is the effeminate and meek journalist while Nimra Bucha is the boisterous, defiant and domineering writer. Both the characters are multi-dimensional and unravel gradually. However, throughout the drama and action, the play never attempts to mansplain and retains its feminine sensibility. The intricacies of a lost romance expressed through the thumri “Ras Ke Bharay Torey Nain”, the poetic Urdu dialogues that resonate with nostalgia and a stage furnished so delicately that one could imagine the solitary artist living there – one knows that there had to be a woman’s minute attention behind them.

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Not one but several: the play is directed by Kanwal Khoosat, written by Raabia Qadir and Seemal Numan, while the music is by Zainab Jawwad. And the play excels in all of these departments. The two performers are also incredible – they fit in their respective roles seamlessly and evoke so much empathy that the viewer will eventually relate with both of them. Both the women break into aggressive fits, scorn, and ridicule each other. But ultimately, this power struggle leads them to sympathy for each other and together they come on the same page. Unsurprisingly, the play took two years of writing, an intense effort at the direction and a lengthy financial struggle to make this happen.

Both Nimra Bucha and Sania Saeed deliver a passionate performance. Saeed’s character depicts more shades of white, grey and black. In fact, Zoey, the journalist, is more of an adorable chameleon. But Bucha’s skillful depiction of a strong and yet vulnerable lone writer is a test in itself. Both the characters can be easily categorised as vamps, but they are not, thanks to the script which gradually unveils their multi-faceted personality. Sophia, the writer, is defiant in her dressing. She has long boots, a red shirt (or may be Kaftan) and an intimidating expression while Zoey is ladylike, soft in her tone and gracefully clad in a yellow sari.

The play has been noted also for its meticulously designed set

However, the tables turn and gradually both the women appear to be very different from the first half. Gradually the similarities become apparent too. Both the women are creative, thoughtful and romantically attached to a mystery man. This man is named Gauhar Hayat. Just like George and Martha’s son in the play “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, this man is the centre of many conversations but never appears. It is evident from their interactions that this man is at the centre of their identity, association with the world and escape from everyday misery. But how can a man who helps women form their own identities and relationships be empowering? It is – because both the women have evolved an image of this man based on their own personal ideologies and needs. At times, his existence is doubtful, but never his significance in their otherwise lonely and taxing life. These women have the need to be productive through their professions but are issueless – one by choice and the other by fate. And they both nurture this image to sustain themselves. Gauhar Hayat is free from the domestic misery that follows marriage and emotional chaos that chases a passionate romance. In his evolution as the image in these women’s’ mind, he has been freed from the pain of existence and helped the two women to do the same.

However, both women walk into each other’s lives with their truths and illusions. They attempt to break the other’s dreams but fail. Since this emotional struggle between the two women is so universal, no one can object to the whiskey bottles in Sophia’s home, Zoey’s vicious lies and the looming threat of violence. There is a universality in the sentiments of nostalgia, tragic romance, loneliness, loss and the struggle for survival. These feelings pave the way for a symbiotic union. Each woman’s lies merge with the truth of the other because both serve the same purpose. Ultimately, the audience joins this bandwagon – for who doesn’t have the hope of a distant lover, living in a faraway land or lost in one’s past? Who wouldn’t live by the hope of such a letter from a forlorn lover, who is free from the tedious and mundane aspects of daily life?

Sophia created this illusion by choice while denying herself everyday pleasures. But Zoey wanted an ordinary life and gradually adopted these fantasies to survive. However, since Sophia has distanced herself from the facts, she is in for some shock.

The play has an element of escapism and absurdity. But the primary theme is truth and illusion, which helps the two protagonists survive. Both the main characters are in search of the truth while living the lies. Neither wants to come out of the illusion she has carefully and very intentionally created to survive the trials of daily life.

The play’s title, Mushk, is the Urdu word for musk, the scent extracted from a deer’s belly. Musk is rare, valuable, long-lasting, subtle and delicate like the play. Hence the title alludes to its characters’ fantastical “other” life which is as elusive and real as this bewitching scent. Sophia has a musk pod gifted to her by Gauhar, and she has lovingly placed it on the desk where she writes her books and letters to her beloved. Zoey refers to its scent and even plays with it during a silence. Indeed Zoey toys with a lot more than that – namely, Sophia’s illusions.

The set was remarkable. There are books, a gramophone, a large window to gaze through and large hearth to keep Sophia warm in her isolation. There is also lightening, power-cuts and rainfall to add to the drama. The viewer becomes a part of Sophia’s solitude amidst the mountains, her struggles with writer’s block on the desk, her frequent trips to the bar on a productive day and her fervid anticipation of her lover’s replies near the hearth.

The background sound and music are compelling but thankfully subtle and not interfering with dialogues. There are also periods of silence that serve as a break between different segments. Though there is some action, it is far and few between. Dialogue primarily drives the story.

The play has been staged in Lahore already. Lahoris swooped on the Alhamra Arts Council at Mall Road to see their beloved stars perform and were pleasantly surprised by the sheer depth of the performance.

Mushk is due to perform in Islamabad this weekend, and I feel jealous of the capital-dwellers for the first time. In the start of November, when it will be played in Karachi, I will probably start regretting not moving to the port city earlier this year. So if you are lucky to be in these towns, get a ticket before it is too late. These characters may seem quirky, but they are bound to shed some light on your own life.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her work is available on