Arthur Miller Goes Bollywood

Saw the National Academy of Performing Arts take on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons last night. The dialogue was in Urdu, but the acting was **expressive** enough for me to follow the major plot points. Miller intended All My Sons as a criticism of the American Dream. The short version is that a patriarch/factory owner, Joe, and his business partner sell faulty fighter plane parts to be used in WWII, causing the deaths of 21 pilots. Joe blames everything on his partner and avoids prison, so his partner goes to jail alone. The neighbors are typically two-faced—and the gossip is, he’s guilty. Then slowly, Ibsen-style, a series of truths reveal the tragedy of this once-perfect family.

NAPA changes some details to make the story seem “more familiar” to a Karachi audience. Instead of making fighter plane parts, NAPA’s Joe (who isn’t even Joe!) is a contractor who built faulty houses. In the 2008 earthquake, the houses collapsed and the inhabitants died.

NAPA’s staging had other distinct cultural markers, too.

Pakistanis are a passionate, emotional bunch (just check the comment queue at any Pakistani news site), and NAPA put on a highly dramatic, Bollywood-ish performance. And the audience loved the excess. They clapped the loudest when somebody was twirling or prostrating.

I’ve never seen an American troupe perform this play, but I suspect it would be more restrained. Miller is noted for his acerbic social observations and his focus on personal isolation and psychological realism. In NAPA’s hands, this play became less about challenging traditional beliefs and values and more about surrendering to those values. The emotion of the events was highlighted–the familial upheaval, the concepts of the exalted firstborn, honor and dying from familial shame. It was more about the actual plot than the socio-political message behind the plot–the message that the American government considered dangerous enough to call Miller before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.

There are parallels between situations in the play and the realities of NAPA’s hometown of Karachi, which make All My Sons an apt choice for NAPA. The play examines corruption, bureaucracy and the politics of greed. And in the midst of Karachi’s fast-rising middle class, what could be more appropriate than a play challenging the very foundation of the American-Dream-cum-middle-class—that idea that satisfaction and stability stems from possessions, and those possessions are obtained by following an institutionally dictated, readymade formula for success?

I’m not sure if NAPA’s production fully communicated Miller’s message—although even with an Urdu vocabulary of three words, I understood that greed is bad—but I very much enjoyed watching!

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