In all of the 25 years of his career, Shahid Rana cannot recall a single performance where he wasn’t slapped on the neck. It has become the equivalent of a pause, a beat, a moment an actor spares between delivering dialogues. Rana, on the other hand, gets delivered on; not because his flesh makes a different sound, one that is better suited to the acoustics of the theatre hall but because the audience is expecting someone of his height to be slapped, to be punished, ridiculed and humiliated for a role he never chose to play and for dramatic moments that were never in the script but have been embossed in the book of his life.
“I have stopped thinking like an actor, I only think like a dwarf,” Rana tells us as we sit in Gul Rang, the historic canteen of the Karachi Arts Council, which has been and continues to be frequented by the greats of the game. Rana is no less than a great himself and the veneration with which everyone meets him, speaks plenty about his place in the industry. His greatness, however, is limited to the council and as soon as he gets on the stage, he is just a short man entangled in the legs of tall men.
Be it theatre, TV or film, Rana is just one of the many dwarf actors in Pakistan who have been reduced to a joke quite literally, but behind these ‘funny short men’ lies a rather sad state of affairs.
Six thousand miles away in a different continent, another dwarf actor is ruling the entertainment industry. After facing his fair share of personal and professional struggles, he has managed to win Emmys, Golden Globes, and hearts. It is perhaps for the first time in pop culture history that a dwarf actor has received this much global recognition. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones is perhaps the find of the century.
Yet, he was not a very happy man on the occasion of winning his first ever Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a TV series. He ended his acceptance speech by saying, “I just want to mention a gentleman I’ve been thinking about in England, his name is Martin Henderson, google him.” Henderson is a 37-year-old dwarf and aspiring actor who was badly injured after being picked up and thrown to the ground by a drunk man outside a pub in Wincanton, in Somerset, leaving him crippled.
Hearing about what his fellow dwarf actors go through in Pakistan may force Dinklage to deliver an entire monologue, instead of just a few lines. Local actors, on the other hand, seem to have accepted their fate like the red pill but they do find inspiration when they hear and see all that Dinklage has achieved in life.
Rana had heard about a ‘bona’ (dwarf) artist from America doing wonders but didn’t know what Game of Thrones was. Upon learning about it and the recognition Dinklage has received for it, he welled up.
“He is such a great performer,” says Rana, trying to hold back his tears. “I wish we could create our own Tyrion Lannister, but we are far from it. The industry treats us like props. They don’t realise that even we can be uncles, aunts, fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, kings, cowards, heroes, villains; we can be a lot more than just dwarves.”
Seeing Tyrion Lannister sit amongst royals, flirt with women and have the best wine in the world and yet be tactful touched some well-concealed complexes. In him, Rana saw what a Pakistani dwarf artist can possibly never be, at least in this day and age.
“The most prestigious role ever offered to a dwarf in Pakistan was in a play written by the Indian writer Gulzar,” recalls Rana, who played the protagonist. The name of the play was Adah and it was directed by stage and TV veteran Ayub Khawar.
“I played a dwarf who falls in love with a prostitute of normal height. I love her but she doesn’t love me, but in the end even she falls for me.”
Alena Begum, on the other hand, is a relatively new addition to the community of dwarf actors in Pakistan. She has, so far, delivered one major theatre production and several cameos on TV, along with appearances on morning shows. Six years of working in the entertainment industry, however, were enough for her to realise her place.
“We are full of ideas but they think that we can’t even think and comprehend difficult ideas. I don’t know what height has got to do with intellect, “says Alena, who works at a beauty parlour part-time to make ends meet.
She believes that the nation suffers from a lack of empathy, a major reason why many of her dwarf friends and their husbands don’t take up this career despite being immensely talented. “Parents don’t educate their children about dwarves and disabled people, and the funny thing is that they consider us uncivilised,” she says.
Alena’s diagnoses came as a a surprise to her mother. She recalls her mother rushing her to hospitals and spiritual healers after she stopped growing at a certain age. It was Agha Khan University hospital, one of Pakistan’s most well-known private Medicare setups, where she was diagnosed as being naturally short.
“I thought my childhood was bad but when I grew up and became a spectacle for every passerby, I realised it was even worse. It is very difficult to be a dwarf and be in a field that demands confrontation with a crowd that doesn’t consider you human.”
Alena gets her catharsis from the outside world and Dinklage is on the list of people she looks up to and an idea she finds refuge in. “I feel so happy for Peter that he is just like us and Allah almighty has given him so much recognition. His success makes me feel as if a part of me has been illuminated. May God bless him. Whenever I watch such shows on the internet or on a DVD, I get so overwhelmed that I remain happy for weeks.”
Nazar Hussain is a stage and film actor who directed an all-dwarf-cast theatre production titled Hum Log. It was staged at the Karachi Arts Council in 2008 and was also submitted to the Guinness Book of World records for being the only all-dwarf production. While Guinness had accepted their application, the entailing prerequisites required funding, something that no private or government sponsor was interested in providing. That was the first and last time that play was staged.
Although Hussain thinks that the situation for dwarf artistes in Pakistan is indeed pitiful, he believes now more than ever is a local version of Tyrion Lannister likely to originate.
“We can have a Tyrion Lannister of our own, if it only fulfils the commercial expectations of the producer. Let’s accept it, as an industry, we lack creativity and will only do something like that as an imitation of the West,” Hussain says.
“What I have gathered in my 30 years of directing dwarf actors is that people like to laugh at them but they don’t like to feel happy for them and this is a dangerous combination.”
Hussain credits Dinklage’s success to the open-mindedness of the American society and the fact that they have an organised method of paying artists. He concedes that America has its share of problems, but adds that “at least the basic necessities of their people are being fulfilled.”
“Jahaan roti ka masala nahin hota, wahaan achi sochain parwaan karhti hain. (Where food is not a concern, positive ideas flourish). They do not flourish in a place where you get paid on the 15 of next month and your electricity bill is due on the 29 of the previous month.” he adds.
Hussain asserts that if a society cannot save itself from bribing each other, one shouldn’t expect anything to happen on the basis of morality and humanity. “We are far from that and as an artist, I am more aware of it than anybody else. I hope we see a better day for this talented bunch, but deep down inside I know I am being a bit too idealistic.”
Well-known playwright and poet Asghar Nadeem Syed traces the plight of dwarf artists back to the circus culture across the world. Be it in Russia, India or Pakistan, their unusual physical presence was and still is used to attract people to a carnival or a variety show along the street. Even in our folktales, members of the transgender community and dwarves have been portrayed as the most cunning of all, like the secret keepers; yet, their intellectual attributes are hardly ever highlighted.
“We used to have a dwarf actor by the name of Faizee who was used in comedies and tragedies alike. I think, his was an anomaly,” Syed says. Syed is of the opinion that Hollywood and the evolution of American television’s portrayal of races and dwarves is a result of a direct attempt to create a contrast from their existing archetype. “This is what happens in any progressive society; one that is willing to learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately, we are not one of those,” says Syed.
He goes on to say that he believes the issue stems from the feudal system and the royal court in the sub-continent where people with just ‘unusual’ complexions, let alone differently-abled people, were used to make fun of in front of the royal court.
“Hypocrisy defines our society; so much so that even if someone is blind in one eye, he is called ‘Dajjall’,” says Syed.
He blames the trend of typecasting on the larger issue of what he calls a rather gross sense of humour in Pakistan. He recalls a time when nurses were made fun of on TV because they were women, working alongside men.
“Later on, Pakistan Television put a ban on any kind of programming that ridicules a certain profession,” recalls Syed. “Producers try anything or everything to get ratings.”
The playwright doesn’t see the situation for dwarf artists improving with time and relates it to the consistent decline of the Pakistani intellect. In fact, he believes there isn’t much social responsibility in us as a society for it to come down to a certain level.
“What do you expect from a society that calls short and dark-skinned people to wedding functions to poke fun at them?” asks Syed. “I am not joking. A major part of your society considers it a primordial right to make fun of whomever he or she considers inferior. Ironically, they think something is wrong with whoever is pointing that the absurdity of it.”
“The sense of humour of your average Pakistani is discriminatory in nature and we cannot comprehend something more sophisticated. It is not developed enough; it is the way it was since perhaps the Stone Ages.”
Syed believes it’s near impossible to bring change in our society in this regard. It requires major overhauling of the education system and a will to improve social attitudes for a better tomorrow, he says, adding that this can only happen once people realise the deeply rooted discrimination embedded in their subconscious.
Syed’s thoughts seem more like a philosophical take on the larger problem that has led to the suffering of dwarf artists in Pakistan. He puts the onus less on the writer or the producer who is conceiving such characters and more on society.
Vasay Chaudhry, who in many ways is the bridge between the old guard and new guard of writers, has penned several popular TV serials, sitcoms and even Pakistan’s most commercially successful feature film Jawani Phir Nahin Ani. As much as he is aware of our inherent social hypocrisy, he blames the typecasting of dwarf artists on the lack of creativity.
“Your average screenwriter cannot pen more than two different characters for a seasoned actor like Nauman Ejaz and you’re talking about thinking differently for dwarves,” Chaudhry says laughingly.
“The epitome of Pakistani writing for TV is to come up with a play about a courtesan, that’s it. We can’t think above or beyond what we have already done or have been doing.”
Having said that, Chaudhry is confident and quite optimistic about the future. “The Facebook and Twitter generation is going to break out of these shackles and provide a new identity to dwarves and everyone else that has been typecast so far.” The fact that the internet generation has grown up in a more pluralistic environment is what Chaudhry thinks will be key in the kind of stories they’re eventually going to tell.
Danish Maqsood has been a dwarf actor for the past 10 years of his life. Along with Rana and Alena, he was one of the lead actors of Hum Log. Maqsood fell in love with a woman of normal height and ending up marrying her.
“There are good and bad people in every field. But it’s people like Peter Dinklage who by proving the impossible initiate a discourse between the two factions of society,” says Maqsood.
“I was personally astounded to know that a producer in such a big industry has trusted someone as short as myself to be intelligent enough to pull off a major role. For once, I see a dwarf and not hear a laughter track in the background.”
Maqsood is hopeful that the character of Tyrion Lannister will give Pakistani directors and producers food for thought, and a chance to look at their lives from a different lens.
Drawing parallels with Dinklage’s character, he notes it is a very typical phenomenon amongst dwarves to admire people of normal height. “If God has given us smaller bodies, maybe he has given us bigger brains, you never know. The new crop of directors in Pakistan is well educated. When you speak, they actually listen to you; they don’t just look at you like an object,” he adds.
“Peter has made the entire community proud. If I am a good human being and God listens to me, then I pray he gets an even better after life. May God give him more prosperity so that even our people can think like the producers of Game of Thrones. I don’t think he realises the kind of service he has done to humanity at large.”
Only time will tell whether Maqsood will also end up like a dejected veteran of the dwarf artistes’ community or continue in high spirits. But one thing’s for sure that despite being very talented, there is not a single platform where dwarf artists can come together and raise their voice.
The apathy and disinterest within our entertainment industry and social fabric at large is almost palpable. But characters like Tyrion Lannister and shows like GoT serve as a light at the end of what has been a very dark and long tunnel.
To quote Tyrion himself, “A drunken dwarf will never be the savior of seven kingdoms.” He might need to reconsider his statement now.