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TheaterThroughout history, theater has both entertained and educated. The range of theatrical genres—comedy, drama, opera, musical theater, and more—have been mediums for audiences and artists to bring new experiences and understandings to their worlds.

Along with dance, theater has sometimes been disapproved by the government of Pakistan and has rarely been given economic support. Regardless, it has continued to thrive in the culture.


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In the early years after independence, the urban theater was limited to dramas in colleges and universities and occasional visiting troupes, performing mostly Shakespeare’s plays, which later led to original adaptations. Inspired by the oratory tradition of poetry in the Moghul courts and the growing radio medium, a style of performance grounded in the musicality of the spoken word continued in new forums like The Arts Council in Lahore—set up by radio celebrities like Imtiaz Ali Taj and Rafi Peer. In Karachi, Khwaja Moenuddin wrote a number of original satires, which are still performed today.

Folk theater (tamasha, swaang and nautaunki) and surviving folk genres, including storytelling (dastaan-goh) and puppetry, continued outside the cities. In South Asia, as throughout the world, traditionally most public performers have been men. In Pakistan some of the most famous theater celebrities have been women, like Bali Jatti, who ran her own theater company and was loved by audiences.

Storytelling (Dastaan-goh)

Storytelling, usually interspersed with singing and instrumental accompaniment, is an ancient art that is endangered in modern Pakistan. Cultural conservation efforts are focused on reviving the art of traditional storytelling by recording storytellers spinning their tales, as well as encouraging young people to learn the rhythms, methods, and expressions of old storytellers.

One place where this effort is at work is in the city of Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Because of its location on the land routes linking Central Asia with India, the Far East and the West, Peshawar was a hub of commerce and art, as people came through the city on their way across the continents.

In ancient times, what is now the old section of the city was home to the qissakhwāni bāzār, "the bazaar of storytellers," where people from many cultures and traditions would gather to hear and exchange stories, creating a vibrant ‘marketplace’ for folktales, local parables, and stories with universal themes. Over time, the old part of the city still retained some of its reputation as the place for cultural connections, but as late as 1977, a search for professional storytellers in the city found only a handful of the traditional stories and storytellers.

Despite this, the oral tradition of storytelling continues in the popular theater, which can be found in all of the major cities of Pakistan. Inspired by folk genres like bhaands (clowning), actors improvise without a script and outwit each other with verbal punning and physical comedy. These plays have a huge following and are reproduced on cable television channels and sold in video stores.


String, hand, and rod puppets are all favorites in festivals and small traveling shows around Pakistan. Puppets are just as often made of modern materials like foam as they are wood, leather, and other traditional materials.

The oldest form of puppetry in Pakistan is the putli, or string puppet, which is performed by wandering puppeteers who create a makeshift stage in villages with propped up beds. The puppeteer has a reed whistle between his teeth to make chirping sounds for the puppets while he manipulates the string puppets with both hands. His wife sings songs to the accompaniment of a small double-headed drum (dholak). This puppet theater features the emperor and courtiers of the imperial Mughal court.

Film and Television

Through the widespread influence of radio, television, and film, most of the folk theater groups had disbanded by the 1980s, with their performers and writers turning to the electronic mediums.

Both Pakistan and television were young in the 1950s. In some ways, Pakistani theater and television “grew up” together. The early plays of Pakistan’s state-run network were very famous throughout South Asia for their original plot lines.

Many new cable channels have been launched in the last few years providing many new opportunities for writers, directors, and actors.


The first movie studio opened in Lahore—already a cultural center—in the mid-1920s, creating silent movies on the Hollywood model. With intense regional competition from Bombay, cinema in Lahore would languish for many years.

The “first” Pakistani film—released about one year after the creation of the country—announced the beginning of the Lahore-based industry’s first revival, and the string of movies made in Pakistan during the 1950s was supported by moviegoers in large- and medium-sized cities.

From the 1970s on, government restrictions and changes in social preferences resulted in the decline of the film industry; many artists left Pakistan to study and create in other countries. In recent years, however, a loosening of attitudes throughout society has encouraged filmmakers, actors, and other creative workers to return to their craft, and Lahore studios now create several hundred movies a year, from serious drama to their own brand of Bollywood films.

In recent years, since the decline of the Pakistan film industry, many of the cinema houses are being converted into theater halls for the urban popular theater.

Bollywood and Lollywood

In the West, musical theater combines dialogue, music and song, choreographed dance and often outsized staging. In Pakistan as well as throughout South Asia, the highly theatrical nature of musical theater—as derived from folk theatre and Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s (1879-1935) plays which blended verse and rhymed prose, song and dance, with mythology, folklore, and Western plotlines—can be seen in Bollywood, based in India, and Lollywood—the Lahore-based Pakistani movies.

Bollywood is the label given to the Hindi language-based film industry in India.  The word itself is a play on Bombay—the previous name of the Indian city of Mumbai—and Hollywood, the heart of the US film industry.  Lollywood is a further play on this idea, with the L from Lahore substituting for the B.

Bollywood films are highly popular throughout South Asia, and the films are often in two or three languages—dialogue is typically in Hindi, with Urdu used for poetic speech.

These films are highly popular throughout South Asia, and the films are often in two or three languages—dialogue is typically in Hindi, with Urdu used for poetic speech. While most of the films in Pakistan are in Urdu, there is a very large Punjabi film industry, in which honor, wrestling, and horse chases are popular. Films in Pashto are popular in the Northwest Frontier.

Most of these movies offer escapist entertainment, with many adaptations of Western plot lines in their own formula of high theatrics, with at least one song-and-dance number and often full-scale “production numbers” with large sets and casts.

Plots are often melodramatic, featuring common characters in familiar, universal storylines: evil villains, star-crossed lovers, and other stereotypical characters in highly emotional twists of fate, dramatic reversals of fortune, and often happy endings.

Protest Theater

Since the 1980s, artists have used the form of alternative, or protest theater to examine contemporary issues and encourage social change. Many playwrights, directors, and actors—including many women—have used theater to hold a mirror up to society, presenting taboo-breaking works on stages and in other settings, including rural villages, city streets, and in schools.  Ashfaq Ahmad, who died in 2004, was a playwright who often highlighted thought-provoking issues in his plays and stories, using humor and satire to touch on the social and political concerns of the first Pakistani generation to grow up after Partition. Another contemporary author, Shahid Nadeem—the in-house playwright for Lahore’s Ajoka Theater —has written plays that directly confronted some of Pakistan’s important social issues. Other protest theater groups which still operate today are Karachi-based Tehrik-e-Niswan and Lahore’s Lok Rehas.