Adnan Lodhi

November 25 would have gone down as just another routine evening at Tamaseel, the grand dame of Lahore theatres. The well-heeled will be fleeced by star managers for best seats and token acknowledgement. “A life on the streets for a precious few moments on the front seats,” the ‘girls’ like to joke among themselves. The less fortunate will make do with what a few hundred rupees get them – weak script, bawdy dialogues and pelvic thrusts, plenty of pelvic thrusts.

‘A skirt creased’

A posse of extras clad in turmeric take to the stage as a popular Naseebo number starts playing. While Aaj Laachey Nu Parh Gaye Vat Sajna will continue to fire libidos across the Lahore theatre circuit, this is the last time Kismat’s ‘skirt will crease’. Sambrial’s Hina will scale the steps backstage a final time to stage her (last) entry. The mother-of-two’s dupatta will strategically slip from her hand no more.

As Madiha’s more renowned sibling leaves the venue, “bodyguard” Ali will escort his “friend” home for the umpteenth time. Two hours’ drive away in Faisalabad, Agriculturist-cum-industrialist Muzammil will smoulder. As unidentified gunmen unleash a volley of bullets on the vehicle carrying Lahore’s uncrowned empress of dance, the much-envied assent of a theatre sensation will stand terminated circa 2016.

A one-room Mughalpura rental is what awaited the Baig sisters fleeing ‘provincial’ Sambrial and an uncaring father in 2004. Together with their mother, Hina and Madiha established a home-based beauty salon to make ends meet. Custom, they soon found, was difficult to find and even harder to retain.

Enter veteran struggler Phool. With the now second-tier dancer as their mentor, the Baig sisters started frequenting theatre circles. Patronage from tamashbeens followed. Liquor and sexual favours often accompanied a quick buck, contemporaries assert.

An acquaintance was struck with yesteryear union leader FR Bhatti through Phool in 2007. Bhatti found two fresh faces in the Sambrial ‘girls’. From then on, history would remember Mughalpura’s Baig sisters as Lahore’s Kismat and Sitara.

“Their plight moved me. The two-marla rental was devoid of furniture as basic as chairs. Kismat could not even afford milk for her children. Her (then) husband, a tailor, simply did not give a toss,” Bhatti told The Express Tribune.  

Sambrial girl makes it big

The one-time union leader said he handed over the girls to director Jarar Rizvi to hone their talent. Choreographers were hired to prepare Kismat for a befitting stage debut, he said. A first appearance at Lahore’s Mehfil Theatre would lead to a second. Veterans Nargis, Deedar, Khushboo, Saima, Megha and Mahnoor would soon find their sway challenged. The Sambrial ‘girl’ forever ready to wriggle at the veritable drop of a hat would now command a price tag running into millions.

“The one-room Mughalpura rental gave way to four bungalows across premier Lahore neighbourhoods. Luxury sedans accompanied the change of address. Kismat’s kismat truly changed. And, so did Kismat,” Rizvi said.

The director, who continues to look after the deceased theatre sensation’s family, said Kismat stopped acknowledging him at one point. “Not that I cared. She was doing remarkably well. I was genuinely happy for her.”

Others were not. Kismat’s rapid rise left many a self-styled superstar shaken. “Land Cruisers, gunmen. We were (seasoned) artistes. Well-versed we were too in the ways of the world. But Kismat, my God! Never did I witness such pomp,” actor Shiba Butt told The Express Tribune.

“Everyone had an inkling of what was to follow. She was the future of the Lahore theatre circuit. We did all we could. Demonstrations were staged. Truth be told, her killing sent shockwaves through the industry.”

Deadly dalliance

Industrial powerhouse Faisalabad is a chick magnet. Many stage actors flock to the city in search of affluent men willing to spend. In the Punjab’s second-largest city, a stage actor or two as keep constitutes a status symbol. That Faisalabad boasts an active theatre circuit facilitates such ‘relationships of convenience’.

“It was Kismat’s misfortune that she got spotted by Muzammil in Faisalabad around five years ago. She became a kept woman. He lavished everything any stage actor would dream of on her and more,” Bhatti told The Express Tribune when queried on their then fledgling relationship.

Muzammil later got a taste of what earlier befell Bhatti once Kismat tasted success. “She cheated on Muzammil with Ali. As the two grew closer, Kismat stopped acknowledging the latter. This is after everything he had done for her. In vain, Muzammil then tried to coax her into performing in Faisalabad. Time and again we heard him expressly forbid Kismat from meeting Ali. She was not one to listen. What followed is common knowledge,” producer Qaiser Abbas said.

Muzammil remained unavailable for comments despite repeated requests.

In memoriam

A year-and-a-half post Kismat’s murder, Sitara has her plate full. “I am inundated with offers. Before her death, I was merely working. Now, people vie to watch Kismat’s sister perform. Producers are deferential,” Sitara told The Express Tribune.

“My sister was killed in her prime. She was at her peak. A promising career in film was on the verge of taking off. The other girls – they carved careers out of vulgarity. Unlike them, Kismat’s dancing prowess made her who she was. They were plain jealous,” she added.

Rs10 million and prime property in Lahore is all it took Kismat’s kin to forgive her killers (blood money), sources told The Express Tribune. “God forbid,” Sitara said when asked about cash and fixed assets exchanging hands as part of a settlement. “We will present our case before the Almighty. Kismat’s was a profound loss. Being warned of dire consequences had become routine. I had a mother and nephews to look after. What else could we have done but forgive? I had mouths to feed.”

A void is what remains in the aftermath of Kismat’s passing, Ali said. She epitomised grace under fire. Everyone knows she had been receiving threats. This was exactly why I was employed. “She was closer than a close friend. I’m (still) trying to find my bearings. I have been striving to honour her memory in a befitting manner.”

The first Kismat Awards to recognise excellence in regional theatre were held at Tamaseel in January, 2017. Legends such as Amanullah Khan, Mastana, Babu Baral, Nargis, Naseem Vicky, Nasir Chinioti, Hina Shaheed and my sister Kismat have been ignored for long,” Sitara told The Express Tribune a day before the event was organised.

Ali said he had helped out too. “A second itineration will be held in August. Artistes from all over Pakistan will be present this time around. I am also financing the construction of a religious seminary and women’s shelter in her memory. It is my dream to helm a film on her life. Talks with several A-listers are on.”

Edited by: Saad Saud

Creatives: Saadat Ali