Return of the living dead

Michael Church went out to Lahore to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company at work... and stumbled upon another comedy of errors, misinformation and malice that is currently dividing Pakistani opinion 50 years after Partition

There's a full moon in the blue sky, with the Hale-Bopp comet just visible on the horizon. Aeroplanes pass overhead, the muezzin brays mournfully, mobiles in the stalls mingle sweetly with the music on stage. In the arena by Lahore's Ghadhafi stadium, the air is full of noises.

The Royal Shakespeare Company are presenting Tim Supple's production of The Comedy of Errors, and the audience is revelling in its gutsy physicality. Each time a Dromio gets beaten, or a jug of water is emptied over his elegant master, the place is convulsed. When the concubine appears - bare- armed in a red ball-dress, risque in this devout Muslim town - there are intakes of breath. When a master is reunited with his henchman, and the bond sealed with a mouth-to-mouth kiss, the audience gasp with disbelief. When the parallel pair eye each other uncertainly, then settle for a handshake, there are sighs of relief. Homosexuality here is against the law.

This is where veiled Jemima lives obediently with Imran, while Saima Waheed hides with the man she married in defiance of her father. Here two female votes equal one male vote: inequality is the rule. The RSC beautifully bring out the sadness of exile, but what the audience latch on to are the kicks and insults of feudal dominion and family strife. As the daily papers grimly illustrate, these are the local flashpoints for violence.

It's striking how little the audience miss, despite the fact that - after Punjabi and Urdu - English is their third language. But Shakespeare's world is much closer to them than a contemporary English playwright's would be, and many know the text (the man behind me parades his erudition with loud prompts during pauses). There's a class from Lahore Girls' Grammar, Pre-Raphaelite visions in white frocks and sashes; there are groups of girls from the Islamic university, chastely enveloped in chadors. Several communities coexist in Lahore, as do three legal systems - civil law, martial law, and sharia law (mercifully not followed to the letter). This play - overshadowed from scene one by a mandatory death sentence - has something for everyone.

The reviews next day are ecstatic. "RSC enchants art-lovers" trills the headline over a piece beginning "Excellent! Marvellous! These were the remarks by each and every person present..." To check out the local fare, I see a popular comedy called Bride for One Night which turns on some remarkably familiar devices. The bride is beautiful, and also mad; the household she invades is full of people bursting in and out of rooms, belabouring each other, and brandishing guns. The biggest laugh comes when the aged householder - wishing to score with the "bride" - goes to the doctor for a potency cure. There are camp gents doing silly walks. The slapstick recalls the RSC's; Frankie Howerd would feel at home.

He'd feel even more so at the British Council here, whose video-library has had to replace its lovingly worn-out copy of Carry on up the Khyber (the real thing is just up the road). The Council's work may be primarily educational, but human rights and unsnobbish cultural provision also loom large. The RSC's visit - following a tour of India - is the centrepiece of a programme the Council has mounted for the golden jubilee of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Since the company's visit coincides with Shakespeare's birthday, the Council celebrates in style. On carpeted lawns, and to the strains of Cabaret (courtesy of the brass band of the Royal Tank Regiment), Lahore's high society knock back soft drinks (or hard ones acquired from a discreet little tent that, judging by the relieved expressions of those emerging, I initially assume to be a lavatory). The British High Commissioner makes a speech of welcome; the Bishop of Lahore sails among his flock; it's a swell party. But what is James Fox doing here? And Christopher Lee, and sundry other thesps? Then it dawns: they're part of a larger, more contentious celebration of Pakistan's first 50 years. Jinnah is shooting in town.

Next morning, the streets leading to the vast Badshahi Mosque are closed to traffic, but thousands of onlookers have evaded the police cordon to watch silently in the sun. This was where a lawyer called Mohammed Ali Jinnah addressed his countrymen in 1940, and where, by mass acclaim, the decision was taken to found the state of Pakistan. On the lawns beneath the walls, hundreds of turbaned tribesmen raise their fists and cheer an austere figure addressing them from a dais. It's a short, simple scene, but the extras are made to do it again and again, with the director's assistant trying vainly to prevent them straying to the water-butts. Mosquitoes lurk in the sparse bits of shade; the tribesmen are patient and good-humoured; tempers fray among the crew.

And also on the dais, surrounded by extras and gofers, the austere figure towering above everyone else is instantly familiar - and not just because he once played Dracula. We know this face from the portraits hanging in shops and cafes, and from the head on 10-rupee notes. This is indeed Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam, the Great Leader.

And Jinnah is angry. "I've made 240 films, but I've never come across anything like the problems we've met over this one. We're undermanned, under-budgeted, the entire unit has been ill, and I have the responsibility of playing the father of the nation, in the nation he created. In 50 years, believe it or not, no one has done this before, though Jinnah did make an appearance in Attenborough's Gandhi. There he was a satanic caricature, an appalling distortion of the truth. I've read every book I can lay my hands on, and talked to people who knew him, and he was an extraordinary man.

"I came here to play a part, but I'm also having to write letters to the president, make speeches at press conferences, defend my work on Pakistani radio and the Voice of America, and refute an endless stream of lies in the local press. This has nothing to do with the Pakistani people, who are being absolutely supportive. When I walk up on that dais, there is a tremendous round of applause, not just from the extras but from the people of the town. That is their way of saying thank you. And they are saying it every single day.

"But on the day we arrived, there was a front-page article in a paper called The News attributed to a `special correspondent' - the man didn't have the guts to print his name - asking, `Is this man fit to play Jinnah?' and inviting readers to fax their views. It seems this journalist had once himself asked to play Jinnah, at a time when an earlier film was mooted, and he was turned down - as he should have been, because he looks as much like Jinnah as Santa Claus. For the past seven weeks, not a day has gone by without him printing fresh lies about us. This campaign is his revenge. He's built it, and built it, every day." On or off camera, Lee produces the same rolling oratory: no point interrupting with questions.

"I have been described as having `appeared in horror and sex movies'. If I've ever made a sex film, I'd like to see it. Shashi Kapoor, our narrator, who is one of the most famous Asian actors in history, has been accused of being `a lifelong enemy of Pakistan', and there have been demands that both he and I should be deported. The News put it about that Farrukh Dhondy, Channel 4's multicultural boss, wrote the script, that it was blasphemous, and that in it Jinnah played scenes with Saddam Hussein and the Devil. Then they said Salman Rushdie wrote it." When I mention the theory that two versions are being made - a warts-and-all one for the West, and a hagiography for Pakistan, he explodes again. "I'm lost for words! You see: that's today's story. And there will be another tomorrow!"

But it's not just stories. An injunction - brought by a retired major - is currently hanging over the film. Despite the lack of evidence - the complainant has so far only produced newspaper cuttings to back his allegations - the court has not thrown it out. And the government's attitude is equivocal: on one hand giving the film-makers all the access they want, plus unlimited numbers of soldiers and policemen as extras; on the other, withholding the pounds 1m grant (one third of the film's budget) that its predecessors in office had promised. The government is now letting it be known that if Kapoor departs and the script is "modified" the cash will be paid. "Excuses, excuses!" thunders Lee. "The truth is they're terrified. They're a new government, and they're covering their arse."

The script is a joint effort by the Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed (the film's producer) and director Jamil Dehlavi. Despite an impressive record - his anti-army film The Blood of Hussain won a string of awards - Dehlavi is painfully tongue-tied in interview; his actors fill the gap.

Sam Dastor (who makes as convincing a Gandhi as Ben Kingsley did) previously played the Mohatma in India, and experienced there what Lee, as Jinnah, is experiencing here: deification by strangers in the street. Dastor thinks the Partition for which Jinnah fought has been a calamity, and he approves of the script's harsh treatment of Viceroy Mountbatten. "He's never been properly taken to task for the fact that he allowed a million people to be murdered in 1947." Maria Aitken - playing the sexually volatile Lady Mountbatten - agrees. "But this is a good script, in that nobody is portrayed in black and white, though with Jinnah this is creating problems. Some people here object because he's even seen to cough - evidence of frailty! As he was dying of TB, it's hard to avoid."

Filming here, she says, is not like filming anywhere else. "A lot of the time we don't know what the next shot is, and the British crew have long since realised there's no point showing impatience - they've become Pakistanis. We just drift along, and things happen. On my first day, a courtroom set with 200 extras on it collapsed. Today the make-up artist looking after Nehru was off sick, and someone else made him several shades too dark, so a lot of time was lost lightening him. Some people are infuriated by this, but it's all done with the best of intentions."

Since this is the first international film to be made in Pakistan, the necessary local expertise is not present, nor are the bit-players. As a result, unlikely people are pressed into service; one of the most eminent surgeons in Karachi has done a two-line part. As Aitken points out, a lot hangs on the success of this venture: "If this film goes down, people won't make any more films in Pakistan. But it will be a great lift for the economy if they do."

On the day when news has come through that the government has stopped his grant, Ahmed himself is far from downcast. "This strengthens us, gives us more credibility," he beams. "The government's demands were completely unacceptable, and now we have the ideal compromise: support and facilities, but no strings." Moreover, he professes to be delighted by the hostile publicity. "We should pay The News a fee: every household in the country has heard about our film." Is he hoping to out-Gandhi Gandhi? "I believe we can take it on. This will be David and Goliath." Whereupon a great silence falls, action is called, and Jinnah-Lee once more addresses 500 off-duty soldiers masquerading as the people of Pakistan.

Back in London, Farrukh Dhondy confirms that, though Channel 4 has made no commitment, he is eagerly awaiting the finished product. He had no hand in the script, but has read it and thinks it admirable. On the other hand, he was party to the decision to cast Christopher Lee: Dehlavi and Ahmed had anxiously sought his advice on whether a blacked-up white would be acceptable to Channel 4. And Dhondy too is delighted the Pakistani government has withdrawn its aid. "Who wants to buy a film sponsored by a third-world government? It will now be easier for us to co-finance." Light at the end of the tunnel.

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