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The Threat of Dance

My friend, Annusheh Rahim, made a short film for the UK Asian Film Festival - Raqs. The film is set in Lahore, Pakistan in July 1977, just as a military coup has occurred. Rukhsana, a housemaid with an affinity for dance, has been training Ara for the dance scene of a film she is hoping to star in. Aurengzeb, the film's director, is unimpressed by Rukhsana's tutelage of Ara. Raqs ends with Ara and Rukhsana demonstrating the dance to Aurengzeb, with a dream sequence interspersed. Raqs expresses an enduring hope and dreaming in Rukhsana's character, despite the incoming restrictions to be imposed by the new government upon the arts and film industry.

I wanted to review Raqs, but decided to do so through a meta creative fiction piece. My piece is written from Aurengzeb's perspective, as he himself is tasked with writing a review of Raqs. In the context of this piece, Annusheh is a character in the world, and has created Raqs from repurposed rehearsal footage of the film Aurengzeb was due to cast Ara in.

Tldr: A review of Raqs disguised as a meta fiction piece set in its world.

Aurangzeb sat on the veranda of his Lahore Cantonment family manor, in sticky contact with a wicker chair under August’s bullying Asar-time heat. Lethargy had imbued the sunbathing chipkalis plastered to the mottled cream wall to his left, permeated the branches of the wafting banyan tree guarding the sloping driveway to his right, and anointed the arms of the retiring ceiling fan gyrating clumsily overhead. Arranged on the glass garden table in front of him was an iced Tang, his moleskin notebook, his wallet (its leather too expanded for his pyjama pocket) and a typewriter. He leaned forward steadily and spasmodically flicked at the keys to eventually muster a half-sentence, before halting, statuesque, and reading back on his progress:

A lot had changed in the past couple of months. Aurangzeb had been secretly grateful when he’d had to call a halt to the production of Ustaad ki Baiti due to the new arts regulations; Ara’s awkward performance as the heroine, a casting of nepotistic obligation, showing no sign of improvement with rehearsal. Still, the rapid deceleration of Lahore’s public art scene was a source of mild grief for Aurangzeb. His father empathised, though viewed Zia’s restrictions not as an affliction, but a necessary hajmola for Pakistan - “the national ghusl”. Aurengzeb’s relative indifference to Zia’s coup was characterised by a lack of inspiration both at these words, and the oppositely postured words of the underground Lahore arts scene that had endured through secret, low-budget productions, bootleg arts magazines like Kahani Azadi, and of course Raqs.

The buzz generated by Raqs in the underground scene had irritated Aurangzeb, primarily for its deservedness. In truth, he felt entirely upstaged and embarrassed by the ability of Annusheh, his young, inexperienced assistant director, to create a film more magical, more subtle, and more compelling than anything he had ever created. Commissioned by the editors of Kahani Azadi to review the film, he had keenly imagined ways in which he could invalidate the credit it had been receiving, using his clout in Lahore to influence opinion and quell the wave of acclaim. But now, just four and a half sentences in, he had frozen up.

Aurangzeb removed his glasses and wiped their lenses with the end of his shalwar. He returned them to their resting place on his face, their position defined by permanent dimples on either side of his high-set nasal bridge. He refocused his attention to the page as he ran his fingers through his long, thick brown hair. Aurangzeb knew that the brilliance of Raqs was the delicate beauty of Rukhsana’s escapist playfulness, evoking a gentle lullaby against the quick, terse, hardback political context conveyed by well-placed radio broadcast snippets and sparing dialogue. He was begrudgingly impressed at how Annusheh had teased this out through footage of Rukhsana’s dance and movement, like the careful extraction of goodah from bone. The opening scene had captured the effervescence of Rukhsana’s musical, coy then uninhibited disposition, as she spoke in dance to a mirror, a chandelier, a table, the floor. The scene in Ara’s room had captured a sweetness not fully understood by Aurangzeb.

The dialogue between the two – Ara, self-regarding yet endearing in her perseverance, Rukhsana, half-masked but humbly advocating – made Aurangzeb vaguely wistful. The dance scene at the end of Raqs, which Annusheh had spliced with a dream-sequence mirror of the rehearsal footage, was truly hypnotic. Rukhsana was an unfettered embodiment of her inner rhythm, a shining face crowned with a brimming smile against a diffuse purple haze, the pleats of an embellished white lengha spread and ballooned like the feathers of a dove’s tail. Aurangzeb knew too well that this rhythm, the film’s essential essence, would be most immune to critique, and would threaten a lasting admiration for Raqs that would hover over him like a cloud of pesky mosquitos. He knew that, in moments of uncertainty, repression and conservatism, the resilient and impossibly loving act of dance has a power beyond reason. But Aurangzeb also knew a tacit but potent spell to counteract the feeling of dance with a feeling of dread. Fearful rhetoric. For a moment, a pair of chipkalis on the wall playfully chased one another’s tails in a perfect circle. One grew weary and retired to a shady corner. They were both still again. Aurangzeb continued his review:

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