Born to a Muslim Memon family in Bantva, British India in 1928 and raised in a period of cultural clashes and religious divides, Pakistan’s ‘Angel of Mercy’, Abdul Sattar Edhi, devoted his life to protecting Pakistan’s poor. The Khayaal Theatre Company’s remarkable tribute, Edhi Means Love, is a deep and heartfelt film that conveys the history and life of this humanitarian hero who placed compassion and community above ego and self. Our review includes an extraordinary and brilliant interview with the film’s producer Luqman Ali.
by Sarah Khurshid
“Serving others is serving God”
Abdul Sattar Edhi
Abdul Sattar Edhi was born in 1928 to a Muslim Memon family in Bantva, British India. Following the partition of India in 1947, Edhi and his family fled to Karachi, Pakistan, where Edhi was exposed to people living in entrenched poverty with no support or welfare provision. Inspired by his mother, who passed away when he was 19, Edhi became driven to help communities less fortunate than him.
Edhi had already spent years working among Pakistan’s poor when he founded the non-profit, social welfare organisation, the Edhi Foundation in 1951. From homeless shelters to maternity homes, the Foundation began to establish welfare infrastructure for people who couldn’t access such services and by the time of his death on 8th July 2016, Edhi was the registered guardian of over 20,000 orphaned, abandoned or illegitimate children. In 1956 Edhi married Bilquis, a nurse, and the couple then worked together for the next sixty years tackling poverty and human suffering across religious, ethnic and gender divides.
The Edhi foundation now operates globally from Pakistan to the United States to Japan and in 2021 the Foundation was running the world’s largest volunteer ambulance network. Edhi’s personal asceticism and how he created and grew the Foundation has influenced welfare development around the world.
In tribute to Abdul Sattar Edhi and his life, multi-award-winning drama company, the Khayaal Theatre, has made Edhi Means Love, a theatre biopic inspired by A Mirror to the Blind, Edhi’s autobiography as narrated to Tehmina Durrani in 1996. This brilliant adaptation is an affectionate and endearing tribute to a figure who used his values of community, peace, compassion and equality to tackle humanitarian crises in a tumultuous period. Edhi is relatable and accessible in his intention to achieve long-term developments in social care and welfare, and we see clearly how his mindful commitment to God and being of service to humanity surpassed his individual ego. The political and humanitarian challenges of our own time seem constant, complex and often insurmountable but Edhi’s story provides a deeply moving and valuable commentary on how we can and should live in the present.
The Khayaal Theatre Company is based in Luton in the UK, and has used interactive storytelling to celebrate Muslim heritage and encourage interfaith and intercultural dialogue for almost 25 years. Edhi Means Love honours Edhi’s incredible contribution to Pakistan’s welfare system but also shows how division and narratives on protagonists and antagonists had plagued Edhi’s life. Nonetheless, the film balances its praise for Edhi whilst keeping it very down to earth. For example, Edhi’s commitment to his humanitarian cause often conflicted with his relationship with Bilquis and this thoughtful narrative choice makes him very open to the audience as a human being struggling with both personal and social improvement.
The talented Ezra Faroque Khan, who has recently starred in UK hit shows Doctor Strange (2020) and EastEnders (2020), is centre-stage as the storyteller of Edhi’s life. Khan’s enthusiasm is infectious and the emotional range of his performance magnetic, as he portrays a range of characters in Edhi’s life and the obstacles they tried to put in his path. Edhi lived a long life, passing away from kidney failure at the age of 88. Despite this Edhi Means Love successfully portrays and contains Edhi’s life within its 40 compelling minutes. Sound is used throughout the film to create the immediate atmosphere, while Khan is dynamic in using his voice, body and the space to captivate the audience.
Edhi Means Love was produced by Luqman Ali and directed by Eleanor Martin. Together with Mo Sesay they co-founded the Khayaal Theatre Company in 1997. Several of Khayaal’s productions are already available to watch on Alchemiya but to celebrate the launch of Edhi means Love we have the privilege of this brilliant interview with Luqman Ali where he talks about Khayaal and about Abdul Sattar Edhi. There is so much in this interview, you should probably read it twice!
Firstly can you tell me a bit more about the history of the Khayaal Theatre, and what inspired its creation?
We’re fast approaching our 25th anniversary at Khayaal. All of those years ago, we were inspired by the challenge of representing the wisdom, beauty and humour of Muslim cultures on stage for the widest possible audiences. The identity, narratives, morals and worldview of Britain were historically shaped by the theatre and continue to be informed by it. Alongside the church and the pub, it is one of the most important socio-cultural institutions in this country. And where Muslims are concerned, it is the most accessible of the three. The very first popular conceptions of Muslims were projected from the stage in the 16th and 17th centuries and these conceptions continue to exert a deep, subliminal and often polarizing influence on cultural relations. By dramatically celebrating inclusive story from Muslim literature within the rich aesthetic of Islamic art on the stage, we’re convening opportunities for intercultural encounter and understanding that we hope will lead to greater conviviality. Although we began in theatre, we’ve since diversified the way in which we advance our mission to include film, radio and publishing.
Why is it important to you to showcase Islamic heritage across the world through theatre?
Communities and societies are empowered to fulfil their potential when their connection to their dream literature remains vital and full spectrum. They are also best appreciated and most valued by others when they are culturally articulate and generative. Because audiences participate collectively in real time in the creation of the multi-disciplinary art form of theatre in a way that nourishes both imaginations and community, it offers a full spectrum way of embedding an appreciation of Muslim heritage that is inspiring, memorable and dream-seeding. That makes it a very important art form. Peter Brook, believed by many to be the greatest living British dramatist, in addressing the etymology of the word theatre as “the hall of God” says: “The ancient theatre clearly was, and theatre must always be, a religious action; and its action is very clear: it is that by which fragments are made whole …” In this time of separation and dispersion, making whole for us is key to everything and consonant with living tawhid.
What are the goals of the Khayaal Theatre in 2021, and have they changed over time?
Our goals remain the same. Time has only served to bring more depth and dimensionality to our aspirations as we learn the myriad ways that wisdom tales or dream of virtue stories inspire, edify, heal, connect, make whole, reconcile, offer catharsis, generate empathy, mesmerise, touch hearts, broaden horizons, provoke reflection, animate and delight.
Khayaal Theatre is based in Luton. Do you hope to expand the theatre company in the future?
We are constantly expanding the reach of our work both geographically as well through the diversified channels of delivery that we employ. However, yes, we hope to be more international in our presence in the future, both virtually and physically. The pandemic necessitated that we migrate online resulting in us reaching hundreds of thousands of people around the world with stories from dozens of Muslim cultures.
What would you classify as the Khayaal Theatre’s biggest achievement?
Our biggest achievement is to have continued to serve audiences nationally and internationally for virtually a quarter of a century despite an array of challenges including discrimination, deprivation and exclusion. We are grateful and fortunate to have shared original adaptations of Muslim heritage stories from dozens of Muslim cultures across nine sectors from grassroots communities through major cultural institutions and corporations and on to government.
Edhi passed away in 2016 but this theatre biopic was performed and released in 2021. Why was it important for you to explore his story in 2021?
We actually began working on Edhi Means Love the year that Edhi Sahib passed away and staged work-in-progress performances in Switzerland and London in 2018. We were set on completing the work for the stage in 2020 when the pandemic struck. We then decided to produce a film adaptation instead in order that his story benefit people at a time of crisis. After all, Edhi Sahib was a man for all crises. We thought that his story had a lot to say to us at this time, not just in relation to the pandemic but also in relation to climate change, poverty, inequality and care for all those who are vulnerable and neglected.
What were the most important things you wanted to show or achieve with Edhi Means Love?
We wanted to show the power of a mother’s dream for her child and a father’s dedication of his son to service. We wanted to show what it looks like to lead a ‘dream of virtue’ life in simplicity and in the service of humanity, fearlessly, lovingly, passionately. We wanted to ensure that this supreme humanitarian and the model of selflessness and community that he bequeathed to us whoever and wherever we are is never forgotten. And we wanted to do it simply, symbolically and universally such that his story can be appreciated by people of all ages and cultures. Although Edhi Means Love is set geographically in India and Pakistan, its symbols and the humanitarian issues it explores are global. This film is about our human condition wherever we are.
How is the film different from the live performance?
Since film is a language and medium distinct from theatre, the film seeks to leverage the multimedia possibilities of film by blending projected archive images, soundscape and effects, lighting and camera framing and angles together with theatrically influenced performance storytelling in order to offer a compelling experience for audiences. We shot the film during the pandemic so we were working under considerable restriction, especially as regards the number of people we could have working on set.
Ezra Faroque Khan did a brilliant job narrating Edhi’s life. Why did you choose this form of storytelling to show Edhi’s life?
Edhi Sahib’s inspirations came through personal storytelling so we felt that it was the medium most aligned with his story and ethos. Good storytelling is a whole being art form that calls on the artist to make herself/himself an instrument and channel for the transmission of the story. We were fortunate to work with Ezra Faroque Khan who so fully submersed himself in the story. Ezra’s interest in all matters to do with the heart and spirit is key to the poignancy of this work.
What lessons or values would you like viewers to take away from Edhi Means Love?
We would like viewers to understand and appreciate how Edhi Sahib’s values of simplicity, justice, empathy, service and community are key to the transformations that we need to restore equity and dignity to all life on our planet as we come to terms with the ravages of consumerism, indifference, greed and selfishness. We would also hope to inspire people to read Edhi Sahib’s Autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind. The following audience comment articulates much of what we’d hoped audience would take away from the experience of Edhi Means Love:
“Thank you for inviting me to this event. I continue to learn a lot about Islam and the behaviours of devotees who live this. This is for me the way I really learn about how people live their lives, where national media never reports. I was truly inspired to look for ways in which my own work can thrive and be sustained, given the lack of interest and funding from usual means of public funding. Finally the effectiveness of ‘performance storytelling’ by the actor was a vivid portrayal of this great man Edhi. I enjoyed it and learnt and am re-inspired for my own work.”