Sitaron Tum To So Jao

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Ishq-e-Laila (Laila’s Love) is a superhit Urdu movie released in 1957.

 

The Lahore-based film industry had struggled to get back on its feet after the cataclysmic events of 1947.  In the first years after the creation of Pakistan less than 10 films a year were released and most were undisputed flops.  But by the mid 1950s, however, a head of steam had built up. A growing galaxy of young actors–Santosh Kumar, Noor Jehan, Mussarat Nazir, Ilyas Kashmiri, Talish and Sahiba Khanum—were developing their fan bases while directors, writers and producers were beginning to explore deep and sometimes controversial social and political themes.

 

Ishq-e-Laila, one of the biggest hits of 1957, was a retelling of the ancient Arabian/Persian folk tale of Laila and Majnun. Traditional tragic love stories were producer Jagdish Anand’s long suit.  His first and indeed, the country’s first Golden Jubilee film was 1954’s Sassi which told the centuries old story of star crossed lovers Sassi and Pannun. The following year’s Sohni failed to click but Heer, a dramatization of Heer Ranjha, probably the most popular South Asian folk love tale, also from 1955, was a massive hit.

 

The story of Laila and Majnun has its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia but was really popularised by Nizami a Persian poet credited with giving the story complex, multidimensional characters, a plot and a narrative. From Turkey to Indonesia versions of the story have been a part of popular culture for centuries. India’s innovation to the story is, of course, the claim that Laila and Majnun are buried in Binjaur, Rajasthan where tombs and a shrine mark their love to this day.

 

In the world of rock ‘n roll  Eric Clapton’s iconic album Derek and the Dominos included two songs, Layla and I am Yours, which drew their inspiration and in the case of the latter, lyrics directly from Nizami’s  beloved 12th century version of the story.

 

Given the poor reception most films received in the early days of the Pakistani film industry it is perhaps not surprising that Anand struck gold with Sassi, Heer and Ishq-e- Laila. These were familiar stories that didn’t require audiences to stretch their imaginations to absorb new social or technological ideas. For most cinema-goers these were stories they had grown up with and possibly seen performed by travelling theatre troupes.  To see the characters come alive with natural human movement and feeling on a big screen would have been magical.

 

ish e lailaOne of the pleasures of watching this film, (and there are many, including a tour de force performance by comedian Nazar)  is we get to see the First Couple of Pakistani cinema work together.  Santosh Kumar plays Qais the ‘Majnun’, driven mad by his burning love for Laila (Sabiha Khanum), the volatile Bedouin chief’s ravishing daughter. Kumar and Khanum have a chemistry that is not only evident in the characters they play but also extended off the set.  In 1958 the two were married during the shooting of Anand’s next film, Hasrat, another major hit for Pakistan’s only Hindu producer.

 

The film’s status as a classic is in no small part due to its lavish soundtrack. There are films with lots of songs. And then there is Ishq-e-Laila.  Music director Safdar Hussain, originally from Lucknow,  who worked on many of Anand’s films somehow managed to come up with 19, yes 19, individual melodies for the beautiful lyrics of Qateel Shifai, who over time would develop into one of Pakistan’s most popular and respected lyricist poets. Many of the songs were hits of the day and remain well loved even today.

 

 

 

Sitaraon Tum To So Jao (Go to Sleep Oh Stars) is sung by Iqbal Bano.  Like all the other participants in this film the woman many consider to be the best female ghazal singer Pakistan has ever produced was at the very beginning of her career. She had emigrated to Pakistan from Delhi just 5 years earlier and had only recently come to the attention of the music world when she scored a big hit with Ulfat ki Nai Manzil ko Chala (Qatil, 1955).  Bano had her first official ghazal recital in the same year as she sang in Ishq-e-Laila. Though the diva sang in more than 70 films as her career developed she focused almost entirely on non-film ghazal work.

 

Even though Iqbal Bano “The Legend” was yet to emerge, her great ability to sing is evident in this short but lovely song. Laila is pining for Qais who her father has prohibited her from seeing. Like the young Sabiha on screen, Bano’s youthful  voice matches the need of the scene perfectly. Her voice is strong and perhaps just a little raw but you can also detect subtle signs of the iconic ‘warble’ that endeared her to her many millions of fans across the world.

 

 

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Don’t Drink Darling

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Black Mail is an Urdu film released in 1985. In essence the movie was an Urdu version of a bloody Punjabi action film. The cast included the two great alpha males of Punjabi cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi and followed the essential fisticuff  and revolver driven story of violent revenge.

Ironically, black mail plays a rather insignificant part in the fast paced and goonda heavy plot line. Apparently, gangster Dara played wonderfully with a Clint Eastwood type sullen bravado by a blonde-wigged Mustafa Qureshi has blackmailed the despicable and amoral industrialist Sethji (Qavi) but its not clear. Both leads toss the word around from time to time but the real driving force in this game is greed and revenge with love coming in a distant third place.

Roshan (Ghulam Mohideen) was blinded as a young boy when an enraged Dara throws him against the wall after killing his sister who walked out on their engagement.  While walking in a park one day he is slapped by an angry lady doctor named Najma (Shehnaz) who doesn’t recognise that he is unable to see.  Tormented by guilt at her insensitive action she vows to fix Roshan’s eyes and give him sight at last.

In the meantime, and for most of the middle hour and a half of the film, Sultan Rahi who plays the good-hearted, rough speaking, matchstick-chewing goonda has a series of fights with Dara and his henchmen. When they are not fighting each other they take turns scaring the living daylights out of Sethji and eagerly grabbing the vast sums of money he throws their way in order to save his life.

In the end, Roshan’s operation is a success. But when he discovers that the murderer of his family is Dara, he puts his eyes to use to plot revenge rather than gaze longingly into the eyes of Najma. A tense, fast paced  final few minutes keeps you glued to your screen. Though a vital part of the story is missing from the YouTube version of the film we presume Dara and Roshan fight it out. But Dara manages to escape to the top of a water tower. Realising he is surrounded by police and can run no longer he throws himself off the tower to bring a rather gruesome curtain down on the show.

Black Mail is a bloke’s movie. The action centers around four angry and emotionally stunted men though Rahi does give his Robin Hood-esque character a certain charm with his broken Urdu, cowboy boots and his famous smirk.  More so than in many other Urdu movies the women play almost entirely facilitative roles. Nazli who once was the paramour of chubby comedian Nanna (and possibly the reason for his bloody suicide?) does nothing but dance and sing for Raja.  Even Shehnaz whose role as Dr. Najma is slightly more complex (but not much) appears only to drive the action forward and enable Roshan to exact his bitter revenge.  Most marginalised is Julia, (unknown) Dara’s girlfriend who appears just once and that to sing a song.

After escaping narrowly yet again Dara comes home exhausted. ‘I’ve had such a terrible day,’ he tells Julia, ‘I just want to drown my sorrows.’

Julia protests and says, ‘No drinking. Tonight you’re going to talk to me.’

Gripped with a panic that all men can relate to, Dara swats her gentle hand away and gives a look that says, ‘You crazy, or what?’

Immediately, Julia hops up to sing and perform what can only be called a didactic item number.

Mast bhare yeh aanken/Jaisi hai warning

Don’t drink darling/don’t drink darling

Though its hard to square Julia’s desire to have a deep and meaningful talk with the her sexy gyrations her efforts do have the effect of calming the beast within Dara.

This song has received considerable coverage in the West in the past several years and its not hard to see why.  Music Director Kemal Ahmad has concocted a bubbly sound full of synths, congas and what sounds like a harpsichord.  Lyricist Taslim Fazli’s ploy of dropping in one English word at the end of several verses–warning, shining, morning–is both clever and humorous.  Nahid Akhtar of course, sings with a gusto and energy that more then compensates for the rather awkward and sometimes out of sync movements of Julia.

As the old saying goes, this song alone is worth the price of admission to Black Mail.

Thehra Hai Sama Hum Tum Hain Jahan

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Amber (Amber) is an Urdu movie released forty years ago in January 1978. With veteran director Nazrul Islam behind the camera and a gaggle of heavy hitting stars such as Mohammad Ali, Nadeem and the versatile Mumtaz, Amber zinged off like a rocket, running for an incredible 85 weeks at Karachi’s Koh-i-noor Cinema.

As with many Pakistani films it is hard to share the public’s madness for what today seems a run of the mill romcon with all the usual plotlines of inter-generational conflict, mistaken identities and parents struggling with drink and anger management issues.  Which is not to say Amber is a complete waste of time. Nadeem once again shows his comedic skills and Mumtaz manages to hold our attention with nary a twerk or breast boom.

Mohammad Ali, by now one of the older statesman of Pakistani movies, plays Ali, a rich man wound tighter than a maulvi’s mouth in Ramazan. His beloved wife dies in childbirth but Ali has little time for his son, Nadeem (Nadeem), The boy grows up to be a spendthrift playboy at University, always getting in and out of trouble with the help of his scheming best friend (Munawar Saeed).

All roads lead to marriage in Pakistani films and the heart of the movie is a farcical double-cross cum blackmail cum deception powerplay that has Nadeem tricking Amber (Mumtaz) and her family into thinking he’s a bawarchi (cook) which allows him to get close to the the beautiful Amber. The comedy is laid on thick as Ali, Amber, Nadeem grin, smack, drink and stumble their way through series of circumstances which get more tangled than one of Nadeem’s, the supposed cook, bowls of noodles.  But in the end, unsurprisingly, love prevails and Amber marries Nadeem making Ali happy in the autumn of his years.

Robin Ghosh is charged with the soundtrack which like the film itself doesn’t hold up as well as many of his other scores.  But the highlight, sung by Mehdi Hassan, is a desi cover of one of the most famous pop songs in the world.  In 1959 the Belgian folk legend Jacques Brel composed what he referred to as a ‘hymn to the cowardice of men’, Ne me quitte pas (Don’t Leave Me). The song’s doleful and slightly lethargic melody instantly caught on not just in the French-speaking world but across the entire globe. Versions of the song have been recorded in at least 26 languages including Afrikaans, West Frisian, Arabic and Slovene. In English alone 17 artists ranging from the country star Glen Campbell to the smoothest of all lounge singers Frank Sinatra have recorded If You Go Away, the Rod McKuen penned Anglo iteration.

Ne me quitte pas is often thought of as a love song but according to Brel it is nothing of the sort.  At the time of the composition Brel’s girlfriend became pregnant with his son. With what he termed masculine ‘cowardice’ Brel refused to take any responsibility for the child. His girlfriend threw him out and the song later came out of a bout of Brel‘s regret and remorse.

Interestingly, this backstory  is somewhat mirrored in Amber. The song, Thehra Hain Sama Hum Tum Jahan comes at the very beginning of the film, on the occasion of Ali’s suhag raat (marriage night).  As he falls into the arms of his young bride (Deeba) he sings of eternal love and never leaving her, she begins to tear up in a sort of premonition of disaster.  Several months later she dies whilst giving birth to their son Nadeem.

Ghosh doesn’t stray too far from the original melody though of course the words have changed to suit a different cotext.  The key feature of the song besides the golden nuanced voice of Mehdi Hassan is the lovely plaintive violin that drives the melody gently forward.

 

Zinda Rahen To Kis Ke Khatir

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Uf Yeh Beevian (Oh, These Wives!) is an Urdu film released in 1977 that  racked up more than 75 weeks in Karachi’s cinema halls to bag Diamond Jubilee status.

S. Suleman, a director who seemed to have a knack for producing hit movies, began his career playing the young version of Dilip Kumar’s character in 1948’s popular Mela. After migrating to Pakistan with his brothers who included the matinée idols Santosh Kumar and Darpan, Suleman established a reputation as a socially conscious and sensitive director.  Many of his films such as Lori (Lullaby) and Baji were praised and appreciated for their progressive social messages.  They were also popular. Baji, which starred both of Suleman’s brothers,  attracted 5 Nigar Awards including the coveted Best Picture Award in 1963.

Suleman was not one to sit on his laurels.  Conscious of the tendency among his peers to rely on formulas and plagiarizing movies from across the border he deliberately set out to try new things. Comedy proved to be the new frontier he was looking for and throughout the 1960s and 70s he created several well regarded and fondly remembered comic films like Uf Yeh Beevian.

An outrageous early scene which depicts what can only be called a home invasion by a group of clap happy dancers not withstanding,Uf Yeh Beevian begins as a standard middle class social drama. Zahid (Shahid) is informed by his auntie with whom he lives, that arrangements have been made for his engagement to a lovely girl, Nadira (Shabnam) from Lahore. But when they return from the airport trouble is already brewing. Nadira is modern and liberated but rude, entitled and agressive. Zahid and his aunt are horrified and beg  her to leave.

Similar disasters unfold when Zahid pays a visit to Lahore and discovers that Nadira is now a panch waqt namazi (prays 5 times a day) and ultra conservative Islamic girl. Zahid is totally confused until Nadira confesses that she’s been testing him and that in fact she loves him and hopes he will marry her.  Delighted and relieved Zahid does exactly that and they set the wedding date for after Nadira’s return from Nairobi where she goes to visit family. Tragically, Zahid reads of a plane crashing near Nairobi killing all aboard. Nadira is assumed dead and Zahid sinks into a depression and upon the advice of a friend takes up drinking whisky to drown his grief.

Concerned family and friends arrange another marriage for Zahid with a feisty controlling girl named Najma (Najma) who manages to make Zahid forget Nadira. One day out of the blue, however, Nadira inexplicably appears in Zahid’s house, healthy and ready to pick up where she left off before flying to Nairobi. What follows for the rest of the film is Zahid running between Nadira and Najma in ever more ridiculous circumstances. Shahid most known as a romantic lead reveals an easy way with comedic material and plays the exasperated and increasingly exhausted husband with aplomb. Both wives soon cotton on to the deception and in their own turns express their anger by using their legs and fists on poor Zahid.

At this point one may be tempted to note a hint of the progressive social commentary S Suleman loved so much: women are standing up for their rights and refusing to be belittled by the patriarchy that permits men to enjoy multiple women. But one would be wrong. For very quickly the film resolves the drama in a most reactionary way.  Zahid’s driver (Lehri) explains to the angry wives that his boss had kept his double marriage secret because ‘he didn’t want to hurt your feelings. He loves you both.’  When they hear this Nadira and Najma join forces and voices (they speak the same lines in unison) and rescue Zahid who is ready to leap to his death from the top of a building.  “We will all live together in the same house,” they assure Zahid and enjoy a final group hug as the films rolls to farcical end.

Zinda Rahein to Kis ki Khatir (For Whom Should I Stay Alive?) is the best song of this otherwise silly movie.  Zahid is reeling from Nadira’s apparent death in the plane crash and with his alcoholic friend Mushtaq takes to the bottle at a Islamabad club.  The music composed by M Ashraf is modern enough for dancing but sufficiently low key to match the mood of a desperately sad Zahid.  Mehdi Hassan gives Agha Hassan Imtisal’s down beat lyrics a suitably melancholy tone. Actor, singer and lyricist work together to make a poignant and moving moment the highlight of the film.

 

 

 

 

Ae Mere Anokhe Hamrahi

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Aakhri Station (Last Station) is an Urdu film released in December 1965. Based on the Urdu short story Pagli by the ‘feminist’ writer Hajra Masroor the film was a labour of love by the popular poet ‘Suroor’ Barakankvi, who produced, directed, scripted and wrote the songs for the movie.

Aakhri Station is prime example of East Pakistani film making: literary, socially conscious and proudly Bengali. Set against the backdrop of a large industrial project in rural Bengal the story centers on the romance of Jamil (Haroon) an honest engineer who is framed by corrupt contractors and Fawzia (Rani) the Station Master’s daughter. Shabnam, who in the 70s would go on to be Pakistan’s most beloved actress, plays Jamila a mad woman who lives on the platform of the station. Though she has few lines Shabnam delivers a memorable performance full of understated pathos.  Her character represents and reflects the cruelty and corruption that permeates every society, even a young and hopeful one such as 1960s East Pakistan. It is tempting but probably unfair to read a political message into the story, of how powerful Urdu speaking outsiders have raped an innocent beautiful Bengali woman and abandoned her on the margins of society.

‘Suroor’ Barabankvi a writer/poet from the Urdu heartland of Lucknow had attended several mushairas (poetry recitals) in Dhaka in the early 1950s. Like many others he found himself so captured by the artistic atmosphere in the city that when he was offered the job of heading up the Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu (Society for the Advancement of Urdu) in Dhaka he officially migrated to Pakistan.  In addition to editing a literary magazine Barabankvi turned his hand to script and song writing for the small film industry that began to emerge in Dhaka in the late 1950s.

Though he is best remembered for his lyrics and poems he did produce three films one of which is the underrated Aakhri Station. He enlisted the services of another Renaissance man, Khan Ataur Rehman to set his lyrics to music. Rehman was from a well off family and on track to become a doctor until he dropped out of med school in the hope of becoming a playback singer.  Unfortunately, he was rounded up by a relative at the railway station as he waited for a train to take him to Bombay.  But undeterred he made a second escape a few months later and succeeded in making it to Bombay where he slept on the footpaths as he looked for work. Sensing the prospects were better in Karachi he moved to that city and then to Europe before returning home to Dhaka in 1956 where he starred in the famous ‘art’ movie Jago Hua Savera.

Rehman’s score for Aakhri Station oozes with the warm, genteel, folky feelings that so characterise Bengali music.

Ae Mere Anokhe Hamrahi (Oh, My One of a Kind Travelling Companion) is a little gem of a song, melodious and simple. Sung by Bashir Ahmad another Bengali with an impressive pedigree–he was a student of both Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan–the song is the point at which Jamil first expresses his love for Fawzia.  Bashir Ahmad had a bouyant tenor voice that was not dissimilar to that of Ahmed Rushdi whom he clearly admired. After the 1971 Civil War which resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh Ahmad took his chances in West Pakistan but Rushdi was at his zenith.  He found it difficult to interest music directors in a voice that sounded so like the number 1 playback singer. In 1975 he returned to the east where he continued to write and sing in the fast growing Bangladeshi film industry. In 2003 he won the Best Male Playback Singer Award.

 

 

Bhar Do Jholi

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Bin Badal Barsaat (Rain Without Clouds) is an Urdu movie starring Mohammad Ali, Zeba, Shahid and Sangeeta released in March 1975. Running for 54 weeks in Karachi it attained coveted Golden Jubilee status.

The film takes its title from a 1963 Indian horror film but tells a story not of curses but of a couple’s struggle to produce and raise a family. Zarina (Zeba) and Judge Akbar Ali (Mohammad Ali) are hopeful that at last they might have a child after several years of trying unsuccessfully. Zarina is so upset by her apparent infertility she advises Akbar Ali to find a second wife if the situation continues.  “A wife that can’t produce a child is not worth anything,” she tells him.

A few months later Zarina does in fact deliver a healthy boy but through a series of twists of Fate, double crosses and colossal misreadings of the tea leaves the boy, Anwar, goes missing and ends up as a Pakistani Oliver Twist, cutting people’s pockets as part of a gang of beggars and prostitutes led by an obese and lecherous Fagin called Dada (Ilyas Kashmiri). Eventually, through yet more incredible strokes of luck,  tortured confessions and even torture itself, the family is reunited thanks to the efforts of the golden hearted dancing girl Gori, played by the stunning beauty, Sangeeta and her reformed pickpocket fiance Badhshah (Shahid).

Though this film was a big hit there is not much to recommend it as far as the storyline, script or acting goes. Once again it is some of the music and one performance that saves the day. Sangeeta‘s playful enactment of the good hearted but mistreated dancing girl Gori shows up all the leading big names. By comparison Mohammad Ali and Zeba seem to sleep walk through their parts.  A Karachi girl, Sangeeta got her start in 1971’s Yeh Aman (This Peace) but is perhaps best remembered for her work behind the camera as producer and director of such films as Society Girl, Nikah (Marriage) and Muthi Bhar Chawal (Fist Full of Rice).

In this film Sangeeta sticks to acting and dancing and leaves the direction to yet another woman, Zeenat, herself an actress whose track record went back to 1946 when she shared the screen with Noor Jehan in Hamjoli. After Partition Zeenat produced and directed half a dozen other films beginning with Khula Ja Sim Sim (1959). Her last appearance as director came in 1980 with Aap ki Khatir.  The story of Pakistan’s women directors and producers is one that needs to be explored and told.  Like so much else in Pakistan it comes a pleasant surprise that in country with such deep prohibitions against women working in the public sphere, and that too in such an industry as the movies, these women were able to martial the resources and withstand the severe social pressure to make so many films.

In the mid-1970s three giants of qawwali music were vying, sometimes bitterly, for top spot in listeners hearts. One one hand a raucous, dishevelled and brilliant upstart from Lahore, named Aziz Mian had sent shockwaves through polite society and the qawwali world with his hypnotic paeans to drunkenness and spiritual complaint.  Horrified and scandalised, the Karachi-based sibling duo Sabri Brothers represented the traditional, less ecstatic , devotional stream of qawwali. The Brothers and Mian traded barbs publicly, and in song, but all three sang their way to the bank, making fortunes through their cassettes and live concerts.

The music for Bin Badal Barsaat was composed by another woman, Shamim Nazli, sister of playback singer Mala. In a critical scene near the film’s denouement, Nazli inserts one of the Sabri Brothers‘ most popular songs Bhar do Jholi (Fill My Sack) to accompany a distraught Mohammad Ali who has gone to a shrine to pray for God’s forgiveness and mercy and the safe return of his son, Anwar.  The scene’s emotional tension is heightened by the qawwali beat,  acute lyrics and resounding voices of the Sabris who give a genuine qawwali performance rather than a rip-off filmi qawwali number.

Bin Badal Barsaat may not be top quality cinema but as a study of the role of women in Lollywood, both on and off the screen, it is a film well worth viewing.

 

 

Mera Laung Gawacha

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Dulari (Darling) is a Punjabi movie released in 1987.

The movie was a big hit even though the omnipresent Lala of Punjabi action Sultan Rahi played second fiddle to the big hearted and big hipped Anjuman who works overtime in a double role as sisters Salma and the eponymous Dulari.

Throughout the 1980s, when Punjabi films truly dominated Pakistani cinema, there was no bigger female star in the firmament than Anjuman. Along with leading men Rahi  and Mustafa Qureshi and the silver toned singer, Noor Jehan, Ms. Anjuman was part of the golden  formula that made Punjabi action movies so lucrative.   With audiences abandoning Urdu films in droves producers discovered that if they merely shuffled characters, story lines and  subplots like a pack of well worn cards they could still fill the cinema halls.  As long as Anjuman, Sultan and Mustafa were involved it didn’t matter that the stories were tired, familiar and stale. The trio had that mysterious thing called ‘Star Power’ and of course, no one came close to the presence of Noor Jehan when it came to playback singing.

Anjuman, the granddaughter of the last Nawab of Bahawalpur, began her performing life as as a dancer.  On the recommendation of 60s starlet Zeba who caught her act the young, southern Punjabi kudi (lass) had her initial turns in several Urdu features that the public ignored before striking gold in 1979 with Waadey ke Zanjeer (Chains of Promises) alongside the dreamy Waheed Murad. It has often been noted that it was Anjuman’s raw sex appeal that drew and grew her audience.  No doubt her ample bosom and thunder thighs whose movements she synchronised to dramatic effect in perfectly timed jerks and jolts called thumkas were risque. And during that most dire of decades, the 80s, you took your titillation wherever and however you could get it.

But Anjuman was much more than a Multani nautch girl as Dulari magnificently demonstrates. Director Haider Chowdhary, a prolific veteran of Punjabi film,  gave his leading lady an expansive canvas on which to work. As twin sisters Salma and Dulari Anjuman was able to channel the conservative, demure sharif ladki  as well as give full vent to her inner social rebel.  In the latter guise, as Dulari, Anjuman fills the screen with a presence that is simply magnetic. She swaggers and preens in outrageous get up (slim-fit jeans with rolled cuffs; gaudy head gear; sparkling evening frocks with puffy shoulder pads) but doesn’t miss a beat in dishing up sharp tongued retorts or pushing every available social button.  Dulari fearlessly spits her paan (betel nut) into the face of a village big shot, takes unsuspecting  strangers to the cleaners and uses her fists and feet with as much skill and effect as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.   She is a wonder to behold!

Very early on in the show after Dulari thoroughly fleeces an anxious motorist of all his cash the police decide to take action. In a frantic chase through the streets of Lahore Dulari is able to duck into the city’s premier concert hall the Alhamra Arts Centre where she takes the stage.

Mera Laung Gawacha (I’ve Lost my Nose Ring) opens with a series of Anjuman‘s famous thumke and close shots of her ankles and bangled-wrists. She then proceeds to entertain the audience with a highly stylised folk dance complete with wonderful cardboard bullocks and mango trees.  The dancing is good but nothing extraordinary and certainly not as accomplished as the acting that is to come.

What really makes this song a standout (and what made it one of the biggest hits of the  80s) is the singing of Musarrat Nazir. A leading lady in her own right in the 50s and 60s with many outstanding films to her credit Nazir ‘retired’ from acting in 1965 after marriage.  For years she passed the time in Canada but returned to Lahore in the early 80s looking to revive a public career. She found instant and frequent work as a singer on TV which was able to show off her statuesque form and sparkling eyes to great effect. But after some rather embarrassing public episodes involving the imbibing of alcohol she was ‘repatriated’ by her husband back to suburbia.

The song itself is a traditional Punjabi wedding song and Musarrat’s rendition was already immensely popular when it was picked up for Dulari. Musarrat fills the tune with crisp phrasing and ample coquetry; the music complements with lilting flutes, snappy rubab runs and fine Punjabi percussion including a frenetic dholak solo.

All in all Dulari and Mera Laung Gawacha are excellent examples of the (often overlooked) charms of Punjabi movies.

Lamian Manzilan Dil Door Kinare

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Chan Ve (O! Moon) is a Punjabi movie released in March 1951. Though it remained in cinemas only for between 9-18 weeks the film is regarded as an all time great.

In 1951 the new country of Pakistan was still reeling from the traumatic events of Partition four years earlier. The first film was made in Lahore in 1925 with output growing in fits and starts for the next half a decade or so.  But by the mid-1930s often up to a dozen or more films (in both Urdu/Hindi and Punjabi) were being released each year. The Lahore industry was building up a head of steam but Bombay was where the real action and future lay if you were an aspiring star.  Until 1947 Lahore served as a sort of feeder industry to Bombay, providing a platform for actors, musicians and directors to develop their skills before they took their chance in the Big Smoke.

Many of the principals of Chan Ve were demonstrations of this trend. Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (producer) Noor Jehan (director, female lead, singer) and Firoze Nizami (music director) had all spent time in Lahore and, in the case of Rizvi and Noor Jehan, Calcutta, before winding up in Bombay in the early 1940s.  When in 1947 they were forced to choose to stay in India or ‘return’ to Pakistan they opted for Lahore.

What they found was a city and country in chaos. Most of Lahore’s studios had been owned by Hindus who had migrated.  Rizvi and his wife Noor Jehan were allocated the destroyed and abandoned Shorey Studios which they renamed and rebuilt as Shahnoor Studio. When the studio was ready, in 1950, the pair commenced work on Chan Ve. Though Rizvi had had his initial success in Lahore, directing the hit Khandan (Family) in 1942, he, being a native Urdu speaker from Azamgarh, had never mastered the Punjabi language.  To remedy the situation he relied on his wife to communicate with the technicians and follow the script which if the final product is evidence, worked brilliantly.  Noor Jehan became Pakistan’s first female director and Chan Ve a blockbuster.

The film is a genuine classic. Noor Jehan as Seema, a country girl in love with Dr Aslam (Jahangir Khan) from the city, turns out a tremendous performance. She’s lively, sparkling, endearing and fiery by turns. The dramatic heart of the film centers on a tense confrontation between Seema, accused by her uncle, the village patwari, of being a loose woman, and a hostile, aggressive panchayat. Noor Jehan embodies both the determined defiance of the wrongly accused as well as the horrific pain of a woman suffering (physically and emotionally) at the hands of a unyielding system stacked against her.   Santosh Kumar, who was starting his rise to fame as the towering hero of the 50s and early 60s, skilfully plays Firoz, Seema’s somewhat slow witted childhood friend and secret admirer. In the end he courageously sacrifices his own life in order that Seema and Dr Aslam can marry.

Chan Ve was the first Pakistani success of music director Firoze Nizami who had worked earlier with Rizvi and Noor Jehan in Bombay on Jugnu (Firefly; 1947). Nizami hired a young male vocalist from Lahore, Mohammad Rafi, to join Noor Jehan on the soundtrack and also recommended an actor named Dilip Kumar to Rizvi to play the lead role in that landmark film.  The rest as they say is history.

Nizami was a native of Lahore and an accomplished classically trained vocalist.  He began his career singing on All India Radio but like so many others couldn’t resist the lure of Bombay’s film world.   After scoring several films and having some success he hit the big time with Jugnu which, as luck would have it, was released just three months before Partition.  Returning to Lahore Nizami’s first film in Pakistan Hamari Basti (Our Village; 1949) was like most films prior to Chan Ve a flop.

When Rizvi approached him to compose the score for Chan Ve, Nizami eagerly accepted.  And once again the trio created magic.  The songs of Chan Ve are soaked in the classical world Nizami so loved. The sonic atmosphere he creates is marked by gentle folk rhythms, raga-based melodies and multiple moods.  Most of all he allows ample space for Noor Jehan to show off her incredible stylistic range and control.  Several of the songs were popular on both sides of the border.

 

Lamian Manzilan Dil Door Kinare is the heart-rending lament of Seema who after being dragged in front of the panchayat, falsely accused and physically abused by her uncle is locked away in a small dirty room.  She sings out to her husband Dr Aslam who is far away (lamian manzilan) in London unable and unaware of her torture by her fellow villagers.

Nizami‘s classy music is lush with orchestral strings that swell and swirl as they lift the emotional register. But it is a muted cornet–encouraging, honeyed–that is the musical masterstroke here.  As Seema sings the horn provides a gentle, encouraging presence whose European sound reminds and links the listener to Europe and Seema’s absent protector, Dr Aslam.

The spirit that Noor Jehan brings to the scene–that resigned, dead gaze, the messy hair–is stunning. Her ability to both sing and act set her in a class of her own and it is truly one of the unhappiest twists in the story of South Asian cinema that she would be compelled to retire from the screen within a decade by her second husband, actor Ejaz Durrani.

Chan Ve deserves its glorious reputation. It is the work of an amazing cohort of master artists who out of the rubble are able to raise a near-dead industry and give Pakistan its first sustained box office and artistic success.

Man Mandir ke Devta

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Lakhon Mein Aik (One in a Million) is a ‘superhit’ Urdu film released in 1967.

In 1965 Pakistan fought and lost a war with its neighbour India. Tensions between the two countries were high and recent events clearly influenced the film.  Though twenty years had passed since Partition emotions on both sides of the border were still raw. Loyalties to family, faith, land, language and clan were for millions, especially Indian Muslims, still not completely decided.  In the film and arts community individuals continued to ‘test’ the waters in both countries, moving between India and Pakistan until another war in 1971 made such movements extremely challenging.

The film, a Pakistani classic, is distinguished by its liberal (or at least ambivalent) attitude to the thorny issue of cross-border relations.  While some critics have found its depiction of Indians/Hindus stereotyped, others, including myself, consider the story to be an honest telling of an extreme and traumatic event.

The film is set in 1948 Kashmir. Mob violence is building along the border and Ahmed (Talish) urges his Hindu friend Hardayal to escape to India until the situation returns to normal. Protesting that he has no ties to India and cannot tolerate the idea of leaving his homeland, Hardayal reluctantly agrees. While he’s gone Ahmed vows to take care of Hardayal’s daughter Shakuntala (Shamim Ara) as his own, while his own young boy Mahmood (Ejaz) is lost in the chaos.

Twenty years pass. Shakuntala is a gorgeous young woman and Mahmood has been adopted by a Pathan truck driver (Saqi) and rechristened Dildar Khan. The two fall in love but are ultimately foiled by their fathers’ and a busybody najumi named Ramzani. Hardayal eventually returns to the village to claim Shakuntala who with a broken heart embraces Fate, leaves Dildar/Mahmood behind and moves to India.

Life in India is as unwelcoming as Shakuntala had imagined. The local Hindu community, egged on by Brahmin pandits, rejects her as ‘unclean’ for having lived so long among the Muslims.  Hardayal receives an offer of marriage from the handsome but cold hearted forest officer Madhu (Mustafa Qureishi). It is not a happy marriage. Shakuntala professes her undying love for Mahmood which enrages Madhu who threatens violence and seeks help from a venal pandit only to happy to interfere for a fee.

In a dramatic finish the pandit manages to convince Mahmood to come to the forest on the pretext of meeting Shakuntala. When he arrives Madhu is waiting with a rifle but it is Shakuntala, caught between the two rivals, who is fatally wounded as she tries to cross the border’s barbed wire to Pakistan.

The film’s script was written by Zia Sarhadya self proclaimed Marxist who had developed a well respected CV as director (Footpath; Hum Log) and  writer (Baiju Bawra; Mother India; Elaan) in Bombay.  The conflicted feelings about ‘homeland’ and the rough realities of Partition expressed by Shakuntala were evident in Sarhady’s own life.  Born in Peshawar into a wealthy family, he came to Bombay in the 1930s where he worked closely with iconic director Mehboob (Mother India; Anmol Garhi) with whom he shared a progressive, liberal political ideology.

Sarhady migrated to Pakistan in 1958 and directed Rahguzar (Passerby) in 1960, he turned away from directing when the film fell foul of Ayub Khan‘s censors. He left the country for good after Zia ul Haq tossed him into solitary confinement for his ‘inclination to Marxism’ and supposed seditious activities.

Sarhady remained a committed leftist until his death in London in 2002. When asked if he had ever felt confused about his identity he replied, “No. I was fully satisfied about my future, even politically.  I couldn’t decide what to do [after living in Pakistan for a while] and where to live. So I went to England. Later I made some documen­taries in Pakistan but returned to India, the country I still love and admire. I have deep faith in the nobili­ty of mankind. All the rest is political gimmickry of the leaders and it is there in every religion.”

Another migrant from Bombay Nisar Bazmi composed an outstanding score for the film. Every song is a winner full of pathos and ripe with emotion making the soundtrack one of the most beloved in Lollywood history.

Man Mandir ke Devta (Oh God of My Mind’s Temple) is a dream sequence after Shakuntala arrives in her new ‘home’ in India.  Stuck as she is between a cruel man from her own community whom she detests and her true love Mehmood who lives across the barbed wire in Pakistan, Shakuntala is in deep mental agony.  In her dream she prays and dances before her Bhagwan in the local temple.

Noor Jehan gives a masterful performance. The Queen of Melody captures Shakuntala’s feeling of grief, anxiety and need for resolution with restraint and subtle emotion.

Jug ka rishta/ jhoota rishta (this world’s ties are false ties)

Preet ka bandhan/ aaisa bandhan (the ties of the beloved are so strong)

Mar ke bhi/nahi toote (even death cannot sever them)

Dono rishte/kaise nibhaun (how can I stay true to both?)

These  lines  capture not just the troubled heart of a woman separated from her lover but encapsulate perfectly what so many of those involved in this film (Noor Jehan, Bazmi, Sarhady, Talish,  Afzal Hussain) and indeed, the entire ‘Partition Generation’  must have wrestled with half a century ago.

Lakhon Mein Aik is a moving testament to the resilience and triumph of the ‘nobility of mankind’ over the ‘political gimmickry of leaders’.

I am Black Beauty

 

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Akbar Amar Anthony (Akbar Amar Anthony) is a Punjabi movie released in 1978. There is no information on how the public responded to it so we can safely assume it was a flop.

There is a long established tradition on the subcontinent to ‘borrow’ ideas, film titles, story lines, melodies, singing styles and singers from wherever they may be found. You can give this practice different names–cross fertilization; inspiration; plagarism; theft–but it is unlikely to stop. We may like to think that there are Hindi movies (India) and Urdu/Punjabi movies (Pakistan). Two distinct industries separated by that nasty political and oft-contested border.

But the reality is there is a South Asian style of movie making that happens to be produced in different languages and in different cities (Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Chennai). And the flow of ideas and people between these places goes back to the very beginning of cinema on the subcontinent. Punjabis went from Lahore to Calcutta and even America to learn the ropes. Some of Indian cinemas all time greats took their first steps in the studios in Lahore. Without talent that originated in what is now Pakistan, Hindi cinema would be shadow of what it is today. And Pakistani directors and producers have always looked to Bombay for the next big idea.

So when Indian audiences thrilled and laughed their way through the mega blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony and made it the biggest grossing movie of 1977, prolific Pakistani director Haider Chowdhury saw the proverbial goose and golden egg. Tweak the title ever so slightly, bring in a big name star and lo ji, Golden Jubilee pukka garanti!

Alas, by the late 70s there was a new technology that had the middle classes all agog. The VHS was just beginning to disrupt the movie business in the same way the humble little cassette had the music industry about the same time. Indian movies, though officially banned in Pakistan, were available on pirated video tape from a mushrooming cottage industry of corner video shops.  Families were settling down night after night to watch Bombay’s latest offerings in the comfort of their own living rooms rather than make the trek to the neighborhood cinema.  By the time Akbar Amar Anthony was released in September 1978 most of the target audience had seen the original several times over.

And lets be honest, the Indian version starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Helen, Shabana Azmi and Pran was a tremendously fun film.  Clever story, good acting by a trio at the top of their game, good jokes, fantastic music and some hot dancing.  By comparison the local copy was as attractive as a cold plate of  congealed curry, hardly worth the two and a half hours and Rs 5 the poor working man had to part with for the pleasure.

The film begins interestingly enough. Three young brothers are separated at the time of Partition when mobs attack their loving home where they are celebrating a birthday party. One brother, Amar (Iqbal Hassan) is adopted by a Sikh family who are apparently on their way to India. Anthony (Mustafa Qureishi) is protected by a Christian priest who gives up his own son to placate the angry mob. Akbar (Asif Khan) remains with  his mother and blind sister.

Fast forward 30 years. Asif is struggling to get a job and is informed he has blood cancer. Amar is a village lout who spends his time beating up all comers (supposedly in a village right across the border). Anthony, hiding behind the guise of a priest, is a villainous gangster.

In a fit of rage Anthony kills his father and disposes of his body in one of Lahore’s canals. He is watched by Akbar who confronts him but Anthony persuades him to take the blame for the murder in exchange for Rs 100,000 which will be enough to get his sister’s eyes repaired. Anthony is also blackmailing Amar’s father and ends up killing him which brings the raging son across the border to confront the evil Christian.

To make a tedious story short the three men take turns trying to frame or kill each other until at last, bloodied and wounded they recall their family ties and collapse in front of their mother and sister as the call to prayer signals God is happy with the outcome.

The production is typical B-grade Punjabi which means cheap, hilariously unbelievable and violent. Though Iqbal Hassan is unable to produce any emotion or expression beyond ‘angry shouting man’ the rest of the cast try their best to make their characters slightly nuanced. Mustafa Qureishi as Anthony is the most accomplished thespian of the lot but his ridiculous wig and jeans make him appear like mutton dressed up as lamb (as the Aussies say).

Wajahat Attre also manages to produce several songs which serve as oases in an otherwise vast desert. Given the nature of the film–action, dishoom, biff and boff–the songs are mostly upbeat dance items in the rural Punjabi style.  In addition to the songs themselves Attre proves he’s got his finger on pulse with incidental music as well. As the action builds or a chase is on the soundtrack comes alive with some amazing organ playing that would make people like Jimmy Smith smile.

The scene is set by Anthony telling his henchmen that he wants some really special entertainment as he is inviting a foreign guest over for drinks. The guy on his left says ‘We’ve got it sorted boss. We have Black and White Beauty, tonight.”

Out bounce two girls in slacks one of whom is darkened with blackface. As the music begins, they announce:

I am black beauty/Love me

I am white beauty/ See me

A stonefaced hippy strums his Stratocaster as the girls sway and shake their ample bodies teasingly in front of Anthony and his Vat 69 drinking buddy.  What starts as pretty standard ‘item number’ soon turns into something a bit more edgy.  After a couple of verses the camera zooms in on the girls’ lips as they pout and make kissing sounds. The hippy twangs his strings.  This is all just tantalising foreplay it turns out. Several verses later the camera zooms in again this time to catch the girls making the same sounds but this time their faces and lips virtually locked in on each other.

Though the sex act and nudity are taboo in Pakistani films, dance scenes are never shy about suggesting physical lust and love. But this blatant, completely unexpected nod to lesbian sex leaves the audience, if not Anthony, completely gobsmacked.

I am Black Beauty is further evidence that you never quite know what you’re going to get in a second rate Punjabi movie.