Dam Dama Dam Mast

 

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Miss Hippy is an Urdu film released in 1974. Though now almost forgotten, in its day it ran for 33 weeks and earned coveted Silver Jubilee status.

The cast of the film was strong for this story of intergenerational abuse, neglect and conflict. A wealthy, ‘ultra-modren’ family headed by Lollywood’s original power couple Santosh and Sabiha, play parents and guardian to the dynamic duo of the 1970s scene, Shabnam and Nadeem. The essential drama at the heart of the film was not new, but that the story was set within the context of the hippie movement with its potential for crazy characters and wild pop music is intriguing. Sadly, given ‘what could have been’, Miss Hippy is a bit of a dud.

Amjad (Santosh) is a brutish alcoholic who never hesitates to slap people around, including his wife Zarina (Sabiha) and daughter Bubbly.  When he’s not making money Amjad likes to socialise with other modern people. The men drink heavily and make their wives squirm while they ogle dancing girls.  His approach to parenting involves forcibly spoon-feeding Bubbly whiskey to make her sleep.

This is not a happy family.  Bubbly runs away from home and grows up to be the drugged-out moll for an international hashish smuggling gang. Taking the name Shireen she flies the world doing deals and gathering European hippies to the gang of a ‘guru’ named Peshwa. When the gang is infiltrated by the police, Shireen (Shabnam) is arrested and forced to stand trial. But the sympathetic Inspector Nasir (Nadeem), who is her unrecognised cousin, convinces her to turn state’s evidence. She avoids prison and under the guidance of Nasir consents to reform her ways. He takes her home to meet his uncle and aunt (and her mother and father) Amjad and Zarina!

The plot twists and turns like the road to Murree, ramping up and then relieving the emotional tension time and again. Her attempt to go straight fails almost as soon as it begins and soon Bubbly/Shireen takes the stage name Miss Hippy and doubles as a high-priced call girl cum dancer. High powered but ultimately weak men fall at her knees which tragically ends in one being murdered and Miss Hippy going on trial a second time. But fear not! The judge is able to see the goodness deep within the murderess and releases her to happy middle class life and the loving maternal arms of Zarina.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s Pakistan was a major part of the London to Kathmandu ‘hippie trail’. My brothers and many of their friends travelled the route and I myself was set to do the same but a revolution in Iran happened and the flow of overland hippies was staunched.

1974 in Pakistan just about marks the high point of its secular, West-looking urban culture. The military had retreated to the barracks after 10 disastrous years in charge. The charismatic Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was promoting Pakistan as a world leader of a new political category he labelled Islamic Socialism. A huge casino was under construction in Karachi. Hopes of luring the spoiled princes of Arabia were high. Rock and roll bands played in the big city cabarets and hippies hung out on Clifton beach. Pakistan was hip. Even rockin’.

But as Miss Hippy demonstrates, not everyone was happy with what was going down.  Director S. Suleman, the brother of Santosh Kumar, the film’s ugly patriarch, seems to hold dear the values of Pakistan’s first generation: a vague affection for the Muslim faith, traditional social structures and a preference for Eastern culture over modern Western influences.  In addition to a family break-down story, Miss Hippy is a vehicle for Suleman to decry the growing secular and immoral foreign influences on Pakistani society. Throughout the film, Europeans are portrayed as interested in nothing but strumming guitars and smoking dope. To the extent they are in search of some illusive spiritual truth, they can be manipulated to do anything as long as they get free hashish.  ‘Our culture and society is being corrupted by these hippies,’ an agitated Nasir tells Shireen when they first meet in Peshwa’s smuggling den by the sea.

Yet, while Suleman is scornful of the hippie lifestyle and ideals, he is most acidic in his criticism of those of his countrymen who embrace so-called ‘modern’ values, if not exactly the clothing and hairstyles of the hippies.

In several early scenes a character known as Prof. Hashim acts as an irritating oracle. He confesses that the ‘highest priority’ of his life is to come to hip dinner parties where the “women are rotten” and his male peers are high on Scotch. Though he claims to eschew drink himself his speech is slurred and his gait wobbly. Though an out and out hypocrite he sets a moralistic tone for the film by launching pointed and ironic barbs at Amjad and his circle. When he learns that Bubbly is at home and that Amjad has administered whiskey as sleeping tonic, he congratulates his friend. “You should be clapping and laughing with joy. You’re such wonderful parents. When this next generation of drunken children grow up I’ve no doubt they will be shining examples for Pakistan.”  A little later he sidles up to Amjad who is pouring the drinks: “Ah, if it wasn’t for good Muslim like yourselves how would the Scotch industry survive?”

When Shireen tries to go straight and is taken home by Nasir, it is a self righteous Amjad who rejects her and kicks her back onto the street. There is no doubt in the audience’s mind that it is her father, not the hippies, who is the true villain in Shireen’s life.  The so called normal, healthy, loving middle class family that Nasir has so eagerly promoted is shown to be as hollow as the lives of the hippies.

Miss Hippy is not untypical of many other Pakistani films of the Golden Age in that it is simultaneously horrified and fascinated by modern western culture. Though Nasir, Amjad and Prof. Hashim miss no opportunity to speechify about the corrupt and filthy hippies the film spends an awful lot of time focused on the sexy women and their guitar strumming men.   If drugs are supposed to be ‘bad’, the film has no hesitation is showing scene after scene of hashish being smoked by Pakistanis as well as Europeans.  Teen agers would find this stuff exciting.

 

One of my favorite music directors, Robin Ghosh, is responsible for the soundtrack. But with the exception of one or two songs there is not much here of interest.  The best of the lot is Dam Dama Dam Mast which takes its inspiration from the 1971 R.D. Burman classic Dam Maro Dam. Though a clear ‘re-make’ of the Indian superhit it is no rip off.  Whereas Burman infuses his song with an electric sizzle (that famous guitar riff, squawking Moog, the driving snare) that immediately connects the listener to the heavy rock music supposedly so loved by the hippies, Ghosh opts for a mellower approach.  Bongo drums set the beat for a strummed acoustic guitar and a loping lazy rhythm. Groovy and languid is the mood. Much like you’d expect of a stoner’s evening. Several hippies sigh and let out long smoky exhales interrupted by a trio of Mexicali trumpets.

 

Nayyara Noor’s vocals are precise and operatic. She sings the opening lines

Pee ke zara dekho (smoke some and see)

Kaisa maza aayega (what fun it can be)

Diwana ban jayega (you’ll go wild)

Aajaa, arey aaa (Come on)

Har gham to rukh jayega (every worry will be gone)

 

A flute comes floating into the mix before being chased away by some urgent strums of a Spanish guitar. You can feel the violins lifting you off the ground for a second then you’re back on the dance floor swaying and inhaling yet more charas.  There is all the time in the world. No one is going anywhere. This dance and high can last forever it seems.

 

Ghosh’s delightful, groovy sound is very different than Burman’s fast paced raucous anthem. Asha Bhosle’s singing in Dam Maro Dam though accomplished verges on shouting when compared to Noor’s restrained and unhurried vocals. It’s not that one is better than the other. Simply that both are wonderful and distinct imaginings of what a hippie music could sound like.  Burman/Bhosle make you want to jump and party all night. Ghosh and Noor settle you in for the long haul.

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A Tay Wela Aap Dassay Ga, Kon Mar Da A Medan Pehlay Hallay

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Maula Jatt is a Punjabi movie released in February 1979.  Hands down it is the most famous movie ever produced in Pakistan with a world wide cult following.  More words, columns and articles have been written about this single film than the entire Pakistani movie industry.

 

There are iconic films—Gone with the Wind, Mother India—that capture a historical moment. Other films are remembered for ushering in a new epoch; think Star Wars or Zanjeer. But rarely has one film dominated an industry and a public’s consciousness so completely as the Pakistani rustic, action picture Maula Jatt.

 

Released forty years ago this February, what appeared at the time to be just another Punjabi potboiler has, in fact, become the undisputed glittering prize of Pakistani film. Recognised today as a unique cinematic creation which has spawned its own ‘Jatt’ franchise, Maula Jatt will be memorialised later this year in a much-ballyhooed recreation by director Bilal Lashari.

 

The story of Maula Jatt can be traced back to the 1950s Urdu short story, Gandasa by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. But the character portrayed in the short story, a village tearaway caught up in a society driven in equal measure by violence and love, is one as familiar to Punjabis as the old story of Hir Ranjha.  Wehsi Jatt (1975) the hit movie which picturised the short story, set the ball of blood-drenched Punjabi movies rolling.  Four years later, producer Sarwar Bhatti decided to advance the story and created Maula Jatt in which he introduced new characters, a fresh plotline and, lots and lots more gore.

 

What could have been a lazy rip off turned out to be strikingly fresh, even innovative. Maula Jatt managed not only to win the immediate affection of audiences all across the country but critics too, sang its praises.  At the same time, the film struck fear into the heart of Zia ul Haq’s military government whose clumsy attempts to censor the film proved unsuccessful and as is usually the case when authorities try to restrict access, only enhanced the reputation of the movie.

 

The film begins on a grand operatic note.  This is Punjab, intones an invisible narrator. There are two kinds of people here. Those who inflict terror upon the land and those who seek justice. Noori Natt represents the former. The humble Maula Jatt exemplifies the party of the just.  The stage is set for a morality tale like no other, but to the extent that the movie is a story of the blood feud between Maula (Sultan Rahi) and his sneering nemesis Noori Natt (Mustafa Qureshi), the plot line is strangely extraneous. What follows is more akin to a series of individual scenes stapled together rather than a logically recounted narrative. The only thing that matters here, from the very first rape scene that turns into an anguished death dance by the victim, is the action. The fights. The juicy insults. The severed limbs and the rivers of blood.

 

The tale is ostensibly one of enmity between Noori and Maula, but the relationship between the two adversaries is so much more subtle and fascinating.  Under Younis Malik’s intuitive direction the characters reveal  that below the surface of their violent hatred lies a deeper, friendlier sportsman-like rivalry; a bond that is as loving as it is loathsome. And this intimate, homo-erotic connection is the true measure of Maula Jatt’s brilliance.

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Sultan Rahi as Maula Jatt

Though the two men do not meet until halfway through the film, the atmosphere bristles with menace. Noorie Natt is in jail for murder but his goondas and family members, including his frightening and beautiful sister Daro Natni (Chakori), are causing chaos in the land of the 5 rivers.  Maula has his hands full as he gallops from village to village on his white horse administering justice with his fists and glistening gandasa (axe). When at last the men meet face to face they are literally yoked together in an attempt to pull an overloaded bullock cart out of a rut. Like wrestlers or weight lifters proud of their physical strength they show off to each other (often first by ripping open their shirts to display their finely muscled chests) and banter back and forth. Their first encounter is friendly.

 

Soon though, they discover the identity of the other and the blood begins to flow. But there is a self-conscious choreographed structure to their battles. Like bristling pack dogs trained for a fight the men splay their legs (lungis flapping in the breeze) and bellow. Slowly they circle and leap towards the other.  Maula displays a heavy scowl; Noorie wears a bemused smirk. With the wit and agility of slam poets they toss insults and threats back and forth. Noorie, the calmer one, peppers his one-liners with intimate expressions such as sohniya (handsome), delicate hand gestures and kissing sounds. Maula is all raging self righteousness: “Maulay nu Maula na maray, tay Maula naee marda,” (Maula won’t die unless Maula himself kills Maula) he howls in the film’s most famous line.

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Noorie Natt (Mustafa Qureshi) teases the cops

 

Indeed, it is this sort of dialogue that has made the film legendary and which gives it so much energy and life. Each man bellows at the other as if competing in a deathly mushaira. But their words veer dangerously close to the sexual. They refer constantly to hearts, their fingers and palms, hair and lips. They speak of licking the other’s blood and tasting each other.  Yes, there is masculine brutishness on display but also a palatable sexual frisson.

 

The gandasa and lathi fights are the final element of this strange peacock dance. The men charge, they defend, they tumble. Noorie, as is to be expected, suffers more blows than Maula but his arched eyebrow and uproarious laugh leaves the competition open for a rematch.  The playful nature of the men’s enmity especially shines forth in one remarkable scene. After indulging in yet another bloody battle the police arrest both men.  As the constables transport them to jail (in tongas), Maula and Noori are joined by their goondas who break into a muqabala-e-geet (singing competition) detailing the achievements of their respective heroes. Like parties of qawwals at a wedding the singers (Alam Lohar and Shaukat Ali) entertain Maula and Noori who gaze lovingly toward each other as if their rivalry is some inside joke!

Adding to the light-hearted hilarity is that Rangeela, one of Lollywood’s great comic actors (seen in the clip in the yellow turban sitting next to Maula) is the lead singer for Maula’s party!

 

Inayat Hussain Bhatti’s score is another secret of Maula Jatt’s success. Taking cues from Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s classic spaghetti western soundtracks of the 1960s, Bhatti uses haunting and spare percussion along with elongated electronic drone notes to create an eerie tension. For long passages silence is the chief sound. The camera zooms in close or contemplates Maula’s riveting eyes. We hear nothing but perhaps a pebble or two underfoot.  But when its time for a fight Bhatti deploys snapping electric guitar runs and fidgety Hammond organ to bring you to the  edge of your seat.  This sort of musical manipulation was rarely heard in Punjabi films at the time. When combined with living colour (all the better to show the bright red blood) instead of the usual grainy black and white audiences must have found themselves nearly exhausted by sensory experience.

 

Maula Jatt ran for over 120 weeks despite the government’s attempts to have the movie banned. Complaining, rather implausibly considering their own mandate, the military insisted that the film was too violent. Sarwar Bhatti, the producer, was able, however, to use the courts to successfully stall the government’s intentions for over two years. By this time the film became a massive phenomenon. Even when, at last, the government compelled Bhatti to produce a heavily redacted version, many movie houses simply reinserted the cuts back into the reel and ignored the Generals. Sadly, only censored versions are available today.

 

From the remove of nearly half a century it is tempting but probably completely unfair to suggest that the violence which the Zia years unleashed upon Pakistan, and especially the hanging of Z.A. Bhutto just a few months after Maula Jatt was released, is prefigured in the film. The ultimate subtext of the film is that of the common man’s search for justice, and freedom from oppression. In the final scene, Maula laments the fatal wounding of his ‘frenemy’ Noori who lies gasping at his feet with severed limbs. He bellows onto the heavens that what Punjab needs is “Justice not Revenge!” Could message have been the real reason for the military’s meddling?

 

Maula Jatt marks the beginning of the end of the Urdu family film which had completely dominated the industry since 1947.  Punjabi action films, soon followed by Pashto soft porn, became and remained the only game in town, until relatively recently. But the biggest beneficiary of the Maula Jatt phenomenon was leading man Sultan Rahi.  Though he hailed from an Urdu speaking family and had been a middling star of both Urdu and Punjabi films since the early 60s, it was his performance as Maula Jatt that transformed him into the King of Punjabi and arguably Pakistani filmdom.  For the next two decades his name and image were synonymous with Lollywood.  Though he aspired to more serious achievements and spoke in interviews of his unease with his status as ‘Mr Action’ Maula Jatt typecast him forever.  In what must be one of the most poignant life stories to come out of Lollywood, Rahi himself was brutally murdered in 1996. While driving from Lahore to Pindi he was attacked by unknown assailants and left to die in the dark Punjabi night like one of the hundreds of his on-screen enemies.

 

 

 

I’m Very Sorry

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Warrant (Warrant) is a Punjabi movie released in 1976. It seems to have been a considerable hit.

This movie was difficult to watch.  First of all Punjabi not being a language I fully understand, the flow of the plotline was hard to control. I spent a lot of time trying to identify one of the main characters, the falsely-accused murderer, Ejaz (Nadeem? No. Afzaal Ahmad? Possibly) which distracted me.  Even by Punjabi movie standards the stunts, production, special effects and general standard of acting was abysmal.  The producers seemed happy to toss every tried and true trick into the mix from doppelgangers, to good-hearted molls, from father and son confict, to bolshi child actors and numerous (unscary) car chases.

Ejaz is falsely accused of murdering an absent minded professor and is set to hang. In a jail break he accidently comes between an assassin’s bullet and a police officer who in a show of gratitude promises to save Ejaz from the gallows. This sets off a conflict with his father who is the DIG of police in Islamabad. ‘My duty is not family loyalty or sentiment,’ he rebukes his wife. ‘My son has broken the law by saving a condemned murderer.’  And so he issues a warrant for his son’s and Ejaz’s arrest.

What ensues are many fights, false disguises, near death experiences, tears and lorry loads of confusing plot twists, not to mention unexplained and sudden narrative shifts. In the end father corners son. Both are ready for what Fate has in store for them (certain death) but a last minute change of heart convinces dad that his son is in fact, a hero for bringing justice to Ejaz, his girlfriend and the Professor.

As bad as this movie is, it confirmed to me something I’ve come across in other Punjabi films, namely: there are certain instances in which dialogue in Punjabi is suspended in preference for Urdu.  Lahore is of course the capital of Punjab and at the very heart of the Punjabi language heartland. Unlike Karachi where native Sindhis and Sindhi-speakers are a dwindling minority, Punjabi is the native and very active and lively tongue of 97% of Lahoris.

But since the middle of the 19th century Lahore has also been a, if not THE, major center for Urdu publishing and learning.  Lahore and Pakistani movies have always had a dual linguistic identity. Both languages are spoken by most of the city’s residents (only the elite native Urdu speakers would not speak Punjabi) and many films were released separately in the different languages.

But as in a couple scenes in Warrant (a letter written to the court by Babur, the law-breaking cop played by Yousaf Khan, and in a comic interlude with a supposed scholar from Lucknow–an Urdu speaking city in India from which many Pakistani’s emigrated after Partition– also played by Khan) Urdu is frequently inserted into the script. As I watched these scenes I was struck by how seamlessly the actors and characters slip between the languages. It is not in the least clunky and is a perfect reflection of the reality of Lahore’s linguistic unique mileu.

The real reason for watching this film was the fabulous nightclub song sung by Noor Jehan, I’m Very Sorry. 

 

This song shot into my consciousness with the release of the fabulous collection of Pakistani film songs released by Finders Keepers titled Sound of Wonder! (2009). The song composed by Kemal Ahmad one of Lollywood’s many Bengali artistes and sung by the immitable Noor Jehan is a classic ‘item number’ which in South Asian cinema is code for a sexy dance/musical interlude, often set in nightclub.  There is usually some (often tenuous) connection with the plotline but really all eyes are on the swinging hips and heaving breasts of the vamp.

In this case Babur (disguised as a tribal sardar) goes undercover at the Star Club. Ejaz is in his regular civvies for some reason, as both are on the lam from the police. They are in the club because they hope to track down Hashim (Mustafa Qureishi) the film’s ultimate villain. This they are not able to do but their passions are aroused when one of his girls (Israt Chowdhry) takes the stage and begins to sing and sway.

A drum roll and cymbal crash signals the commencement of the action and after but a couple of hip shakes Ejaz is up on stage with her.  Electronic synths bubble up nicely and then are overrun by slashing proto-Zeppelin guitar chords. Accordion ties the whole thing together before\ the girl slaps Ejaz off the stage, allowing her to emote:

I’m the blossom of a thousand desires/ whereever I go I make love.

I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry

What exactly she is sorry about is hard to make out (for me, anyway). Is she sorry that she is unable to satisfy Babur’s lust, which is clearly visible with his bouncing eyebrows and hurried rush to sit down before his manhood explodes? Or has she cottoned on to his scheme and letting him now that she regrets she is unable to lead him to Hashim?

Who knows? Who cares?

This is one of the best examples of a Pakistani item number ever put to film. The music is lively throughout as the already identified four elements of drum, synth, guitar and accordion sample every style imaginable from Sergio Leone way-out-west guitar rhythms to gondoleering accordion runs.  Chowdhry’s costume is not as revealing as her counterparts in India would allow, but is flamboyant and colourful. Sufficient midriff is exposed so that when combined with the ulta-tight fitting hip-huggers and the dancer’s provactive moves, the desired effect is quickly achieved.  Soft closeups of Chowdhry’s  pretty face add a touch of glamour.

Warrant includes several other item numbers as well but this is the pick of the bunch. But take my advice. Watch the video. The rest of the movie is not worth the effort!

 

Saathi Sun Le Meri Sada

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Naag aur Nagin (Naag and Nagin) is an Urdu movie released in 1976. Despite an excellent cast and crew of accomplished and popular names the film was a commercial flop.

The mythology of snake people, creatures that are able to physically transform themselves at will into human or snake form, is as universal as it is ancient. In India such creatures are known as naag (male cobra) and nagin (female cobra) and have an important place in high Hindu cosmology.  It is the multi-hooded cobra Sheshnaag who stirred the cosmic oceans with his tail to induce the creation of the world. Vishnu, the Hindu God with the job description of  maintaining the creation, is often depicted as reclining under the protective hoods of sheshnaag from where he conducts his divine business.lord-vishnu-with-sheshnaag-2

In my cursory research thus far, I’ve not yet discovered any such snake/human symbol or tradition in Islam though there are a number of instances in which snakes are used by the Prophet (PBUH) and other teachers to illustrate fine points of righteousness and morality.

So, you could be forgiven for wondering what business a movie such as this has being made and exhibited in Pakistan, a Muslim country not at all receptive to Hindu mythology.

But you see, this is why I love Pakistani films so much. There is so much to discover. So much information hidden ‘between the frames’.

If the Indian story of the naag originates in official scriptural accounts of the Hindu religion (it could actually go back much further to pre-Aryan / tribal culture) it is also one of the oldest folk stories of all.  Punjab, in my opinion, is one of the two or three richest regions for folklore in India, and has a long history of fantastic tales of talking animals, unicorns and all sorts of other worldly creatures.  In fact, nagin stories in Punjab go back thousands of years, including one that involves Alexander the Great.

Cobras are common throughout the plains of  Pakistan and India; its only natural that they would be the focus of stories, myths, songs and cautionary tales. A whole caste of nomadic and economically marginalised people known as Sapera (Sapela, in Punjab) are the traditional snake handlers and snake charmers of village life. Their swoony tune played on the been (gourd pipe) is one of South Asia’s universal sounds, heard in films and songs, at fairs and in the fields as cobras are tempted to come out from their holes and trees.

Punjab’s rich folk culture has always been a critical source of content for Lollywood and its no surprise the makers of Naag aur Nagin would draw on a legend everyone in the audience would be familiar with.  What follows is a brief synopsis of this version.

A Hindu snake charmer (identifiable by his orange lungi and rough Urdu which substitutes ‘j’ for ‘z’) named Jabru is hot on the trail of a big male cobra–a sheshnaag. He rants to his wife about how, ‘everyone knows’ the sheshnaag is the source of incredible wealth. When he at last traps one in a tree he tries to burn it out but the cobras (there are actually two of them) escape. He gives chase only to find after a while that he his chasing two small children. He understands that he’s found the mythical naag and nagin but is unable to capture the kids.

The children are separated from each other. The little girl is raised by a kind hearted blind man and given the name Koel. The little boy is homeless and wanders around the countryside in search of his sister. Indeed, the pain of separation that brother and sister feel is the central emotional conflict of the film.  Never happy, always sad and gloomy both siblings grow up obsessed with finding their long lost but faintly remembered companion.

One day the brother (Waheed Murad) who has grown into a handsome young man finds himself being chased by Jabru who somehow recognises him as the shesnaag. During his escape he comes upon a man named Sawan (also played by Waheed Murad) serenading his girlfriend, Sunobar (Kaveeta). As part of their flirting she grabs his rubab (traditional stringed instrument) and throws it into a tree. Sawan climbs up to retrieve it but falls unconscious when a branch breaks and sends him crashing to the ground. Sunobar runs for help and while she’s gone sheshnaag drags Sawan’s body into the brush and then takes his place under the tree.

Sheshnaag is mistaken by Sunobar and her father, the Nawab (Allaudin), for Sawan and taken into the grand mansion to recover.  Meanwhile, Jabru can hardly believe his luck. He takes the unconscious Sawan home thinking he’s captured shesnaag. When they arrive at their small hut in the woods Jabru has another poisonous snake bite the hand of Sawan. His horrified wife can’t believe he’d risk killing the young man but Jabru claims, “If he is sheshnaag the snake will die as soon as he bites him.”  Of course, the snake does not die and Jabru seeing his distressed wife, sucks the poison from Sawan’s hand and saves his life. The couple adopt Sawan as their son and name him Gabru.

Meanwhile, back at the Nawab’s mansion Sunobar is upset because ‘Sawan’ (really, Naag) is not in the least interested in her. He seems preoccupied and claims he’s given his heart to someone in the past, if only he could remember who it was.  Koel (Rani) who has been admitted into the Nawab’s household as a dancing girl, sees Naag and Sunobar having intimate discussions. She’s senses that the young man is in fact, her long lost companion but can’t yet prove it. In jealousy she becomes nagin and bites Sunobar who is saved from death only by Jabru who is called in to suck out the poison.

Jabru understands now that the Nawab’s mansion is harbouring shesnaag. He persuades the Nawab to let him charm the snake out of hiding during the celebration of Sunobar’s marriage.  After much blowing, swaying and dancing  Jabru succeeds in hypnotising ‘Sawan’ and in a spectacular feat grabs the cobra by its neck.  Jabru triumphantly leaves the mansion happy to have at last captured sheshnaag. Koel (Rani) who has watched all this is determined to reunite with her brother, chases after Jabru and bites his heel. Jabru dies and brother and sister, naag aur nagin, are reunited and presumably, live happily ever after.

In the pentultimate scene when Jabru explains to the Nawab about sheshnaag and how his family has been affected by these slithery creatures the Nawab exclaims, “What a strange story!”  And it is that single line that gives answer to the question at the top of this post about why Muslim artists would make a movie about such a seemingly devilish, Hindu and anti-Islamic subject.

Of course, times have changed since 1976. Back then, though Pakistan was still conservative and as always, vehemently opposed to India (and by extension, Hindus), an air of liberality pervaded the culture. People were assumed to be adult and conscious enough to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and disbelief and Faith and fantasy.  It was a time when being a Muslim was not contradicted or undermined by enjoying a fun night at the movies.

The Naagin story has been told many times in South Asian cinema and I have been able to find three other Pakistani movies plus a currently running and very popular TV series, besides this one which place the cobra/human on center stage. It’s a powerful legend and ripe with angles and variations. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this movie are the stories within the main story that illustrate how rich the naag / naagin legend is. According to Jabru, we learn that the shesnaag is associated with wealth, often considered to be the granter of boons and material riches.  Jabru’s insistence that the pair of young children are in fact the two cobras he was trying to capture point to another traditional belief about these creatures: that they prefer their human form over that of the reptile but when angered or separated from each other they are happy to use their shape-shifting power to kill.

The naag story is simply perfect for film makers looking for ideas to entice audiences.   As the Nawab said,  “It’s such a strange story.”  And that in the end is what movies are all about, good stories.

This has been a longwinded introduction-nay, digression–to the music of this film.  As with the actors and director, Hassan Tariq, the film boasted a top quality music director.  Nisar Bazmi, who readers of this blog will recognize as one of the very best and most prolific composers/arrangers of film scores delivers a good if not exactly stand-out set of songs this time.  Another way of putting it is: none of the songs are stinkers. They are strong on melody and the lyrics of Saifuddin Saif are clever in that they express emotions that work at both the human and reptilian levels of the narrative.

Saathi, sun le meri sada pyar ka bandhan toot chala (Oh companion! My eternal love connection has been broken) comes at a critical point in the film. The villain, Badla, (Aslam Parvez) the Nawab’s nephew, in a final attempt to have his way with the Koel, forces her, (in what is a standard Lollywood dramatic device), to dance for him while locked in a cage.  Koel (Rani) has nearly given up hope of being renuited with her snake-brother and calls out to him in desperation.

The song opens with the dramatic flurry of highly strung strings before making room for the sensual, hypnotic sound of the sapera‘s (snakecharmer) been set against a cantering tabla beat. Dark strings swirl upward like a cobra out of the basket before the naagin strikes.  In this case, Nahid Akhtar, cries out an anguished ‘Saathi!’ and then, like a snake swaying back down to the ground, begins her grievous tale.  The words may be sorrowful but Rani‘s grinding hip movements dramatically annunciate the eternal and danger-filled sexual allure of the naagin. It is something, truly, to behold.

She explains she’s being held captive by a cruel, inhuman lout whose intentions are to destroy both of them. As the morning is breaking she begs for her companion to please come back.

Nahid Akhtar’s performance is a thing of beauty. With the scene’s deep emotional anguish and overt sexuality, she let’s Rani‘s erotic swaying and Aslam Parvez’s coiled horse whip supply the spice.  Her singing, so often defined by a raw boldness, in this instance is restrained and perfectly expresses Koel’s actual frightened and despairing state of mind. Bazmi’s music is similarly disciplined with no one element, such as the snakecharmer’s horn, dominating. He demonstrates what a masterful orchestrator he is, calling forth a variety of emotions from the strings but also adding brightness and sense of hope by introducing a short horn section in the middle of the song.

Good songs sometimes survive bad films. In this case, alas, the public gave the film a clear ‘thumbs down’ and such gems as Saathi, sun le meri sada were forgotten too. But this little song is a genuine keeper.

[The YouTube video has poor sound quality so I suggest you watch the clip but listen to the song itself on Soundcloud].

 

Aaye Mausam Rangeele Suhane

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Saat Lakh (700,000) is an Urdu movie released in 1957 which earned Silver Jubilee status while launching the careers of several major film personalities.

The story is essentially a Chekhovian tale of middle class greed and dissipation delivered as a morality tale of virtue vs. knavery.  And as so often happens in Pakistani films the proponents of those qualities are not exactly who you think they ought to be.

Kausar Banu (Sabiha) is the beautiful orphaned daughter of a recently deceased wealthy  man. In his will he has left Kausar seven lakh rupees in cash, seven lakh rupees worth of property and a luxurious sprawling estate worth seven lakh (Rs. 700,000). But there is a catch. She can only have access to this treasure when she marries, something she is loath to do, due to her own parents terrible marriage.

With the help of a pliant family lawyer (Asif Jah) Kausar hatches a number of schemes to get the money, all the while fending off the not-so-subtle advances of her leering, greedy cousin Sajjad (Himalayawala) who has already begun counting the thousands he thinks will soon be his.

As Fate would have it a murderer, Salim, (Santosh Kumar) breaks into Kausar’s house one night seeking refuge from the police. Seeing her chance she forces him to marry her or be handed over to the authorities. He reluctantly agrees. Though Kausar’s motive is simply transactional–marry me so I can get my money–the virtuous Salim wants love.  Therein lies the central conflict of the film. We soon get the backstory to the murder: Salim was in fact, defending the life of a tawwaif (courtesan) played beautifully by Nayyar Sultana, who as it turns out has a heart of gold.

Soon, Kausar sees the error of her ways and falls in love with Salim. But its too late. He wants nothing to do with his greedy paper wife and naively falls into a trap set by Sajjad and his inebriated friends, to divorce Kausar.

As so often happens in Pakistani films the many dangling threads of the plot are woven together with unrelenting speed in the final minutes of the show.  Salim who is fighting for his life in hospital after accidentally being run over by a desperate Kausar, is encouraged by the tawwaif to give Kausar a second chance but herself is shot by an enraged Sajjad who is led off to prison as the credits roll.

Saat Lakh was a huge hit and is regarded by most critics as an important, early milestone in the history of ‘Lollywood’. Though about 30 minutes too long, the script provides moments of real pathos and dark humour. Jafar Malik‘s direction is light and spacious while cameraman Raza Mir was able to create a contemporary, slightly claustrophobic noir atmosphere, especially for the many after dark scenes.  The two leads, Sabiha and Santosh, who were soon to be married in ‘real life’ were not only handsome but very talented.  Both went on to long careers full of wonderful performances. They set both an artistic standard for others to aspire to as well as the template for every male/female duo to come.

But the real sheen of the film comes from the stunning soundtrack put together by composer Rasheed Attre and poet Saifuddin Saif.  Attre was probably the most successful music director of the 1950s and early 60s. He’d been composing for Lahore films since the 40s and had just begun to gain some attention in Bombay when the country was partitioned. Though he’d penned a number of hit songs before  Saat Lakh,  this was his first undeniable masterpiece. Every song is worthy of multiple listenings. Attre‘s penchant for melody, the  hallmark of the golden era, is evident throughout the 7 songs and when matched with Saifuddin‘s quality lyrics, its hard to pick a favourite.

Probably the two most famous songs of the film are Yaaro, Mujhey Muaf Rakho, Mein Nashe Mein Hun (Friends, Forgive me, But I’m Really Pissed) sung by Saleem Raza  and Aaye Mausam Rangeele Suhane (What Sweet Golden Weather) sung by Zubaida Khanum. Improbably, both songs launched the careers of actors who would go on to much greater things in the years to come.

In the case of Yaaro, audiences were introduced to Talish,  Pakistani cinema’s most accomplished character actor. And in Aaye Mausam, Neelo, who had landed a tiny role in the Hollywood blockbuster Bhowani Junction a year earlier, makes her debut in local films as a coquettish mountain maiden. Both actors would appear in well over 100 films each in years to come.

Aaye Mausam Rangeele Suhane is arguably singer Zubaida Khanum‘s most popular song.  Khanum, a migrant from Amritsar, had attracted immediate attention for the beauty of her voice when she challenged family and social norms to pursue a public singing career. Starting, as so many did, singing folk songs and ghazals on Radio Pakistan’s Lahore station she caught the attention of Swaran Lata, a prominent actress who convinced her husband, the actor and director Nazir to contract Zubaida to sing  for their upcoming Punjabi film Shehri Babu (City Slicker) which went on to be a hit and even garnered Khanum a minor acting role.

Not only has Aaye Mausam been covered by numerous artists in later years, including Nahid Akhtar and Humera Arshad, it can be seen as the model for one of Lata Mangeshkar and music director Ghulam Mohammad’s greatest hits Yeh Mausam Hai Aashiqaana (This Weather is Made for Loving) from India’s 1972’s super smash hit Pakeezah (Purity).

Though Zubaida Khanum had the shortest career of all of Saat Lakh‘s principals, singing a meagre (by South Asian film standards) 250 songs over 8 years, her natural honeyed and light voice secured her iconic status among fans and peers. And before her death in 2013 she confessed that the song was her personal favourite.

 

 

Cabaret Dance Music

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Love in Europe is an Urdu film released in 1970. It fizzled out like a wet firecracker upon release but has a few features that if not entirely ‘redeeming’, make it, nearly 50 years after its release, kind of interesting.

The late 1960s and early 70s were exciting times.  Though the streets and inner cities of America were filled with blood and smoke and violence, the cultural and social scene was blossoming like never before. While every value was being challenged,  music, art, literature and film were breaking new barriers every day.  The situation was replicated in London and across Europe.

Almost a quarter of a century had passed since India had been partitioned into two countries. In what was seeming  like a process of political cell division, Pakistan was a couple of years away from splitting itself apart to create  yet a the third country, Bangladesh. These were momentous and dramatic years. The Independence leaders had all been either assassinated or pushed aside by the likes of Indira Gandhi and Z.A. Bhutto.  And youngsters in Karachi, Bombay and Lahore were primed to absorb the new age of rock ‘n roll, (the idea of) free sex and automation.

In the movie industry a new batch of directors, writers and actors were happy to move away from the tried (tired) and true retellings of  traditional love epics like Laila Majnun or Heer Ranjha. Films began addressing corruption, inequality, and the role of Islam in public life.  From the mid-1960s people began wondering: if it was ok for our fathers to separate from India why is it wrong to stop the Bengalis or Baluch from doing the same? And by the way, what has been the real impact of Partition on society?

The film industry, never seen by the politicians and generals as an essential part of the ‘national project’, enjoyed a sort of ‘under-the-radar’ existence that allowed it to say things and experiment with ideas in ways that would have landed traditional artists, writers,  poets and singers in the clink.

Love in Europe in its own haphazard (but endearing) way embodies much of the exciting energy of a momentous period in Pakistani history: from the demise of Field Marshall Ayub Khan and the ruinous interregnum of General Yayha Khan beginning in 1969, to the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ten years later. A decade of disaster yes, but not without hope or optimism.

Love in Europe is a secret agent film a la mode the Agent Flint or Eurospy series. Handsome patriotic agents wired with the latest communication gadgets and oozing animal magnetism defeat gangs, or girohon in Urdu, of black-hearted villains who want nothing but to take over the world. Or at least do destroy a young country in a dangerous part of the world.

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Agent Anwar (Kamal)

The paper thin plot line sees Agent Anwar, played by Raj Kapoor-doppelgänger, Kamal, lead the demure Lahori maiden-in-distress, Farida (Rozina) around several picturesque capitals of Europe in search of her long lost father. The man left Pakistan to make a better life overseas many years earlier but has been presumed dead until a visitor confirms that he is in fact alive and last seen in London.

Anwar’s real mission, given to him by instructions received in a transmitter embedded in his bling, is to break up a cabal of international terrorists  led by the notorious Mr Gul (Ibrahim Nafees) assisted by his ravishing assistant (Tarana).

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Mr Gul’s evil assistant (Tarana)

Their evil intentions are nothing less than the disruption of the government of the Pakistan which must have struck all involved in the picture as slightly ludicrous considering the country was then under the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up leadership of General Yahya Khan.  The great leader is remembered as the man who’s commitment to his country and people was trumped only by his deep love of Black Dog Scotch and pretty women, many, the married wives of his hangers-on, and actresses, including the Iranian-born Tarana.

Official military reports detail how one night back in the day, Tarana was summoned by the General to his pad in Rawalpindi. When she arrived the security guards refused her entry.  Only the intervention by the President of the Republic’s ADC allowed the tryst to be consummated. When, several hours later on her way home, the haughty Tarana, whose name translates as ‘song’, remarked to the security guards how their attitude had changed, a quick-witted solider replied, “Yes. When you arrived you were just Tarana. You now leave as quami tarana (national anthem)!”

Though Love in Europe is a wreck of a film–little more than a 2 hour advertisement for the national airline which flies the Anwar and Farida to all their glamorous destinations of London, Paris, Rome, Beirut, Venice, Geneva–it has a vibe at once kitsch and frantic. Locations are predictable (Eiffel Tower, Piccadilly, Mt. Blanc, gondolas) but the sets are gaudy, retro and ‘like wow, man’.  And the music is all over the place.

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Pakistan International Airlines international routes 1970.

Though the indomitable M Ashraf was the MD, the soundtrack, like the film itself, sizzles and fizzle, careens and slides all over the place. In  casino scenes Montovani‘s classic  Pink Panther theme is piped in with no attempt at interpretation. In travel scenes, soft strings and cool horns soothe and in  several racy, club numbers the lyrics, melodies and beats seem to have been churned out by some space-age player piano. Which is not a compliment.  Indeed, one wonders if Ashraf put any effort into the film at all, the score is so unremarkable.

The only mildly interesting musical interlude is Anwar and Farida’s first date. He takes her to a cabaret in some quarter of London where he drinks in and Farida looks uncomfortable with the racy, half-naked dancers just a few inches away from their table.

Once again, rather than spend any effort on trying to make the music in any way his own, Ashraf simply lets the tape roll as what seems like a klezmer  or perhaps Slavic gypsy band plays a face paced trumpet-driven loop that comes to an end as sudden as its unexpected beginning. About the only thing you can about this clip is: the Central Board of Film Censors had different standards back in 1970.

As a film, Love in Europe has little to commend it. As a fun piece of ‘time pass’ that takes you back to a time when Pakistanis enjoyed swinging, its worth a visit.

Oh, and by the way. Anwar and Farida do find her father. But you’ll have to watch the film to find out how and where!

 

 

 

Ay Bhai, Ay Mister, Kuch Soch Samajh Kar Baat Karo

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Seeta Maryam Margaret is an Urdu movie released in 1978. It racked up pretty good sales  and Silver Jubilee status on the back of a triple role played by legendary beauty, Rani.

One of the recurring trends in popular South Asian cinema is to title movies with multiple character names like John Jani Janandran; Ram aur Shyam and; Sita aur Geeta. For the most part these films are big hits because either you get a couple big name stars in the lead roles, such as in Amar Akbar, Anthony which starred Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor the three hottest leading men of the time (1977) or, a star gets to delight and confound by playing multiple look-alike roles.

Throughout the Golden Era of Pakistani film, certain producers got a lot of flack for being so-called plaigerists. The distance between the elevated comfortable place most critics live to the jerry-rigged, hot and industrially unsafe Lahore film studios is very great indeed, and while it is easy to condemn (some) Pakistani films for their heavy sampling of ideas, scripts and even sounds from their colleagues in Bombay, it does nothing more than give those of us who point fingers a warm, fuzzy feeling of faux superiority.

These guys were in business. They needed to churn out hits and box office bonanzas to satisfy their backers as much as any film maker in history. If the politicians wanted to build a thick commerical and cultural wall between the two countries, so be it. Pakistani producers were not about to let a bit of politics get in the way of making a buck. If audiences in India–who in all major respects  were essentially the same as Pakistani punters–were rushing to the cinema halls to see Amar, Akbar, Anthony, why not offer a slightly tweaked version called Akbar, Amar, Anthony  and see what happens?

You wouldn’t turn down a cool beer on a hot day,  so, why would you turn your back on the chance to cash in on a proven winning formula?

Eid-ul-Fitr, the happiest of Muslim holidays that marks the end of the month of  fasting, Ramzan, is also the traditional opening day for potential blockbusters.  In 1978,  Pakistanis had two big releases to choose from. The above mentioned Akbar, Amar, Anthony, starring Mustafa Qureishi, a Punjabi retread of India’s mega-hit Amar, Akbar, Anthony,  and an Urdu variant, clearly aimed at the female audience, titled Seeta, Maryam, Margaret.

Rani, the leading lady of the latter had been raised in an artistic environment.  Her father had been the dedicated chauffeur to the playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri, a giant figure in South Asian theatre and cinema who, in the late 19th century got his start in adopting many of Shakespeare’s plays into a South Asian context including the script for the classic 1933 film Yahudi ki Ladki (The Jew’s Daughter) starring K.L. Saigal. Shortly before his death in 1935, Kashmiri moved to Lahore, then India’s and now Pakistan’s, centre of Urdu language, publishing and literature where he settled with his wife the marvellous and equally fabled artiste, ghazal singer Mukhtar Begum.

Though Kashmiri drew his last breath more than a decade before Rani was born, Mukhtar Begum sensed that the young girl, born Nasira, had that ‘something special’. And she should know.  Several years earlier, while working with her husband in Calcutta,  she came across another Punjabi belle named Allah Rakhi Wasai. Beautiful and blessed with a nightingale’s voice, the Begum took the youngster under her wing. She alerted a number of film producers and theatre directors, including her husband, to her protege who went on to scale the loftiest peaks of South Asian cinema as  actress and singer Noor Jehan.

Though Rani was as beautiful as Noor Jehan she struggled to carry a tune. But under Mukhtar‘s guidance (and one assumes, that of Mukhtar‘s younger sister, Farida Khanum, yet another icon of Pakistani music) the girl developed into a fine dancer. In later years the gossipy Lahore press would call her ‘the face that launched a thousand mujras’. 

Her beginnings in the film world, however, were more notable for flops and missteps than success. It wasn’t until 1967, playing across from dreamboat Waheed Murad in Devar Bhabhi (Brother-in-Law, Sister-in-Law), that Rani at last ‘clicked’ with the public. A fabulous run of hits followed, including some of the Golden Era’s most beloved and commercially successful films:  Behan Bhai (Brother Sister/1968), Anjuman (1970),  Umrao Jan Ada (1972) and Ik Gunah aur Sahi (One Sin More/1975).

Some say that just as it was through the support and tutelage of Mukhtar Begum that Rani got a foot into the glamour profession , it was her marriage to producer Hassan Tariq who sustained it. No doubt Tariq did cast her in some of his best movies from which she surely benefited, but that is only to take away from her own talent.  As noted she was a great dancer and when she had a role she believed in her acting was strong.

In Seeta Maryam Margaret Rani had her hands full and the stage all to herself. A distressed woman abandons twin newborns on the streets of Lahore. Both are rescued by passersby: Bhagwan Das (Mohammad Ali) a poor Hindu and, Mr. Nameless (Talish) a wealthy Christian nightclub owner.  As Fate (and this particular narrative formula) would have it, Seeta the Hindu couple’s young daughter is identified as a changeling and her original mother and family cruelly rip Seeta away from the only family she’s known.  She is told her birthname is actually Maryam and her mother and uncle make it very clear that she is expected to be grateful for being rescued from the ‘idol worshippers’.

In the meantime, across town at the popular Blue Moon Club  the country’s finest men are led to financial ruin and reduced to wastrels by the hot dancer-cum-purveyor-of-the-feminine-arts Margaret. A tough, take-no-prisoners sort of girl Margaret seems happy to be pimped by her alcoholic father until she falls in love Maryam’s cousin, Rasheed (Faraz). Of course he rejects her because of her profession. But when a depressed and lonely Maryam discovers that Margaret is her identical twin she convinces the dancer to ‘switch’ places and finally find the love she has longed for all her life.

What makes this film rise above so many similar ones is Tariq’s attempt to expose the deep wounds and psychological scars of childhood neglect, abandonment and indeed,  abuse, on the individual as well as society at large. The film’s central device of uncertain and multiple identity, allows the director to confront not just the ambiguous nature of female identity and place in contemporary society but expose many of the culture’s still bitter, open wounds. From the legacy of Partition to religious hypocrisy and a booming class of out-of-touch elites. Pakistan too is found to be torn between families and faith and as confused about its true identity and place in the world as Seeta, Maryam and Margaret.

In the final interesting twist, it is Seeta/Maryam’s Hindu mother and wife of Bhagwan Das, played rather melodramatically by Deebo, who is held up as the true hero of the saga. ‘This woman who raised you and loved you even when she was forced by us to give you up, has through her faith and true love joined our broken hearts together. You are truly great,’ proclaims the girls’ uncle (Qavi) as the credits roll.

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The film’s soundtrack scored by the under appreciated A Hameed is thoroughly enjoyable. Every song not only advances and enhances the storyline but captures the mood appropriate to the scene. From an innocent and slightly sad Maryam who is exploring her lover for Rasheed, to the brazen lust and steely ambition of a hardshell Margaret. Musically, Hameed proves he’s just at home with rocking, sexy dance numbers to gentle love ballads.  Unlike the Tafo Brothers and M Ashraf whose creativity and bold sound experiments often kill the ambiance, Hameed was a master of taste and temperament.

 

Ay Bhai Ay Mister! Kuch Soch Samajh kar Baat Karo (Hey Bro! Hey Mister! Think a Little Before You Speak) is an upbeat, hummable melody. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi it seems innocuous enough except that it describes a horrific scene of Mr Nameless (Talish), pimping his beautiful daughter Margaret (who is actually, at this stage, a very depressed Maryam, having arranged for her twin to take on the person of Maryam to catch Rasheed!) by driving up the price of his drunken clients.

The two key musical elements employed by Hameed are percussion and strings.  Tabla, bongos and water drums are used really creatively and in perfect sync with lyric and rhythm to conjure the outer excitement of a mujra dance.  But the dark, beautifully orchestrated and performed strings bring out the dancer’s and scene’s haunting darkness.  Small combos and orchestras are commonplace in South Asian cinema music but rarely have they been used so evocatively and tellingly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mehkhane Mein Shaam Hui

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Tiger Gang, is an Urdu film released in 1974. Sadly, it failed to catch the imagination of Pakistanis and in the parlance of current political speak turned out to be a ‘Big Nothingburger’. In fact, it is only remembered today by a cult of B-Movie fans as an off beat addition to the work of a popular team of European-American actors and directors who made a bunch of James Bond and John Wayne swizzles in the 60s and 70s.

The film’s director, Harald Reinl, got his start in the movie world in Germany’s pre-Hitler interregnum. In the 1930s German audiences went nuts about a genre of movies known as bergfilme (mountain films) which in their ‘Hero vs. Nature’ action themes were akin to the American western. As a bit player and extra in some of these films Reinl worked alongside Hitler’s favourite cineaste, Leni Riefenstahl, and developed a life-long love of the action film if not the Fuhrer‘s politics.

Throughout a long career that saw him direct nearly 50 pictures–most with invigorating titles such as The Green Devils of Monte Cassino, Apache Gold  or No Gold for a Dead Diver— as well as gain an Oscar nomination  for his aliens-visit-the-earth documentary Chariot of the Gods (1970), Reinl also teamed up with American athlete/stuntman Brad Harris and Italian model-turned-actor Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella) to film the final instalment of a series of movies based on the prolific and popular Eurospy Kommisar X books by German pulp fictionist Paul Alfred Mueller.

Kendall and Harris were for a number of years the ‘Kings of Eurotrash’ movies. Playing FBI agent Tom Rowland (Harris) and private detective Joe Walker (Kendall) the duo made movies that relied on action, mateship, dumb humour, mild sexual titillation and heaps of references to the American western and British spy films they so happily ripped off.

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Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) and Joe Walker (Tony Kendall)

After years of struggle and development, the late 60s saw the Pakistani film industry feeling confident. With movies from their main competitor, India, banned a large homegrown crop of actors, directors, writers and musicians had developed strong fan bases. The industry was making money at last.  Not surprisingly, Lahore and Karachi attracted would-be stars from surrounding countries and with its ‘wild west’ borderlands Pakistan appealed to European film makers looking for something new.

Mueller, with typical Teutonic efficiency, wrote more than 600 Kommisar X novels  but only 7 were turned into films with Tiger Gang drawing the series to a close.  Like so many films of this genre several versions were made in various languages (in this case German, Italian, English and Urdu) and in the available copy of the Urdu version several scenes slip (unintentionally) between Urdu to English leaving one to delight in Mohammad Ali’s American accent one moment and Brad Harris’s fluent Urdu the next!

 

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  [Posters for Italian and German versions of the film]

 

Rowland much to his grumpy annoyance is sent off to Karachi to try to find the illusive New York mafia don Frank Stefani who is running a large international drug smuggling operation across the Afghanistan border. Unexpectedly, Walker is also in town investigating the death of a friend’s husband and the two old colleagues once again team up.  Superintendent Ali (Mohammad Ali) of the Lahore Police department provides local intelligence while his lady friend (and in real life, wife) Shireen (Zeba) works as the secretary of one Professor Tavari (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) who unbeknownst to everyone until the final 15 minutes of the movie is actually Frank Stefani.

In addition to the German and Italian cast and crew, the Pakistani version of  Tiger Gang brought in the skills of a new writer, Saleem Chisti, stunts coordinator, cameraman  and director/producer Iqbal Shehzad, brother of two Pakistani test cricketers. Shehzad, perhaps sensing that the local audience would require something more than a couple of goras beating up Pakistanis to create a hit, brought a clear middle-class sensibility to the effort. Whereas Rienl had been contracted to deliver another episode of a well-established action franchise, Shehzad saw an opportunity to make the film a bit more meaningful: an anti-narcotics family tragedy.

Chisti creates the character Hassan, played beautifully by Qavi, Shireen’s wayward brother.  A nice Muslim boy gone bad thanks to the heroin and hash that these hippies with loose clothes and looser morals are graphically depicted shooting up in cheap Karachi hotels. This central subplot of orphaned sibling love gives the audience a chance to have their heartstrings delicately plucked, not to mention create an occasion for music director Kamal Ahmed to pop in a few songs and dances of which Mehkane Mein Shaam Hui (Nightfall in the Tavern) is the pick of the bunch.

Sung by a young and prolific Runa Laila, (in addition to her film work, she made pop records, performed live and was a growing sensation in India) the song, performed by a sexy vamp (Nisho), is a medium paced number driven by accordion and jazzy organ.  Veteran poet Riaz ur Rahman Saghar’s lyrics of intoxication, nightfall, ‘parties’ and shocking glances suit the dual contexts of an upperclass dinner party as well as a dingy backstreet heroin den where Shireen goes to look for her troubled but beloved brother, Hassan.

Despite the best efforts of director, singer, composer, writer and actors Tiger Gang is never able to break free of its Eurospy action template. Though Zeba and Qavi turn in strong performances,  Mohammad Ali plods through proceedings with little of the grace he is remembered for.

Perhaps ‘Nothingburger’ is too harsh. Sukhi roti, anyone?

 

 

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.

 

 

Don’t Drink Darling

black-mail-pak-1

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.