Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai

zerqa

Zarqa (Zarqa) is an Urdu movie released in October 1969.

In the 1960s Pakistan’s film makers often found inspiration in the national struggle of the Palestinian people and audiences generally responded well to such films. Shaheed, which included many of the same stars as Zarqa was a massive box office draw in 1962 and it seems to have inspired the making of the latter.

Zarqa tells the story of an Arab woman who against great odds is able to become a fighter within the Palestinian liberation movement and through daring, courage and self-sacrifice wreaks massive destruction on the Israeli occupying military. Leila Khaled, a Palestinian female armed fighter who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969, is often cited as the role model for Zarqa, though this seems unlikely given the timing of the hijacking and the production of the film.

The film is violent, ideological, but in places quite moving. Talish, a fine character actor, plays Major David, a sadistic Israeli officer charged with capturing the Palestinian underground leader Shabaan Lutfi (Allaudin). Ejaz, the biggest male star of the 60s, is given a relatively minor role as a ukulele strumming Fatah fighter torn between love of his woman, Zarqa, and his motherland. But Neelo in the title role is the true star of the film.

And indeed, though the film was massively popular, running for over 100 weeks and thereby earning the status of Pakistan’s first Diamond Jubilee film, the dramatic, actual life backstory is far more interesting than what turns out to be a predictable politically correct (anti-Imperialist, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestine) potboiler.

The film’s director, Riaz Shahid, was a prominent member of the leftist clique of Pakistani artists and intellectuals that hovered around poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Shahid began his career as a journalist, working on Faiz’s weekly Lail-o-Nihar but moved to screen writing by the late 1950s. In 1964 his collaboration with Communist poet Habib Jalib on the film Khamosh Raho, a hard-hitting story about the kidnapping of rural women for the sexual pleasure of elite Pakistani society, announced his arrival as a serious filmmaker.

Jalib and Shahid hit it off and developed a partnership over several years and titles including Zarqa. Jalib’s populist, simple but powerful anti-authoritarian poems had gained him many stints behind bars as well as deep respect among peers and the public. Indeed, many of the film songs by which he is remembered were popular first as political poems and mushaira (poetry reading) stoppers.

Neelo, the cute dancer-actor got her start in cinema with a bit part in the Hollywood mega production Bhowani Junction, filmed in Lahore in 1954. Born into a Christian family and christened Cynthia Alexander Fernandes, Neelo caught audiences attention with her role in Saat Lakh (1956). From that point on she became one of Pakistan’s most ‘bankable’ headliners and racked up a number of major hits as well as three Nigar Awards including Best Actress for Zarqa.

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In 1965 the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Pakistan and was hosted by the Nawab of Kalabagh the then Governor General. Neelo, who was at the height of her popularity was ‘instructed’ to appear before the Shah to dance.   She refused. An agitated Nawab dispatched the police to seize her and bring her forcibly to Governor’s House. But no sooner did she take to the floor then she collapsed. Some say she fainted from the shame her dancing would bring upon her paramour Riaz Shahid. Others suggest she tried to commit suicide. In any case, Neelo was rushed to the hospital and the incident became an instant cause célèbre.

Jalib, ever sensitive to the abuse of power by the country’s leaders, penned a poem in the actress’ honour in which the opening lines trumpeted

Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-shahenshahi hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of Imperialism!)

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

Aaj qatil ki yeh marzi hai ki sirkash ladki

(Today the ruler wishes of you, you stubborn girl)

Sir-e-qatil tujhay koroon se nachaya jay

(That you be made to dance by whipping)

Maut ka raqs zamanay ko dikhaya jay

(This deadly dance is for the world to see)

Is tarahan zulm ko nazarana diya jata hai

(This is a spectacle of the power of darkness)

Raqs zanjeer pahin kar bhee kiya jata hai

(For dances can also be performed wearing chains)

 

When it came time to cast Zarqa, Shahid chose Neelo who was by now his wife. Jalib’s poem was included almost word for word with only ‘Imperialsm’ being substituted by ‘slavery’ in the opening line.

“Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-ghulami hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of slavery!

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

So sings Mehdi Hassan as a fettered Zarqa moves and groans in pain with each stab of Major David’s cigarette against her exposed skin. The scene is gruesome but effective and forms the emotional and dramatic centerpiece of the film.

The film’s music was composed by Rashid and Wajahat Attre, a father and son team with a strong predilection for raga based music. Originally from Pune father Rashid passed away during the film’s production leaving Wajahat to complete the score, a task he didn’t feel completely up to. The film’s other songs, though not bad, suffer when stacked up against the gut wrenching spectacle of Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai, surely one of the great instances of art imitating life in South Asian film.

Raqs

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