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 Sarhady, a 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’.