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.
One 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.