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.