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!

 

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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].