Zulm Rahe aur Aman Bhi Ho

Yeh-Aman

Ye Aman (This Peace) is an Urdu film released in 1971 which garnered some attention and audience but was not really a hit.

Nineteen seventy one was probably the lowest point of Pakistan’s national journey. Twenty plus years of trying to manage widely divergent understandings of what the idea of ‘Pakistan’, a supposed refuge, pure and separate from a host of corrupt ‘Others’,  actually meant, had led to military rule, a fragile economy and squabbling between the major ethnic groups and territories.

The widest gap was the one that divided Bengalis and Punjabis. Since the earliest days of the country there had been tensions. In 1950 riots broke out in Dhaka demanding that Bengali be made an offical national language co-equal with Urdu.  Similar popular movements supported or inspired by political shenanigans made sure that the issues were never sincerely addressed. Rather, an approach that preferenced violent suppression over dialogue and compromise led, in late 1971, to the creation of the state of Bangladesh and a short but devastating war in which India intervened on the side of the Bengalis.

Throughout that year tensions between the Punjabi dominated military/government  and the politicians and people of East Pakistan (soon to be Bangladesh) had been building.  In the second half of ’71 with the situation deteriorating and a growing Bengali (and Indian supported) guerilla movement gaining momentum, world powers sent diplomatic signals to the Pakistani leadership that nothing good could come of the course they were pursuing.  India had been preparing for war since at least April. But the Pakistani generals, led by the controversial President General Yahya Khan, (derided these days mostly for his love of other men’s wives and Black Dog scotch) rebuffed diplomacy and doubled down on violence.   On the 23rd of November he declared a state of emergency. Ten days later on the 3rd of December Pakistan Air Force jets attacked air bases in northern India.  Thirteen days later, on 16th December, the Pakistani army surrendered. A little over three months after that the world’s newest country, Bangladesh, was officially born.

Pakistanis were shell shocked. Within the flash of what seemed a brief moment they had lost 25% of their land and over 50% of their fellow citizens. The Generals slipped quietly back into their barracks but with an attitude that tended more toward revenge than remorse. Six years later they would be back for more fun.

Against this background, on the 20th of November 1971, just 72 hours before Yahya Khan declared a national emergency and the country teetered on the brink of yet another war with India, Ye Aman was released into cinema halls all across Pakistan.  While it failed to make much of an impact at the box office it is remarkable for a couple of reasons.   First, one of its songs, Zulm Rahe aur Aman Bhi Ho, has found a second life as a contemporary protest song. Second, the film’s narrative is rich with insights into what could be called a ‘leftist’ critique of South Asian politics.  We’ll deal with this first then get to the song.

Riaz Shahid had established himself as probably the most progressive of Pakistan’s film auteurs, a species that in those days was more numerous than today.  He had produced, directed and/or written a number of thoughtful and socially challenging pictures beginning with 1964’s Khamosh Raho (Stay Quiet). Mentored as a journalist by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistan’s towering global literary figure and a one time Communist, Shahid and fellow leftist the poet Habib Jalib worked together as a team on many of these pictures including the well-regarded Zarqa (1969).

In what was to be his final picture the two lefties got together with some of the country’s best talent (Talish, Allaudin, Neelo) to make a film about Kashmir, the most sensitive, emotive, controversial, and poisonous issue in South Asian politics.

The film is set in Indian Kashmir and relates the stories of two families, one poor and Muslim, the other a well-off Hindu Pandit family. Relations between the two families are cordial, even intimate. Shanti (Hindi for peace) played by Sangeeta is a beautiful, cultured daughter of the widower Pandit Prem Nath (Talish) a respected and good-hearted leader of the community. Shanti’s best friend is Amna (Urdu for peace; played by Neelo) a poor Muslim widower’s daughter and sister to Salamat (also a synonym for peace in Urdu; played by Iqbal Hassan). Salamat has a secret life as the guerilla leader Nasir, which while hidden from both fathers, is supported by the younger generation, including, Shanti, the Hindu girl.

Colonel (Adeeb) of India’s famed Dogra Regiment reaches out to Pandit Prem Nath and pressures him to spy on the residents of his area because ‘every Muslim is a terrorist’ who wants nothing but ‘to break Kashmir off from India and join it up with Pakistan’.  Prem Nath resists, claiming that most Muslims are simple folk with no political agenda. When Shanti is discovered by Indian troops to be visiting her friend Amna’s home Prem Nath pushes back against the Colonel’s pressure by responding angrily, ‘I don’t live in a country that tells me who and who I cannot have relationships with.’

But the pressure is building in the Valley. Mujahideen, led by Nasir/Salamat, are increasing their terror campaigns, blowing up bridges and capturing Indian troops. Amna’s fiance, a silly, witless weaver named Ramzana (Jameel) is arrested by the Colonel’s men as a suspected terrorist. Prem Nath intervenes as the lad is the son of Prem Nath’s wet nurse. But when Ramzana is caught a second time he’s had a change of heart  (been ‘radicalised’ in today’s lingo) and spouts revolutionary slogans to his captors. He manages to escape for a short period but is captured again by the Col. and Prem Nath who are out hunting deer.

Prior to this Prem Nath and Shanti are depicted as strong and proud Hindus who had prized their Kashmiri-ness above their Indian nationality. It was precisely because they were Kashmiris that they resisted offical pressure to betray their Muslim friends. But the capture of Ramazana as a mujahid turns the kindly Pandit into an embittered Indian nationalist.  Despite the pleas of Amna and her father Abdullah (Saqi) and even the entreaties of Shanti, Prem Nath refuses to use his influence to release Ramzana. The friendly even loving bond between the two families is broken forever when Prem Nath turns Shanti out of the house for the sin of speaking good of her Muslim friends.

Amna and her father are captured. Awaiting inevitable torture, Amna pleads with her father to cut out her tongue so she will not betray anyone or the cause. In despair the old man does so but before they are interrogated Nasir’s insurgents attack the army post and release them.  Shanti meanwhile is raped by the Colonel. In a frenzied state she escapes only to be shot and killed by Indian troops.  Abdullah finds her body and cries out the central message of the film:  ‘Kashmir ki Shanti mar gayi!’ (Kashmir’s Peace is no more!)

Ratcheting up the emotional tension, in what so far has been a fairly standard tale, Abdullah carries the shrouded corpse of Shanti to Pandit Prem Nath’s house and enquires, “Should I bury her or burn her?”

Thinking he is carrying Amna, Pandit Prem Nath furiously says, ‘She’s your daughter why are you asking me?’

‘She is neither your’s nor my own daughter,’ replies Abullah.  ‘She is the very peace of Kashmir that has been murdered.’

He pulls aside the shroud to reveal Shanti’s face to a shocked Pandit. As Abdullah speaks of the blood that has flowed for years and will continue to flow because of injustice  Pandit Prem Nath who is feeling his own guilt, orders him to ‘Shut up!”

‘I will not keep quiet and neither shall the blood of innocents keep quiet,’ the old man shouts back. His reply rings with burning defiance and expresses the views of the entire Kashmiri population. Its a powerful scene and the critical moment of the entire film.

The film comes to a close with an ambigous end and the death of a regretful Pandit Prem Nath at the hands of the Colonel and a fragile, temporary, victory of Nasir’s mujahideen against the Dogras.

Interestingly, other than a few minor references, both Pakistan nor India are rarely mentioned by name.  Kashmir, its people, its culture, its physical beauty and its heartbreak, are the focus, not the two States that seek to control it.  The intention, like with their earlier film on the Palestinan struggle (Zarqa), was to make a humanistic rather than a narrow political/nationalist picture. As such both India and Pakistan are relegated to the sidelines. But that Pakistan is not portrayed as the  supposed saviour of oppressed Muslims as well as the prominent place of Hindu characters in the story was too much for the Pakistani censors.

Shahid and Jalib submitted the movie to the Censor board with the title Aman (Peace) but it ran into severe trouble. Several scenes were cut or changed and the title was changed to Yeh Aman, an ironic and pointed finger at India’s tenuous hold on the State.  What other changes were demanded I don’t know. But a melodramatic and nationalistic speech by Nasir in which he urges his troops to unite the suffering innocents of Kashmir with their Pakistani brothers is both inconsistent with the film’s sentiment and redundant to the storyline. The scene has the fingerprints of a bureaucrat all over it.

Now to the song.

A. Hameed, a native of Amritsar but who studied in Pune under the innovative Indian musical director C. Ramachandra, was given the difficult task of scoring this overtly political film.  Liberation struggles, terrorism and torture don’t exactly inspire lilting melodies and funky beats.

Wisely, and in keeping with the film’s sympathetic attitude to Kashmir, Hameed chose to compose melodies that build on the folk sounds of the Valley.  So there are a lot of mid-tempo, fairly percussive numbers filled out with strings and flutes and Kashmir’s famous santoor. When accompanied by panoramic shots of snow peaked mountains, icy blue lakes and some local Kashmiri phrases Hameed succeeds in creating an atmosphere of calm and pleasure that contrasts nicely with the darker realities lurking off screen.

The centerpiece Zulm Rahe aur Aman Bhi Ho kya Mumkim Hai? (Peace where Terror Reigns) is sung twice in the film. First by Noor Jehan and again at the very end by Mehdi Hassan, and it is Madam’s rendition that is clearly the soundtrack’s emotional heart.

While her father and the Colonel relax at the Dogra Regiment’s base where captured mujahideen are strung to wooden frames awaiting torture, Shanti plays her sitar and sings.

Zulm rahe aur aman bhi ho
Kya mumkin hai tum hi kaho
Hasti gaati roshan vadi
Tariki mein doob gayi
Beete din pe kisi laash aaye dil
Main roti hun/ tum bhi ro
Har dharkan par khauf ke pehre
Har aanso par pabandi
Yeh jivan bhi kya jivan hai
Aag lage is jivan ko
Apne hont to siye hai tum ne
Meri zuban ko mat roko
Tum ko agar taufiq nahi to
Mujhko hi sach keh do
[Peace where terror reigns/ Tell me, is such a thing possible?
This happy Valley has sunk into darkness
As the day dims, a corpse tugs on my heart
I am weeping. You cry as well.
Every heart beat moves with fear
Every tear is forbidden.
What life is this life
When  a life has been set aflame?
You’ve sewn my lips together
Don’t stop my tongue, too
If you find what I say unsettling
Then speak the truth to me]

Noor Jehan is the perfect voice for this song. She’d been singing film songs for thirty five years by this stage and was among the most revered singers the Pakistani and Indian film industries had ever produced. For twenty five of those years she had also acted and turned in number of highly acclaimed performances.  So finding the right tone and emotional frequency for Zulm Rahe was intuitive and natural.

Noor Jehan was also universally acknowledged not only as Malika-e-Tarannum (Empress of Melody) but was the single most recognised, beloved and important pillar of ‘Lollywood’.  Her voice and songs had entertained and charmed Pakistanis for decades. Her consistent presence was reassuring in a popular culture that was frequently under attack.  So in this instance, when Noor Jehan sings, she seemed to voice the aspirations of an entire nation.  By lending her voice to a song with such transparent political meanings, she made it safe for others to feel the same way.

As the song opens with a cascade of strings her rich, uniquely powerful voice sings the opening line. A brief sitar run sets her up for the rest of the song. Her pace is unhurried and her tone warm. But the emotional tension is there just below the surface. Every simple word and line is wrapped in a forlorn sadness.  Her voice fills the wide shadowy valley where oppressor and victim wait in deathly silence.  Suddenly, she jumps an octave and sings ‘aag lage is jivan ko’ (this life has been set ablaze).  It’s an exciting and potent moment. One in which a lyric that can be read in multiple ways combines with  emotion and timbre to stop your breath.

If you look for this song on YouTube you’ll find a number of modern versions in addition to the original clips from the film. The more recent developments in Kashmir, which sadly are a continuation of the oppression and mayhem the film depicts, have caused the song to become a rallying cry for politically conscious Pakistani activists. In one clip the song is used as a protest song–not unlike Blowing in the Wind was used during the 1960s in America–to protest the injustices against Muslims across the world.

Riaz Shahid passed away less than a year after Yeh Aman was released.  The film, much different than then one he wanted to make, came and went. But I’m sure he would would take pride in the fact that his basic story continues to resonant and be relevant. And that one of the songs is not just remembered but has a still active career and place in political change.