Lamian Manzilan Dil Door Kinare

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Chan Ve (O! Moon) is a Punjabi movie released in March 1951. Though it remained in cinemas only for between 9-18 weeks the film is regarded as an all time great.

In 1951 the new country of Pakistan was still reeling from the traumatic events of Partition four years earlier. The first film was made in Lahore in 1925 with output growing in fits and starts for the next half a decade or so.  But by the mid-1930s often up to a dozen or more films (in both Urdu/Hindi and Punjabi) were being released each year. The Lahore industry was building up a head of steam but Bombay was where the real action and future lay if you were an aspiring star.  Until 1947 Lahore served as a sort of feeder industry to Bombay, providing a platform for actors, musicians and directors to develop their skills before they took their chance in the Big Smoke.

Many of the principals of Chan Ve were demonstrations of this trend. Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (producer) Noor Jehan (director, female lead, singer) and Firoze Nizami (music director) had all spent time in Lahore and, in the case of Rizvi and Noor Jehan, Calcutta, before winding up in Bombay in the early 1940s.  When in 1947 they were forced to choose to stay in India or ‘return’ to Pakistan they opted for Lahore.

What they found was a city and country in chaos. Most of Lahore’s studios had been owned by Hindus who had migrated.  Rizvi and his wife Noor Jehan were allocated the destroyed and abandoned Shorey Studios which they renamed and rebuilt as Shahnoor Studio. When the studio was ready, in 1950, the pair commenced work on Chan Ve. Though Rizvi had had his initial success in Lahore, directing the hit Khandan (Family) in 1942, he, being a native Urdu speaker from Azamgarh, had never mastered the Punjabi language.  To remedy the situation he relied on his wife to communicate with the technicians and follow the script which if the final product is evidence, worked brilliantly.  Noor Jehan became Pakistan’s first female director and Chan Ve a blockbuster.

The film is a genuine classic. Noor Jehan as Seema, a country girl in love with Dr Aslam (Jahangir Khan) from the city, turns out a tremendous performance. She’s lively, sparkling, endearing and fiery by turns. The dramatic heart of the film centers on a tense confrontation between Seema, accused by her uncle, the village patwari, of being a loose woman, and a hostile, aggressive panchayat. Noor Jehan embodies both the determined defiance of the wrongly accused as well as the horrific pain of a woman suffering (physically and emotionally) at the hands of a unyielding system stacked against her.   Santosh Kumar, who was starting his rise to fame as the towering hero of the 50s and early 60s, skilfully plays Firoz, Seema’s somewhat slow witted childhood friend and secret admirer. In the end he courageously sacrifices his own life in order that Seema and Dr Aslam can marry.

Chan Ve was the first Pakistani success of music director Firoze Nizami who had worked earlier with Rizvi and Noor Jehan in Bombay on Jugnu (Firefly; 1947). Nizami hired a young male vocalist from Lahore, Mohammad Rafi, to join Noor Jehan on the soundtrack and also recommended an actor named Dilip Kumar to Rizvi to play the lead role in that landmark film.  The rest as they say is history.

Nizami was a native of Lahore and an accomplished classically trained vocalist.  He began his career singing on All India Radio but like so many others couldn’t resist the lure of Bombay’s film world.   After scoring several films and having some success he hit the big time with Jugnu which, as luck would have it, was released just three months before Partition.  Returning to Lahore Nizami’s first film in Pakistan Hamari Basti (Our Village; 1949) was like most films prior to Chan Ve a flop.

When Rizvi approached him to compose the score for Chan Ve, Nizami eagerly accepted.  And once again the trio created magic.  The songs of Chan Ve are soaked in the classical world Nizami so loved. The sonic atmosphere he creates is marked by gentle folk rhythms, raga-based melodies and multiple moods.  Most of all he allows ample space for Noor Jehan to show off her incredible stylistic range and control.  Several of the songs were popular on both sides of the border.

 

Lamian Manzilan Dil Door Kinare is the heart-rending lament of Seema who after being dragged in front of the panchayat, falsely accused and physically abused by her uncle is locked away in a small dirty room.  She sings out to her husband Dr Aslam who is far away (lamian manzilan) in London unable and unaware of her torture by her fellow villagers.

Nizami‘s classy music is lush with orchestral strings that swell and swirl as they lift the emotional register. But it is a muted cornet–encouraging, honeyed–that is the musical masterstroke here.  As Seema sings the horn provides a gentle, encouraging presence whose European sound reminds and links the listener to Europe and Seema’s absent protector, Dr Aslam.

The spirit that Noor Jehan brings to the scene–that resigned, dead gaze, the messy hair–is stunning. Her ability to both sing and act set her in a class of her own and it is truly one of the unhappiest twists in the story of South Asian cinema that she would be compelled to retire from the screen within a decade by her second husband, actor Ejaz Durrani.

Chan Ve deserves its glorious reputation. It is the work of an amazing cohort of master artists who out of the rubble are able to raise a near-dead industry and give Pakistan its first sustained box office and artistic success.

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Man Mandir ke Devta

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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 Sarhadya 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’.

I am Black Beauty

 

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Akbar Amar Anthony (Akbar Amar Anthony) is a Punjabi movie released in 1978. There is no information on how the public responded to it so we can safely assume it was a flop.

There is a long established tradition on the subcontinent to ‘borrow’ ideas, film titles, story lines, melodies, singing styles and singers from wherever they may be found. You can give this practice different names–cross fertilization; inspiration; plagarism; theft–but it is unlikely to stop. We may like to think that there are Hindi movies (India) and Urdu/Punjabi movies (Pakistan). Two distinct industries separated by that nasty political and oft-contested border.

But the reality is there is a South Asian style of movie making that happens to be produced in different languages and in different cities (Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Chennai). And the flow of ideas and people between these places goes back to the very beginning of cinema on the subcontinent. Punjabis went from Lahore to Calcutta and even America to learn the ropes. Some of Indian cinemas all time greats took their first steps in the studios in Lahore. Without talent that originated in what is now Pakistan, Hindi cinema would be shadow of what it is today. And Pakistani directors and producers have always looked to Bombay for the next big idea.

So when Indian audiences thrilled and laughed their way through the mega blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony and made it the biggest grossing movie of 1977, prolific Pakistani director Haider Chowdhury saw the proverbial goose and golden egg. Tweak the title ever so slightly, bring in a big name star and lo ji, Golden Jubilee pukka garanti!

Alas, by the late 70s there was a new technology that had the middle classes all agog. The VHS was just beginning to disrupt the movie business in the same way the humble little cassette had the music industry about the same time. Indian movies, though officially banned in Pakistan, were available on pirated video tape from a mushrooming cottage industry of corner video shops.  Families were settling down night after night to watch Bombay’s latest offerings in the comfort of their own living rooms rather than make the trek to the neighborhood cinema.  By the time Akbar Amar Anthony was released in September 1978 most of the target audience had seen the original several times over.

And lets be honest, the Indian version starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Helen, Shabana Azmi and Pran was a tremendously fun film.  Clever story, good acting by a trio at the top of their game, good jokes, fantastic music and some hot dancing.  By comparison the local copy was as attractive as a cold plate of  congealed curry, hardly worth the two and a half hours and Rs 5 the poor working man had to part with for the pleasure.

The film begins interestingly enough. Three young brothers are separated at the time of Partition when mobs attack their loving home where they are celebrating a birthday party. One brother, Amar (Iqbal Hassan) is adopted by a Sikh family who are apparently on their way to India. Anthony (Mustafa Qureishi) is protected by a Christian priest who gives up his own son to placate the angry mob. Akbar (Asif Khan) remains with  his mother and blind sister.

Fast forward 30 years. Asif is struggling to get a job and is informed he has blood cancer. Amar is a village lout who spends his time beating up all comers (supposedly in a village right across the border). Anthony, hiding behind the guise of a priest, is a villainous gangster.

In a fit of rage Anthony kills his father and disposes of his body in one of Lahore’s canals. He is watched by Akbar who confronts him but Anthony persuades him to take the blame for the murder in exchange for Rs 100,000 which will be enough to get his sister’s eyes repaired. Anthony is also blackmailing Amar’s father and ends up killing him which brings the raging son across the border to confront the evil Christian.

To make a tedious story short the three men take turns trying to frame or kill each other until at last, bloodied and wounded they recall their family ties and collapse in front of their mother and sister as the call to prayer signals God is happy with the outcome.

The production is typical B-grade Punjabi which means cheap, hilariously unbelievable and violent. Though Iqbal Hassan is unable to produce any emotion or expression beyond ‘angry shouting man’ the rest of the cast try their best to make their characters slightly nuanced. Mustafa Qureishi as Anthony is the most accomplished thespian of the lot but his ridiculous wig and jeans make him appear like mutton dressed up as lamb (as the Aussies say).

Wajahat Attre also manages to produce several songs which serve as oases in an otherwise vast desert. Given the nature of the film–action, dishoom, biff and boff–the songs are mostly upbeat dance items in the rural Punjabi style.  In addition to the songs themselves Attre proves he’s got his finger on pulse with incidental music as well. As the action builds or a chase is on the soundtrack comes alive with some amazing organ playing that would make people like Jimmy Smith smile.

The scene is set by Anthony telling his henchmen that he wants some really special entertainment as he is inviting a foreign guest over for drinks. The guy on his left says ‘We’ve got it sorted boss. We have Black and White Beauty, tonight.”

Out bounce two girls in slacks one of whom is darkened with blackface. As the music begins, they announce:

I am black beauty/Love me

I am white beauty/ See me

A stonefaced hippy strums his Stratocaster as the girls sway and shake their ample bodies teasingly in front of Anthony and his Vat 69 drinking buddy.  What starts as pretty standard ‘item number’ soon turns into something a bit more edgy.  After a couple of verses the camera zooms in on the girls’ lips as they pout and make kissing sounds. The hippy twangs his strings.  This is all just tantalising foreplay it turns out. Several verses later the camera zooms in again this time to catch the girls making the same sounds but this time their faces and lips virtually locked in on each other.

Though the sex act and nudity are taboo in Pakistani films, dance scenes are never shy about suggesting physical lust and love. But this blatant, completely unexpected nod to lesbian sex leaves the audience, if not Anthony, completely gobsmacked.

I am Black Beauty is further evidence that you never quite know what you’re going to get in a second rate Punjabi movie.

Jiya More Lage Na

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Bhool (Forgetfulness) is an Urdu film released in November 1974.  A major success at the box office, Bhool ran for 52 weeks straight in Pakistan’s major center, Karachi, achieving coveted Golden Jubilee status.

1974 was just about the shining peak of the Urdu film industry. The mood in the country after a devastating decade of military rule, civil war and loss of half of the country’s territory to the new state of Bangladesh, was finally upbeat. A populist and very popular self acclaimed Islamic Socialist leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the charismatic international face of Pakistan.   Public life was relaxed and tolerant. Rock bands like The Moonglows and Willie Po and the Boys had the young folks dancing, while Turkish belly dancers swayed and shimmied for the businessmen in the bars of Karachi’s finer establishments.

The movie industry was exploding as well. It was that golden time when talent and stars abounded. The early stars like Santosh Kumar, Sahiba Khanum, Neelo, Noor Jehan, Mohammad Ali and Talish were the revered elders and a whole slew of new comers such as Waheed Murad, Shahid, Shabnam and  later, Babra Sharif and Ghulam Mohiuddin brought a sparkling, relaxed and often irreverent attitude that perfectly matched the times to the screen.

Nadeem who headlined in Bhool along side his most prolific screen paramour,  Shabnam, was also pretty busy in 1974. He starred in 13 other films that year two of which were released on Christmas Day and 9 of which ran for at least 25 weeks (Silver Jubilee)!  He was the very definition of ‘hot’.

Shabnam, a Bengali beauty was married to music director Robin Ghosh, also from what was once known as East Pakistan. Nadeem had been part of their circle in Dhaka in the early 60s and it was there that he tried to get his initial break into the movies…as a playback singer. It was not to be. The young boy with the doe-y eyes and playful smile was made to be in front of the camera. The dream of being the next Mohammad Rafi was quietly abandoned.

In addition to a glittering cast of stars that included Babra Sharif and Afzal Ahmad (see previous post on International Gorillay) some very big names were involved off screen. Shamim Ara, starlet of the 50s and early 60s turned director was Bhool’s producer and S. Suleman handled the direction.  A respected talent Suleman’s  Gulfam (1961) is regarded  as one of the best Pakistani pictures of all time.  Throughout a long career, he developed a canny talent for making hit pictures that often starred his brother Darpan, focused on progressive social themes and portrayed powerful women characters.

Bhool falls into the category of ‘social drama’ that defined classic Urdu films. It is also evidence that Nadeem had not yet entirely reconciled himself to his decision to leave singing behind.  In at least 4 of the films 7 songs including the jazzed up thumri  Jiya More Lage Na (I Don’t Feel Like Living) which I share today, Nadeem is the lead vocalist.

The pace of this song is quick and the mood jovial.  A swell of strings provides the introduction and sets the stage for some Latin rhythms that quickly give way to a trumpet trio and a descending electric guitar run that signals  ‘spy master-cum-playboy’ approaching.

Robin Ghosh is fast turning into my favorite music director. Everything he does has class, be it a slow burning lover’s lament or a rocking party song like this. The way he is able to create excitement by combining modern pop sounds (slashing guitar, Hammond organ squelches), international flavours (Mexicali trumpets) and strings (silky then plucky) with a raucous call and response chorus is pure magic.  There is not a dull or lazy bar in this piece.  Indeed, the only downer is Nadeem himself. His voice wobbles like he can’t quite find the key.  Almost out of tune. And even when he hits his stride his voice comes out as flat and stiff as a cold chapati.

Still the song stands as a wonderful contribution and example of the genius of Robin Ghosh.

Dhamal Salle Allah

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International Gorillay (International Guerrillas) is a Punjabi movie released in 1990. One of Pakistani cinema’s  great cult pictures it was a huge hit with local audiences but got the kibosh from British authorities who temporarily banned it. Without a doubt, the movie ranks as one of the most bizarre entertainments in world cinema. Ever.

The film takes its inspiration from the rage that greeted the release of Salman Rushdie‘s novel The Satanic Verses across the Muslim world. In Islamabad (where I lived at the time) a public demonstration was fired upon by the police resulting in a number of deaths and the anger of the people reaching boiling point.

An international cabal of Hindus and Jews led by Salman Rushdie (Afzal Ahmad) is determined to wipe Islam off the face of the planet. Every Muslim must be murdered according to Rushdie’s right hand man Commander Batu Batu (Humayun Qureshi) who along with siblings Commander Jason aka JC (Jahanzeb) and Dolly (Babra Sharif) form the evil novelist’s inner security council.

Ex-cops Mustafa (Mustafa Qureishi) and Shagutta (Neeli) join up with Mustafa’s unemployed goonda brothers Javed (Javed Shiekh) and Ghulam (Ghulam Mohiudeen) after the Islamabad shooting and jet off to Rushdie’s private island (that looks suspiciously like Manila) to sever the writer’s head from his body. For the next two hours and 45 minutes the international guerrillas do battle with Rushdie’s forces and engage in a frenetic series of gun battles, bomb explosions, disguises (at one point the three pot bellied heroes fool Batu Batu and his henchmen by crashing a dance party dressed up as a trio of Batmen), heroic escapes, fist fights, rocket launchers, severed heads, spurting blood, hangings, multiple narrow escapes and high speed chases in cars, motorbikes and speed boats.

The Pakistani homeys never speak except to scream down the wrath of Allah on Rushdie and other kafirs. But eventually the resourceful Salman,  who personally beheads several assassins and forces one of his prisoners to listen to an audio book of The Satanic Verses appears to completely out manoeuvre them. But a desperate prayer leads to the conversion of Dolly and Jason who turn their guns on Rushdie.  The heavens open, lightning breaks the chains of the guerrillas and after slaughtering every one of Rushdie’s soldiers they have the little Satan in their grasp.  But before they can behead him three drones in the form of the Holy Quran float down from heaven and attack Rushdie with lasers until he explodes in a ball of fire.

The End!

As can be imagined music takes  a distant second place to the action this time.  The songs, such as they are, are nothing more than opportunities to demonstrate the moral depravity of Rushdie and enemies of Islam. Not surprisingly, M Ashraf  the most raucous of Pakistani music directors, gets the gig to compose the music. Assisted by his son Arshad  he comes up with one of the worst set of songs ever put to film. In all but one song Neeli or Babra jerk, swivel and moan to trashy unmelodic disco beats while heavily moustachioed men, horny and drunk, oggle them lecherously.

It is only in the final musical interlude in which the guerrillas appear to be conclusively trapped by Rushdie and Batu Batu that the mood switches.  Chained to crosses the defenders of Islam begin singing a naat in praise of Allah, the Prophet (PBUH) and the truth of Islam.

 

For the first time the music speaks. The singing is in tune, the instrumentation is majestic and appropriate to the occasion (which sees the sky filled with Arabic injunctions to praise God and Mohammad PBUH). In what to this point has been a ridiculous, bloody farce of a film, the song manages to introduce a modicum of respect for its purported subject, Islam.

But not for long.

Dolly is overcome by the power of the singing and converts to Islam. She can’t help but jiggle and prance with joy as Ashraf injects that most famous dhamal beat of all, Dam a Dam Mast Qalandar into the proceedings. The solemnity and dignity of the moment is shattered as Dolly sings and the four  mujahideen bang and shake their heads in the weirdest sort of cross dance since Monty Python‘s Life of Brian crucifixion scene.

International Gorillay rocks!

 

Us Bewafa ka Shahar Hai

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Shaheed (Martyr) is an Urdu movie released in 1962. Though it was a political movie about a third country it was well received by the public.

If I had to sum up the story in one sentence this would be it: an anti-Imperialist take on Lawrence of Arabia. Of course, the central character, Lawrence, is portrayed in a different light than the self proclaimed hero of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In Shaheed Lawrence (Talish) is a conniving, pith helmet-wearing, pipe-smoking European / Jewish oilman who plays off one faction of Arab tribesman against the other to wrangle a 100 year lease to extract oil from the motherland.  Laila, played by the young and gorgeous Musarrat Nazir, is Lawrence’s femme fatale, who after being ousted from the tribe for her flirtatious ways sets herself ablaze, razes the foreign interloper’s refinery to the ground and restores the pride of the Arabs. A loose woman is the martyr of the title.

Such radical ideas were what audiences expected of Khalil Qaiser, who along with a group of other creatives such as poets Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, writer/director Riaz Shahid and actors Talish, Saqi and Allaudin (all of whom appear in Shaheed) produced a number of politically tinged and socially progressive films (Clerk, Zarqa, Khamosh Raho) throughout the 1960s.  Though the country for most of the decade was under the dictatorial hand of Field Marshall Ayub Khan, this group’s approach to social criticism broadly aligned with Ayub’s secular, forward looking, internationalist vision for Pakistan.  Sadly, just a few years after Shaheed was released  Qaiser was gunned down by unknown assailants at his home bringing one of Pakistani film’s most promising careers to a tragic and premature end.

Music director Rashid Attre who composed the soundtrack of Shaheed was also a part of Lahore’s radical clique and frequently got the call from Qaisar and Shahid.  A Punjabi from Amritsar Attre was a ‘Lollywood’ original contributing songs to films as early as 1942 (Mamta).  A dapper dresser who had a soft spot for three piece suits Attre drew regularly on his training in Hindustani classical music bringing raga-based melodies and light classical forms like thumri into his work.

He also sought to put his music to the lyrics of the best poets, be it Faiz or as in the case of Shaheed, Munir Niazi whose poem Us Bewafa ka Shahar Hai aur Hum Hain Dosto has become one of the most loved Pakistani film songs of all time.

Laila, the sexually bold heroine of the film (Musarrat Nazir), is a much sought after woman in Watan the Arab oasis community where Shaheed is set. But her own affection for the blacksmith Haris (Ejaz) remains unrequited. Haris, instead, is in love with the Jewish beauty Aaliya (Husna) who together rouse their somnolent tribesmen to rise up against Lawrence and the Europeans.

After confessing but failing to gain the love of Haris Laila returns to her salon dejected and drunk.  In her stupor she gazes out over the silhouetted domes of Watan and begins her desolate lament

Us bewafa ka shahar hai aur hum hain dosto/Ashq-e-rawan ki nehar hai aur hum hain dosto
(There lies the city of the unfaithful one and here am I, friends
There flows the canal of moving reflections, and here am I, friends)

The song, which is built upon a gorgeous melody, sets the mood with a quiet acoustic intro before the glitzy twang of a Hawaiian guitar reveals Laila lying broken-hearted on the floor. As she staggers to her feet and sways in grief Laila pours her heart out before the silent city.

Tagged as the ‘second ‘Noor Jehan Naseem Begum was another Amritsari musician with a classical music background sings this sad song with grace and ease.  Trained in the art of singing by the great Mukhtar Begum, the young Naseem kicked off her career in 1956 and was the dominant female playback singer until Noor Jehan stopped acting and turned to singing full time. Attre and Naseem Begum with their shared background were a natural pair and worked together on many films.

Us Bewafa was an instant and enduring hit as was the film.  Shaheed won 9 Nigar Awards (Best Picture, Director, Female Singer, Music, Lyricist, Screenplay, Script, Actress, Supporting Actor) and remains one of the highpoints of Pakistani Urdu cinema.

 

 

 

Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati

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Ajnabi (Stranger) is an Urdu film released in November 1975. Though it ran for 20 weeks it was a commercial stinker and thus, receives the ugly sobriquet, ‘flop’.

1975 delivered a bumper crop of films. A total of 112 were released that year and Pakistan was riding high.  The disastrous civil war which had seen the creation of Bangladesh (and the loss of 50% or more of the audience for Urdu films) was history. Zulfikar Bhutto, the charismatic Prime Minister was confident and supreme in his political power. The country was positioning itself as the leader of the Muslim bloc of countries. Just a year earlier Bhutto had hosted the 2nd Islamic Summit in Lahore.  The casinos and cabarets in Karachi’s hotels were frequented by the rich citizens/subjects of more conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. Alcohol flowed openly. Religious parties occupied the pesky margins of national life. The Army, chastened after its humiliating defeat in 1971, was licking its wounds back in the barracks.

So shining was this golden age.

Though Ajnabi had a gaggle of stars (Mohammad Ali, Deeba and new arrival, Babra Sharif) it was unable to excite. Director Ali Sufiyan ‘Afaqi‘ was in essence a writer and journalist with an impressive CV in newspapers, magazines and as a screen writer. Throughout his long career (he passed away in 2015) he was associated with a number of major Pakistani films, the most famous of which is probably Kaneez (Slave Girl, 1965) which he both produced and wrote.  But Ajnabi was considered worthy enough, along with two other Afaqi films, Aas and Saiqa,  to be selected to represent Pakistan in the illustrious Film Festival of Asia and Africa held in Tashkent, USSR (Uzbekistan) in 1976 (?).

The song Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati (I Can’t Sleep All Night) is the work of the music director Nisar Bazmi and playback singer Nayyara Noor. It’s nothing to get overly excited about but does possess a nice lilt.  The entire 3 and half minutes is wrapped in swirling silvery strings  infused with flutes that sound like birds chirping in a morning tree. Its a dreamy sort of song.  One of restless anxious love,

Raat bhar neend nahi ati hain

Chandni dil ko tard pati hain

Kya yeh hua/ kyon yeh hua

Bata deejeeye

Zara meri nafs dekh kar dawa deejeeye

[I can’t sleep the night through

the moonlight makes my heart quiver

what is happening/ why is this happening?

oh tell me please!

Check my pulse and give me some medicine]

Nayyara Noor was born into a Punjabi merchant family in Assam, on the far eastern flank of India in 1950. At the age of 7 or 8 her family, sans her father who stayed behind to settle the family business, moved to Lahore.  In the early 70s, just a few years before Ajnabi was released, Nayyara put the industry on notice by winning a Nigar Award for best singer in her very first movie Gharana (1973).  What followed was a sparkling career as a playback artist and respected ghazal singer. Her interpretations of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry are particularly special.

In Raat Bhar she gives a perfectly toned performance. Her singing and aspiration is light and coquettish. She captures the starry eyed rapture of the young love-struck girl to a T. As she sighs into the line about having her pulse checked we are instantly transported into the bedroom of a teenager gazing at the picture of her absent lover.

This is pure pop and as such is quite disposable. But like all pop music it has enough of that essential dam to keep you humming the melody for  days on end.

Well done I say. Well done.

 

 

Main Hun Dream Girl

 

Dream Girl

Dream Girl is an Urdu film released on July 4, 1986. It appears to have been a complete flop.

 

The film is worthy of attention for a couple of reasons. It is the product of the vivid and crazy imagination of director Saeed Ali Khan, who achieved in certain circles a cult status, not unlike that accorded to John Waters for several of his pictures, most notably the delightfully titled Haseena Atom Bomb (The Beauty Atom Bomb. (1990)).

 

Dream Girl is an example of the artist in development. While there is definitely vim and vigour aplenty in this film of a spoiled rich bitch cum karate chopping feminist crusader who has a change of heart and in the end uses her dance moves to bring down the heartless villain, Khan has clearly not been able to weave his myriad ideas together into a seamless tapestry. Characters crash into the story unannounced with backstories fully developed while the timeline jumps from present to the past without any visible adjustment in the characters’ garb or physical appearance. Atom Bomb was still 3 or 4 years away.

 

The second point of note in Dream Girl is that it is really a Pashto film. Though the dialogue is entirely in Urdu, the actors are all Pashtuns, including the giant of Frontier filmdom, Badar Munir. The lines are delivered fluently enough but are laced with the charming twang of the borderlands. Given that Pathans are the favorite butts of Pakistani jokes one wonders at Saeed Khan’s motivation?

 

But the biggest reason this spectacular clunker is worth a glance is for a couple of brilliant song and dance sequences, the best of which is Main Hun Dream Girl.

Main Hun Dream Girl (I am Dream Girl) is the perfect introduction to what distinguishes Pashto movies from all others: peppy big bodied girls in tight outfits generating a general ruckus.

 

Being the opening and the title track to the movie this song had to be something special. Run of the mill just wouldn’t do. And so it is. Bubbling with the fuzzy, slightly muddy electronic sound that made 80s pop music so forgettable we are treated to a Pakhtun-imagined Midsummer’s Night Dream. Dream Girl (Nadia Hassan) plays Queen Hippolyta decked out in a billowing wedding gown as troops of T-shirt and jeans-clad Amazons (hooris, perhaps) dance and frolic in the gardens! Sadly, the groom is nowhere to be seen. But Dream Girl’s karate teacher decked out in blue robes does pop up here and there, calling attention to herself by throwing her hands in the air for no apparent reason and to no affect.

Pashto movies are infamous for their provocative mujras and ‘come hither’ poses. Dream Girl does not really get into that scene but a repeating series of slinky snapshots of Dream Girl, which appear to have been manually cut and pasted, do hint at the sex that lies just below the surface. As do the many phallic shaped balloons.

 

If there are two words that describe this amazing hodge-podge of uninspired choreography (most of the moves imitate marching troops), slow motion gymnastics and general bedlam they are gay abandon. Everyone is having fun. There are no standards to uphold and no prizes to be won. Kemal Ahmad has come up with a catchy disco sound and a nameless singer croons out the lyrics as the Amazons romp it home and balloons waft in the breeze. There is nothing serious about this and that’s why it and Pashto movies, even when they are in Urdu, are so much fun.

Wadah Karo Tum

bigdi naslein

Bigri Naslein (Spoiled Generations) is an Urdu film released in 1983 with a heavy hitting cast led by Mohammad Ali and Rani. It achieved Silver Jubilee status, so was quite popular with the punters.

 

Wadah karo tum (Promise Me), a song from the soundtrack, is one of those Pakistani film songs which exists like a bauble that has fallen off the Christmas tree and rolled under the sofa. It lays there hidden, completely disconnected from its source and reason for being. But when you pick it up long after Christmas Day you discover underneath the dust there is still a little shimmer and shine.

 

It’s a dainty little ditty and the closest thing to genuine ‘bubblegum’ I’ve heard in Pakistani film music. In this sappy love song full of heartfelt confessions and urgent demands lovers frolic under blue evening skies and birds chirp in the branches. All the while an intoxicating sonic atmosphere swirls around. You can almost see the unicorns and rainbows in the far meadow.

 

The song is the creation of Kemal Ahmed, a Bengali who drew upon the rich folk culture of his motherland and who preferred a soft, gentle approach to music composition. An approach that emphasized melody and texture over the lively rhythm and percussion championed by Punjabi colleagues such as Nazir Ali, who also contributed to Bigri Naslein.

 

The song itself is a near-perfect pop song. Ahmed creates an entirely credible six-minute world where love is spoken in sweet melodies, gently strummed guitars and the quicksilver sound of santoor descending the scales like a waterfall splashing down the side of a mountain. Into this perfect little world of puppy love, Ahmed injects a layered female chorus that sounds like a band of half-crazed angels.   The ladies’ voices envelop the entire piece with their non-syllabic singing but also repeatedly veer close to the edge of pleasantness with some raw and jagged wailing. At first, this is slightly disconcerting but in fact, it is the perfect antidote to such a saccharine confection. The tension created by the high-pitched choir pushing against the lush melody is spot on.

 

None of this is exceptional or unique. South Asian music directors of the Golden Age at their best were creative geniuses, fluent in multiple musical languages and supported by talented musicians who could play any number of Eastern and Western instruments. What makes Wadah karo tum a truly outstanding piece of puffery is the singer.

 

Less than 40 seconds into the song the opening two syllables of the lyric–‘wa’ ‘dah’–emerge from the background, whole, complete and polished. As if they have always existed and are coming from the very vortex of heaven. Is the singer a woman or a man? There is something familiar about this otherworldly voice but we struggle to put our finger on it.

It is not until the first verse, sung in a slightly lower register, that the penny drops: this is none other than the great ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali!

 

Ghulam Ali, who was rigorously trained in classical music by some of the tradition’s luminaries has spent his entire career devoted to interpreting the ghazal. Unlike most of his peers, including arguably the greatest ghazal singer of the past 50 years, Mehdi Hassan, who recorded hundreds of film songs, Ghulam Ali’s filmi output is relatively minor. Indeed, his best-loved film song, the ghazal, Chupke chupke raat din appeared in an Indian film Nikaah (1982).

 

So, to hear him in a Pakistani movie, singing an entirely disposable piece of filmi pop is akin to finding a small diamond at the bottom of the biriyani. Though the lyrics are inane Ali turns in a worthy performance. Indeed, his masterful breath work, subtle use of vibrato and deep feel for melody takes Wadah karo tum to an entirely new plane. From mere bubblegum to something ethereal. A genuine keeper.

This is  a genuine keeper.

 

Hello Hello Sayangku

Bandish

Bandish (Entanglement) is an Urdu movie that ran for more than 80 weeks between 1980-81. A co-production with Indonesia, Bandish starred the beautiful and talented Indonesian actress Diana Christina in a lead role opposite a bushy-haired Nadeem. The film, apparently, was a minor hit in Indonesia and back home it further strengthened the credentials of Nazrul Islam as one of Pakistan’s more respected and successful directors.

 

1980 was an interesting moment in Pakistani film. The country was reeling from the judicial murder of the former Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto and the country’s military leaders were grappling with the challenge (and opportunity) that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan presented. These violent events seemed to be reflected in the movies. The golden era of the Urdu ‘social’ film, a genre that presented a self-assured, upwardly mobile and stable society attached to a tolerant Islam, was fading fast. A cruder more bloody genre of Punjabi action movie epitomized by the likes of Wehshi Jatt (1975) and Maula Jatt (1979) was attracting working class, urban migrant, male punters. The core middle-class family audience elected to stay in and get their fix from TV.

 

Though they had a stable of bankable proven stars, producers of Urdu movies were searching for something fresh. Bandish is a good example of a successful response. By shooting overseas they were able to keep the celluloid dream alive. Singapore gave the film glamour. And in Indonesia film viewers discovered a tolerant, relaxed Muslim country that appeared to be upholding the very values many Pakistanis sensed were slipping away at home.

 

The story, based loosely on the Italian film, Sunflower, is an emotionally charged and ultimately sad story of the cruel constraints of love. Faisal (Nadeem) is a wealthy Pakistani man come to Indonesia to take over his father’s rubber estates. Through a boating accident he loses his memory, in particular of his marriage to air hostess, Shama (Shabnam) whom he had just married.

 

A local fisher girl, Juwita, (Diana Christina) nurses him back to health, falls in love, learns some Urdu and ultimately marries Faisal who remains oblivious to his previous commitment and life. Shama, meanwhile, lives a marginal, shamed existence in Pakistan, raising her son alone.

 

News arrives that Faisal is alive and well in Jakarta. Shama flies to Indonesia in the vain hope of reuniting. In her desperate search through Jakarta’s busy streets she loses her son and all her money. On the verge of mental breakdown she discovers that her son has been rescued from near death by an unwitting Faisal and Juwita. Though she recovers her son, Faisal’s inability to recognize his wife drives Shama to hysterical despair.

 

When he suffers a second knock to the head, Faisal’s memory returns. All three lead characters are by this stage frantic and tormented by the horrible hands Love has dealt them. Juwita sees her dream evaporate as Faisal chases after Shama who is devastated that Faisal has no memory of her. In the final tense moments of the film Shama is reconciled and agrees to share Faisal with Juwita. They go to announce the good news to Juwita at her coastal village only to discover the poor woman has taken her own life.

 

Unlike most Nadeem/ Shabnam films, Bandish has little humorous interplay. Together the pair had a chemistry that produced not just sparks but some wonderful comedic moments. In Bandish, lightheartedness is replaced with an oppressive sense of powerlessness. A cruel impersonal force, not humans are in control of the world. The second half of the film and especially the final scene is extremely dark, perhaps signaling the Director’s views on what was happening back home in Pakistan.

 

Robin Ghosh’s score is subtle and tasteful as always. He effectively creates a gentle East Asian sound throughout and in Hello Hello Sayangku (Hello Hello My Dear) he lifts a popular musical phrase from Indonesian/Malay dangdut music.

 

One of the great delights of Pakistani film music is the abundance of female playback singers. Unlike in India where Lata and Asha virtually owned the business, Pakistani films are filled with a variety of voices and singing styles. Nayyara Noor was born into a Punjabi family settled in Assam but migrated to Pakistan in the late 1950s. Though she sang for many years in countless films, Noor’s voice, which is characterized by a soft expression and suppleness, is excellently suited to ghazals and light numbers such as Sayangku.

 

For his part, A. Nayyar was the male voice of the late 70s and 80s filling the shoes of the icon Ahmed Rushdie who passed away in 1983. Unable to get the attention of Radio Pakistan, his first port of call, it was through TV that he came to the attention of music directors and landed his first opportunity in Bashist (1974) from which emerged the mega hit Yuhin din kat jaye

 

Sayangku is a tasty little confection which showcases Ghosh’s creative imagination beautifully. Built upon a folky strummed acoustic guitar with a mid-paced melody, Ghosh creates an imminently hummable tune that perfectly balances mood and sound. Accordion, Melodica, shenai, and flute all contribute specific textures that are wrapped up in lush strings (plucked and bowed) and spiced up with playful scatting by Nayyar and Noor. Taken together the sound is billowy and light just like the first love of Faisal and Juwita.