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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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.

 

 

 

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain

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Umrao Jan Ada (Umrao Jan Ada) is an Urdu film released in December 1972. It was a popular film achieving golden Jubilee Status (50 consecutive weeks) in cinemas in Karachi.

The story upon which the film is based is a classic of Urdu literature. Umrao Jan Ada is considered by some to be the first novel in the Urdu language and takes its title from the professional name of a famous dancer/courtesan (طوائف) who worked in the city of Lucknow. Mirza Hadi ‘Ruswa’, the author, apparently was acquainted with Umrao Jaan (though her historicity is not confirmed) and upon his request she narrated her story to him.  The book (which I read many years ago when I was studying Urdu as a graduate student) is told in the first person and tells how she was kidnapped, trafficked and rose to fame as a much-sought after female companion to the Nawabs of Awadh.

The novel which is full of tragedy and romance has inspired several films in Pakistan and India as well as a lavish Pakistani television series.  The 1981 Indian version starring Rekha is one of the peaks of creativity in Indian popular cinema. It’s music alone, composed by Khayyam with lyrics by Sharyar and sung mostly by Asha Bhosle, makes the film a classic. But Rekha’s acting and dancing were equally mesmerising. Director Muzaffar Ali led his team in accumulating 6 Filmfare Awards (sadly, though Rekha was nominated she did not win Best Actress) and the first Matri Shree Media Award for Best Picture 1982.

So, any other movie version of Umrao Jan has a very high bar to jump over.  And to be honest this Pakistani film does not hold up to Muzaffar Ali‘s stunning historical epic. But before it can be dismissed (and it should not be)  it is useful to highlight some of the things that really work here.

The first thing to remember is that the Pakistani version was released almost a decade before Ali’picture.  And in that sense, it is unfair to judge the former by the latter. Technology had advanced considerably in that time and Bombay always had larger budgets than Lahore.

It’s also difficult not to conclude that the 1981 Indian version of Umrao was influenced by this cross border film.  The Pakistani version does a good job of recreating the nawabi (noble) culture of Lucknow, especially its highly contrived social etiquette and deeply held values of honour, purity and class. Director Tariq Hassan (Ik Gunah Aur Sahi, Neend) does an excellent job of poking fun at the artifice, sycophancy and licentiousness that characterised a feudal culture on the verge of collapse.  His use of exaggerated hand gestures and incessant eulogising by hangers on at first seems over the top but you soon understand that this is deliberate mockery.

While Rani does an excellent job of portraying the deep emotional wounds as well as the steely determination of the kidnapped Ameeran (Umrao Jan’s given name) her dances are a faint shadow of what Rekha conjured. Is this, I wondered as I watched, an echo of the inherent discomfort Muslim society has with female dancers? Perhaps the choreographers were unfamiliar with traditional forms of dancing and unsure about how to direct her. Whatever the reason, this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the film.

The other principal actors, Shahid as Nawabzada Salim, Rangeela as Salim’s best mate, Talish as the conniving, dictatorial Nawabsahib and Nayyara Sultan as the dignified and aloof Khanum all contribute good performances. Shahid, in particular, is an engaging, somewhat spoiled and immature young nobleman. His smile and dimples are hard to resist and for my money he’s got one of the best ‘drunk’ faces ever seen, all glowering hard eyes and puffy cheeks.

Nisar Bazmi composed a sonically authentic and solid score built around the sarangi, the chief instrument of vocal accompaniment until the advent of the harmonium in the late 19th century. Saifuddin Saif, the respected poet and lyricist, wrote some memorable lyrics while Runa Laila handled most of the lead vocals. The more I listen to Runa’s singing the more I am impressed by its deep melodious core which while gorgeous, in this context does not quite match the raw emotion of an unhappy Umrao Jan.

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain (I’ve Come to Steal the Things That Remain) is the final song of the film and comes just a few minutes before the end.  After Salim marries and then cruelly discards Umrao, she swears never to meet him again. But Salim remains smitten and refuses to comply with his father’s demand that he marry his cousin Farzana.

Angry and frustrated, Nawabsahib (Talish) approaches Umrao and pleads with her to dance one final time for Salim at his house so that ‘he will remember you as you are –just a prostitute and not a wife’.  Though she has refused to see him, for the sake of their child and her desire to let Salim (Shahid) get on with his life, she agrees.

Bazmi correctly chooses Noor Jehan, by this time a seasoned 30 year veteran of films, rather than Runa, the responsibility of singing this dramatic, emotionally-intense song.

Jo bacha tha woh lutane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to steal the things that remain)

Aakhri geet sunane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to sing the final song)

Hum to mujrim ki tarah aaye hain (I’ve come here as if a criminal)

Kaun paiman-e-wafa thoda gaya (Who broke the faith?)

This first verse is sung directly to Salim who squirms uncomfortably with guilt and regret.  After each line Bazmi inserts a dark billow of strings that moves the melody up both the musical and emotional scale. Noor Jehan is virtually at the outer reaches of her soprano as the feeling builds and builds.

The next verse is addressed to her her young son who sits on the lap of Nawabsahib, not recognising his mother.

Dil ka har zakhm dikhane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to expose every wound of my heart).

But as the verse comes to a close the child breaks into tears and reaches out for Umrao who embraces him only to be grabbed away by a disgusted Salim.

Umrao’s tragic singing exposes the cruelty, hypocrisy and secrets of all the sharif (respectable) people in the room and with her work done she races from the house.

The print (like so many other Pakistani films) is dreadful but if you are to handle that slightly psychedelic constraint, this is a film definitely worth watching.

 

Jee Rahe Hain Hum Tanha

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Sharmilee (Shy) is an Urdu movie released in 1978.

The Indian film of the same name was a massive hit in the early 1970s. Huge, larger-than-life hand painted hoardings of Rakhee, the film’s main star,  lined the rainy streets of my hometown for months.  Though I never saw the film those posters remain a memory that is lodged forever in my mind.

The Pakistani version of the film starred two of the biggest names in the industry, Nadeem and Mumtaz and did not do too shabbily at the box office, itself.  It ran for 26 straight weeks thereby just qualifying for Golden Jubilee status.  Nadeem, born in southern India (Vijaywada) was THE male lead throughout the 1970s and 80s, mirroring in many ways the career of Amitabh Bachchan across the border in India.  Whereas the Big B exemplified  “The Angry Young Man”Nadeem brought a softer, less fiery but no less charismatic presence to the movies.  He is Pakistan’s most awarded male lead with 19 Nigar Awards for Best Actor.

The score for this film was developed by Karim Shahabuddin a musical director about which I’ve found almost nothing other than he was indeed a real person. It appears he was from the Eastern part of Pakistan, which in 1971 became the independent country, Bangladesh.

The singer of today’s selection, Jee Rahe Hain Hum Tunha (I am Living a Lonely Life) is another big name, A Nayyar. Born near Sahiwal (Punjab) into a Christian family, Arthur (he never used his Christian name as an artist) came onto the scene in the early 1970s. This was an era when the likes of Ahmed Rushdi, who seemed to get all the upbeat songs and Mehdi Hassan, the ghazal master who got the nod for most ‘sad’  songs dominated the playback scene. It seemed as if the ceiling was made not of mere glass but brick and mortar.

But Nayyar had a voice that reminded the listening public of Kishore Kumar, the Indian sensation, and after some work in television he was given his chance in movies with Bahisht (1974).  The impact was immediate.  Music directors and producers pegged him for more and more films, so much so that by the late 1970s his voice was heard almost as frequently as Rushdi’s.

Jee Rahe Hain Hum Tunha was performed first on a television show called Naghma, in which Nayyar sat on center stage surrounded by empty chairs. The atmospherics were deeply emotional and the song was lifted lock-stock-and-barrel for Sharmilee.

It is a lovely, moody song.  Shahabuddin composed a melody that sounds as if it is raga based (don’t ask me which one!) and creates a mood of solitude that allows the listener to focus fully on the lyrics and singing. Nayyar demonstrates the influence of Kishore sahib by smoothly letting several falsetto yodels slide throughout the piece, which along with a female chorus, adds emotional depth to the arrangement.  For his part the composer inserts brief  violin, bansuri and sitar solos that really burnish the overall composition.

A sad song that you’ll listen to a lot.

Tunha

Some Say I am a Sweety

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Kora Kaghaz (Blank Page) was an Urdu movie released in 1978.

Pakistan and India are arch rivals in every sphere of life: war, cricket, nationalistic governments and possession of Kashmir, to name just a few.  While you could say the Pakistani film industry was never large enough to be a serious rival to what has come to be known as Bollywood,  there was always plenty of artistic appropriation going on between both industries.

Pakistani singers crossed back and forth across borders having hits and fans in both countries.  Story ideas and plot lines were pinched without compunction from each other. The studios in Lahore and Karachi regularly remade mega-hit Indian films. By appending the same titles to their own creations they no doubt hoped to strike similar box-office gold as the originals.

Kora Kaghaz was the name of an Indian movie released in 1974 which itself was a remake of a Bengali film by the name of Saat Pake Bandha (1963).

The Pakistani version of the movie was a big hit. It ran continuously for  27 weeks in cinema halls in Karachi, attaining coveted Silver Jubilee status.

The film’s music was composed by Nazir Ali who was known primarily for his work in Punjabi films. Called by some the ‘master of rhythm’ his work covered the range of ‘fast’ ‘slow’, upbeat and ‘sad’ numbers including a number of ghazals that were made popular by Noor Jehan.

This song definitely qualifies as an ‘upbeat’ number.

Rhythm features from the outset with rapid fire drum rolls mixed with strummed acoustic guitars and the warm swells of a mellotron.  Nahid Akhtar then enters with some ‘la la la’ ing that flattens out in a typical Punjabi way by way of introduction to the opening line,  Some say I am a sweety!

The song is clearly an ‘item number’. A song sung by a vamp, usually to a rock n’ roll beat, in a disco or hotel cabaret.  Nahid Akhtar was the queen of ‘item numbers’ in the 70’s making her reputation as one of Pakistan’s best-loved, most prolific playback singers.  Her partnership with music director M Ashraf is particularly well remembered.

Some Say I am Sweety alternates between English and Urdu lyrics which are banal in both languages. But what the song lacks in lyricism it makes up for with a heady mix of instruments, sounds, and beats. Electic fuzz guitars, sizzling electronic keyboards, accordions, flutes and of course lots of snares and bongos.

Some say I am a sweety/ some say a queen of the beauty

I am alive/heart is beating/but my soul is hurting

 

Sweety