A Tay Wela Aap Dassay Ga, Kon Mar Da A Medan Pehlay Hallay

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Maula Jatt is a Punjabi movie released in February 1979.  Hands down it is the most famous movie ever produced in Pakistan with a world wide cult following.  More words, columns and articles have been written about this single film than the entire Pakistani movie industry.

 

There are iconic films—Gone with the Wind, Mother India—that capture a historical moment. Other films are remembered for ushering in a new epoch; think Star Wars or Zanjeer. But rarely has one film dominated an industry and a public’s consciousness so completely as the Pakistani rustic, action picture Maula Jatt.

 

Released forty years ago this February, what appeared at the time to be just another Punjabi potboiler has, in fact, become the undisputed glittering prize of Pakistani film. Recognised today as a unique cinematic creation which has spawned its own ‘Jatt’ franchise, Maula Jatt will be memorialised later this year in a much-ballyhooed recreation by director Bilal Lashari.

 

The story of Maula Jatt can be traced back to the 1950s Urdu short story, Gandasa by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. But the character portrayed in the short story, a village tearaway caught up in a society driven in equal measure by violence and love, is one as familiar to Punjabis as the old story of Hir Ranjha.  Wehsi Jatt (1975) the hit movie which picturised the short story, set the ball of blood-drenched Punjabi movies rolling.  Four years later, producer Sarwar Bhatti decided to advance the story and created Maula Jatt in which he introduced new characters, a fresh plotline and, lots and lots more gore.

 

What could have been a lazy rip off turned out to be strikingly fresh, even innovative. Maula Jatt managed not only to win the immediate affection of audiences all across the country but critics too, sang its praises.  At the same time, the film struck fear into the heart of Zia ul Haq’s military government whose clumsy attempts to censor the film proved unsuccessful and as is usually the case when authorities try to restrict access, only enhanced the reputation of the movie.

 

The film begins on a grand operatic note.  This is Punjab, intones an invisible narrator. There are two kinds of people here. Those who inflict terror upon the land and those who seek justice. Noori Natt represents the former. The humble Maula Jatt exemplifies the party of the just.  The stage is set for a morality tale like no other, but to the extent that the movie is a story of the blood feud between Maula (Sultan Rahi) and his sneering nemesis Noori Natt (Mustafa Qureshi), the plot line is strangely extraneous. What follows is more akin to a series of individual scenes stapled together rather than a logically recounted narrative. The only thing that matters here, from the very first rape scene that turns into an anguished death dance by the victim, is the action. The fights. The juicy insults. The severed limbs and the rivers of blood.

 

The tale is ostensibly one of enmity between Noori and Maula, but the relationship between the two adversaries is so much more subtle and fascinating.  Under Younis Malik’s intuitive direction the characters reveal  that below the surface of their violent hatred lies a deeper, friendlier sportsman-like rivalry; a bond that is as loving as it is loathsome. And this intimate, homo-erotic connection is the true measure of Maula Jatt’s brilliance.

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Sultan Rahi as Maula Jatt

Though the two men do not meet until halfway through the film, the atmosphere bristles with menace. Noorie Natt is in jail for murder but his goondas and family members, including his frightening and beautiful sister Daro Natni (Chakori), are causing chaos in the land of the 5 rivers.  Maula has his hands full as he gallops from village to village on his white horse administering justice with his fists and glistening gandasa (axe). When at last the men meet face to face they are literally yoked together in an attempt to pull an overloaded bullock cart out of a rut. Like wrestlers or weight lifters proud of their physical strength they show off to each other (often first by ripping open their shirts to display their finely muscled chests) and banter back and forth. Their first encounter is friendly.

 

Soon though, they discover the identity of the other and the blood begins to flow. But there is a self-conscious choreographed structure to their battles. Like bristling pack dogs trained for a fight the men splay their legs (lungis flapping in the breeze) and bellow. Slowly they circle and leap towards the other.  Maula displays a heavy scowl; Noorie wears a bemused smirk. With the wit and agility of slam poets they toss insults and threats back and forth. Noorie, the calmer one, peppers his one-liners with intimate expressions such as sohniya (handsome), delicate hand gestures and kissing sounds. Maula is all raging self righteousness: “Maulay nu Maula na maray, tay Maula naee marda,” (Maula won’t die unless Maula himself kills Maula) he howls in the film’s most famous line.

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Noorie Natt (Mustafa Qureshi) teases the cops

 

Indeed, it is this sort of dialogue that has made the film legendary and which gives it so much energy and life. Each man bellows at the other as if competing in a deathly mushaira. But their words veer dangerously close to the sexual. They refer constantly to hearts, their fingers and palms, hair and lips. They speak of licking the other’s blood and tasting each other.  Yes, there is masculine brutishness on display but also a palatable sexual frisson.

 

The gandasa and lathi fights are the final element of this strange peacock dance. The men charge, they defend, they tumble. Noorie, as is to be expected, suffers more blows than Maula but his arched eyebrow and uproarious laugh leaves the competition open for a rematch.  The playful nature of the men’s enmity especially shines forth in one remarkable scene. After indulging in yet another bloody battle the police arrest both men.  As the constables transport them to jail (in tongas), Maula and Noori are joined by their goondas who break into a muqabala-e-geet (singing competition) detailing the achievements of their respective heroes. Like parties of qawwals at a wedding the singers (Alam Lohar and Shaukat Ali) entertain Maula and Noori who gaze lovingly toward each other as if their rivalry is some inside joke!

Adding to the light-hearted hilarity is that Rangeela, one of Lollywood’s great comic actors (seen in the clip in the yellow turban sitting next to Maula) is the lead singer for Maula’s party!

 

Inayat Hussain Bhatti’s score is another secret of Maula Jatt’s success. Taking cues from Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s classic spaghetti western soundtracks of the 1960s, Bhatti uses haunting and spare percussion along with elongated electronic drone notes to create an eerie tension. For long passages silence is the chief sound. The camera zooms in close or contemplates Maula’s riveting eyes. We hear nothing but perhaps a pebble or two underfoot.  But when its time for a fight Bhatti deploys snapping electric guitar runs and fidgety Hammond organ to bring you to the  edge of your seat.  This sort of musical manipulation was rarely heard in Punjabi films at the time. When combined with living colour (all the better to show the bright red blood) instead of the usual grainy black and white audiences must have found themselves nearly exhausted by sensory experience.

 

Maula Jatt ran for over 120 weeks despite the government’s attempts to have the movie banned. Complaining, rather implausibly considering their own mandate, the military insisted that the film was too violent. Sarwar Bhatti, the producer, was able, however, to use the courts to successfully stall the government’s intentions for over two years. By this time the film became a massive phenomenon. Even when, at last, the government compelled Bhatti to produce a heavily redacted version, many movie houses simply reinserted the cuts back into the reel and ignored the Generals. Sadly, only censored versions are available today.

 

From the remove of nearly half a century it is tempting but probably completely unfair to suggest that the violence which the Zia years unleashed upon Pakistan, and especially the hanging of Z.A. Bhutto just a few months after Maula Jatt was released, is prefigured in the film. The ultimate subtext of the film is that of the common man’s search for justice, and freedom from oppression. In the final scene, Maula laments the fatal wounding of his ‘frenemy’ Noori who lies gasping at his feet with severed limbs. He bellows onto the heavens that what Punjab needs is “Justice not Revenge!” Could message have been the real reason for the military’s meddling?

 

Maula Jatt marks the beginning of the end of the Urdu family film which had completely dominated the industry since 1947.  Punjabi action films, soon followed by Pashto soft porn, became and remained the only game in town, until relatively recently. But the biggest beneficiary of the Maula Jatt phenomenon was leading man Sultan Rahi.  Though he hailed from an Urdu speaking family and had been a middling star of both Urdu and Punjabi films since the early 60s, it was his performance as Maula Jatt that transformed him into the King of Punjabi and arguably Pakistani filmdom.  For the next two decades his name and image were synonymous with Lollywood.  Though he aspired to more serious achievements and spoke in interviews of his unease with his status as ‘Mr Action’ Maula Jatt typecast him forever.  In what must be one of the most poignant life stories to come out of Lollywood, Rahi himself was brutally murdered in 1996. While driving from Lahore to Pindi he was attacked by unknown assailants and left to die in the dark Punjabi night like one of the hundreds of his on-screen enemies.

 

 

 

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Bhar Do Jholi

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Bin Badal Barsaat (Rain Without Clouds) is an Urdu movie starring Mohammad Ali, Zeba, Shahid and Sangeeta released in March 1975. Running for 54 weeks in Karachi it attained coveted Golden Jubilee status.

The film takes its title from a 1963 Indian horror film but tells a story not of curses but of a couple’s struggle to produce and raise a family. Zarina (Zeba) and Judge Akbar Ali (Mohammad Ali) are hopeful that at last they might have a child after several years of trying unsuccessfully. Zarina is so upset by her apparent infertility she advises Akbar Ali to find a second wife if the situation continues.  “A wife that can’t produce a child is not worth anything,” she tells him.

A few months later Zarina does in fact deliver a healthy boy but through a series of twists of Fate, double crosses and colossal misreadings of the tea leaves the boy, Anwar, goes missing and ends up as a Pakistani Oliver Twist, cutting people’s pockets as part of a gang of beggars and prostitutes led by an obese and lecherous Fagin called Dada (Ilyas Kashmiri). Eventually, through yet more incredible strokes of luck,  tortured confessions and even torture itself, the family is reunited thanks to the efforts of the golden hearted dancing girl Gori, played by the stunning beauty, Sangeeta and her reformed pickpocket fiance Badhshah (Shahid).

Though this film was a big hit there is not much to recommend it as far as the storyline, script or acting goes. Once again it is some of the music and one performance that saves the day. Sangeeta‘s playful enactment of the good hearted but mistreated dancing girl Gori shows up all the leading big names. By comparison Mohammad Ali and Zeba seem to sleep walk through their parts.  A Karachi girl, Sangeeta got her start in 1971’s Yeh Aman (This Peace) but is perhaps best remembered for her work behind the camera as producer and director of such films as Society Girl, Nikah (Marriage) and Muthi Bhar Chawal (Fist Full of Rice).

In this film Sangeeta sticks to acting and dancing and leaves the direction to yet another woman, Zeenat, herself an actress whose track record went back to 1946 when she shared the screen with Noor Jehan in Hamjoli. After Partition Zeenat produced and directed half a dozen other films beginning with Khula Ja Sim Sim (1959). Her last appearance as director came in 1980 with Aap ki Khatir.  The story of Pakistan’s women directors and producers is one that needs to be explored and told.  Like so much else in Pakistan it comes a pleasant surprise that in country with such deep prohibitions against women working in the public sphere, and that too in such an industry as the movies, these women were able to martial the resources and withstand the severe social pressure to make so many films.

In the mid-1970s three giants of qawwali music were vying, sometimes bitterly, for top spot in listeners hearts. One one hand a raucous, dishevelled and brilliant upstart from Lahore, named Aziz Mian had sent shockwaves through polite society and the qawwali world with his hypnotic paeans to drunkenness and spiritual complaint.  Horrified and scandalised, the Karachi-based sibling duo Sabri Brothers represented the traditional, less ecstatic , devotional stream of qawwali. The Brothers and Mian traded barbs publicly, and in song, but all three sang their way to the bank, making fortunes through their cassettes and live concerts.

The music for Bin Badal Barsaat was composed by another woman, Shamim Nazli, sister of playback singer Mala. In a critical scene near the film’s denouement, Nazli inserts one of the Sabri Brothers‘ most popular songs Bhar do Jholi (Fill My Sack) to accompany a distraught Mohammad Ali who has gone to a shrine to pray for God’s forgiveness and mercy and the safe return of his son, Anwar.  The scene’s emotional tension is heightened by the qawwali beat,  acute lyrics and resounding voices of the Sabris who give a genuine qawwali performance rather than a rip-off filmi qawwali number.

Bin Badal Barsaat may not be top quality cinema but as a study of the role of women in Lollywood, both on and off the screen, it is a film well worth viewing.

 

 

Hamare Paas Aao

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First Time appears to be an Urdu film produced  in the late 60s-mid 70s.  I’ve not been able to find any reference to it except for a few selections from the soundtrack.

Wazir Afzal was responsible for that soundtrack which includes a range of styles from straight ahead Pakistani folk-based songs to more westernised pop-like sounds. Based upon some of the titles and lyrics, as well as the album cover, the film’s storyline most likely revolves around a young woman’s struggle to lead a decent and dignified life. But along the way she is compelled to  play roles and work in places she would rather not. No doubt a handsome sharif (respectable) man falls in love with her, then discards her through some misunderstanding but in the end, returns to her and they live happily ever after.

Afzal, a relatively minor musical figure in Pakistani films, was influenced by the folk music of Eastern Punjab and the doab, the rich agricultural plains lying between the Ganges and Jumna rivers in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.  He regarded Lucknow’s Naushad Ali, one of India’s very greatest musical composers, as his hero.

Once when Noor Jehan did a tour of India, Naushad was in the audience and fell in love with the music of one of Afzal’s songs–Ja Aj to Mein Teri, Too Mera (from Yar Mastaney). He approached Madam with a handwritten note of appreciation which he requested her to give to Afzal upon her return to Pakistan. Afzal cherished the letter for the rest of his life often referring to the incident in interviews.

Humare Paas Aao (Come close to me) is of the genre known as filmi qawwali. Qawwali  is the uniquely South Asian form of Islamic ecstatic music made popular in the West over the past 25  years by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers.  It is a musical form that is traditionally performed in and around the shrines of Sufi saints and its language (Punjabi, Urdu or Persian) is almost always spiritual/inspirational in nature.

In the 70s and 80s a secular form of qawwali known as sharabi, emerged. Championed by the likes of Aziz Miansharabi qawwali extolled a more hedonistic approach to life and ecstasy centered around drinking and inebriation.  Despite extolling drunkenness, audiences still considered this form of qawwali to be serious and full of artistic merit. Indeed, performers like Mian sang traditional qawwali as well, seeing no contradiction between spiritual and corporeal inebriation.

Filmi qawwali , on the other hand, has always been as a frivolous thing.  The songs are inserted into the film for much the same purpose as any other musical number: to entertain and sometimes, to advance the plot. The performers are made out in stereotypical ‘Muslim’ garb (skull caps, loose shalwar / kameez) and sport beards.  The ‘party’ is full of men who keep time by clapping, as in traditional qawwali. Many times there is a religious or semi-religious context within which they perform but it is not unusual for the occasion to be totally secular and disconnected from any religious practice or sentiment.

As in the case of Hamare Paas Aao a filmi qawwalis a melange of themes and moods.  The song opens in much the same way a traditional qawwali does with some playful harmonium runs and an elongated introductory note by the qawwal. The first part focuses on a very serious subject indeed, judgment day.  The singer, enacting the voice of God, calls people to ‘come close to me’ in order to save their lives. But there is an unavoidable humor in the proceedings as well. Vowels and phrases are exaggerated and tones are suddenly dropped low with faux gravitas.  All in all you can’t help but feel they are taking the piss.

The lyrics lay out the sins that are going to be judged:  mixing water with milk; mixing kerosene in cooking oil; putting stones in the daal (lentils).  In short, cheating the poor common man.

Suddenly the beat changes and we hear a dandy singing about what a hero he is and how the ladies swoon when he walks by.  His beloved enters the fray with ‘cold sighs’ and invites him to ‘come close to me’.

And so it goes, by turns spiritual and then romantic and then back to spiritual. A typical piece of cinematic musical fluff. Which is not to say it is not a worthy little song.

There is some tremendous harmonium playing and the hand claps keep the song moving along nicely. The voice is that of Munir Hussain, a popular (but not hugely so) playback singer of the 50s and 60s.  Related to several well-known personalities, including the music director, Wajahat Attre, and with some training in classical music,  Hussain was often commissioned for songs that required a classical or traditional (as opposed to pop, rock, disco) feel. His versatility is on display in this song as he adopts several distinct voices from the raw qawwal to the smooth ‘hero’.

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