Cabaret Dance Music

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Love in Europe is an Urdu film released in 1970. It fizzled out like a wet firecracker upon release but has a few features that if not entirely ‘redeeming’, make it, nearly 50 years after its release, kind of interesting.

The late 1960s and early 70s were exciting times.  Though the streets and inner cities of America were filled with blood and smoke and violence, the cultural and social scene was blossoming like never before. While every value was being challenged,  music, art, literature and film were breaking new barriers every day.  The situation was replicated in London and across Europe.

Almost a quarter of a century had passed since India had been partitioned into two countries. In what was seeming  like a process of political cell division, Pakistan was a couple of years away from splitting itself apart to create  yet a the third country, Bangladesh. These were momentous and dramatic years. The Independence leaders had all been either assassinated or pushed aside by the likes of Indira Gandhi and Z.A. Bhutto.  And youngsters in Karachi, Bombay and Lahore were primed to absorb the new age of rock ‘n roll, (the idea of) free sex and automation.

In the movie industry a new batch of directors, writers and actors were happy to move away from the tried (tired) and true retellings of  traditional love epics like Laila Majnun or Heer Ranjha. Films began addressing corruption, inequality, and the role of Islam in public life.  From the mid-1960s people began wondering: if it was ok for our fathers to separate from India why is it wrong to stop the Bengalis or Baluch from doing the same? And by the way, what has been the real impact of Partition on society?

The film industry, never seen by the politicians and generals as an essential part of the ‘national project’, enjoyed a sort of ‘under-the-radar’ existence that allowed it to say things and experiment with ideas in ways that would have landed traditional artists, writers,  poets and singers in the clink.

Love in Europe in its own haphazard (but endearing) way embodies much of the exciting energy of a momentous period in Pakistani history: from the demise of Field Marshall Ayub Khan and the ruinous interregnum of General Yayha Khan beginning in 1969, to the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ten years later. A decade of disaster yes, but not without hope or optimism.

Love in Europe is a secret agent film a la mode the Agent Flint or Eurospy series. Handsome patriotic agents wired with the latest communication gadgets and oozing animal magnetism defeat gangs, or girohon in Urdu, of black-hearted villains who want nothing but to take over the world. Or at least do destroy a young country in a dangerous part of the world.

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Agent Anwar (Kamal)

The paper thin plot line sees Agent Anwar, played by Raj Kapoor-doppelgänger, Kamal, lead the demure Lahori maiden-in-distress, Farida (Rozina) around several picturesque capitals of Europe in search of her long lost father. The man left Pakistan to make a better life overseas many years earlier but has been presumed dead until a visitor confirms that he is in fact alive and last seen in London.

Anwar’s real mission, given to him by instructions received in a transmitter embedded in his bling, is to break up a cabal of international terrorists  led by the notorious Mr Gul (Ibrahim Nafees) assisted by his ravishing assistant (Tarana).

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Mr Gul’s evil assistant (Tarana)

Their evil intentions are nothing less than the disruption of the government of the Pakistan which must have struck all involved in the picture as slightly ludicrous considering the country was then under the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up leadership of General Yahya Khan.  The great leader is remembered as the man who’s commitment to his country and people was trumped only by his deep love of Black Dog Scotch and pretty women, many, the married wives of his hangers-on, and actresses, including the Iranian-born Tarana.

Official military reports detail how one night back in the day, Tarana was summoned by the General to his pad in Rawalpindi. When she arrived the security guards refused her entry.  Only the intervention by the President of the Republic’s ADC allowed the tryst to be consummated. When, several hours later on her way home, the haughty Tarana, whose name translates as ‘song’, remarked to the security guards how their attitude had changed, a quick-witted solider replied, “Yes. When you arrived you were just Tarana. You now leave as quami tarana (national anthem)!”

Though Love in Europe is a wreck of a film–little more than a 2 hour advertisement for the national airline which flies the Anwar and Farida to all their glamorous destinations of London, Paris, Rome, Beirut, Venice, Geneva–it has a vibe at once kitsch and frantic. Locations are predictable (Eiffel Tower, Piccadilly, Mt. Blanc, gondolas) but the sets are gaudy, retro and ‘like wow, man’.  And the music is all over the place.

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Pakistan International Airlines international routes 1970.

Though the indomitable M Ashraf was the MD, the soundtrack, like the film itself, sizzles and fizzle, careens and slides all over the place. In  casino scenes Montovani‘s classic  Pink Panther theme is piped in with no attempt at interpretation. In travel scenes, soft strings and cool horns soothe and in  several racy, club numbers the lyrics, melodies and beats seem to have been churned out by some space-age player piano. Which is not a compliment.  Indeed, one wonders if Ashraf put any effort into the film at all, the score is so unremarkable.

The only mildly interesting musical interlude is Anwar and Farida’s first date. He takes her to a cabaret in some quarter of London where he drinks in and Farida looks uncomfortable with the racy, half-naked dancers just a few inches away from their table.

Once again, rather than spend any effort on trying to make the music in any way his own, Ashraf simply lets the tape roll as what seems like a klezmer  or perhaps Slavic gypsy band plays a face paced trumpet-driven loop that comes to an end as sudden as its unexpected beginning. About the only thing you can about this clip is: the Central Board of Film Censors had different standards back in 1970.

As a film, Love in Europe has little to commend it. As a fun piece of ‘time pass’ that takes you back to a time when Pakistanis enjoyed swinging, its worth a visit.

Oh, and by the way. Anwar and Farida do find her father. But you’ll have to watch the film to find out how and where!

 

 

 

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Ay Bhai, Ay Mister, Kuch Soch Samajh Kar Baat Karo

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Seeta Maryam Margaret is an Urdu movie released in 1978. It racked up pretty good sales  and Silver Jubilee status on the back of a triple role played by legendary beauty, Rani.

One of the recurring trends in popular South Asian cinema is to title movies with multiple character names like John Jani Janandran; Ram aur Shyam and; Sita aur Geeta. For the most part these films are big hits because either you get a couple big name stars in the lead roles, such as in Amar Akbar, Anthony which starred Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor the three hottest leading men of the time (1977) or, a star gets to delight and confound by playing multiple look-alike roles.

Throughout the Golden Era of Pakistani film, certain producers got a lot of flack for being so-called plaigerists. The distance between the elevated comfortable place most critics live to the jerry-rigged, hot and industrially unsafe Lahore film studios is very great indeed, and while it is easy to condemn (some) Pakistani films for their heavy sampling of ideas, scripts and even sounds from their colleagues in Bombay, it does nothing more than give those of us who point fingers a warm, fuzzy feeling of faux superiority.

These guys were in business. They needed to churn out hits and box office bonanzas to satisfy their backers as much as any film maker in history. If the politicians wanted to build a thick commerical and cultural wall between the two countries, so be it. Pakistani producers were not about to let a bit of politics get in the way of making a buck. If audiences in India–who in all major respects  were essentially the same as Pakistani punters–were rushing to the cinema halls to see Amar, Akbar, Anthony, why not offer a slightly tweaked version called Akbar, Amar, Anthony  and see what happens?

You wouldn’t turn down a cool beer on a hot day,  so, why would you turn your back on the chance to cash in on a proven winning formula?

Eid-ul-Fitr, the happiest of Muslim holidays that marks the end of the month of  fasting, Ramzan, is also the traditional opening day for potential blockbusters.  In 1978,  Pakistanis had two big releases to choose from. The above mentioned Akbar, Amar, Anthony, starring Mustafa Qureishi, a Punjabi retread of India’s mega-hit Amar, Akbar, Anthony,  and an Urdu variant, clearly aimed at the female audience, titled Seeta, Maryam, Margaret.

Rani, the leading lady of the latter had been raised in an artistic environment.  Her father had been the dedicated chauffeur to the playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri, a giant figure in South Asian theatre and cinema who, in the late 19th century got his start in adopting many of Shakespeare’s plays into a South Asian context including the script for the classic 1933 film Yahudi ki Ladki (The Jew’s Daughter) starring K.L. Saigal. Shortly before his death in 1935, Kashmiri moved to Lahore, then India’s and now Pakistan’s, centre of Urdu language, publishing and literature where he settled with his wife the marvellous and equally fabled artiste, ghazal singer Mukhtar Begum.

Though Kashmiri drew his last breath more than a decade before Rani was born, Mukhtar Begum sensed that the young girl, born Nasira, had that ‘something special’. And she should know.  Several years earlier, while working with her husband in Calcutta,  she came across another Punjabi belle named Allah Rakhi Wasai. Beautiful and blessed with a nightingale’s voice, the Begum took the youngster under her wing. She alerted a number of film producers and theatre directors, including her husband, to her protege who went on to scale the loftiest peaks of South Asian cinema as  actress and singer Noor Jehan.

Though Rani was as beautiful as Noor Jehan she struggled to carry a tune. But under Mukhtar‘s guidance (and one assumes, that of Mukhtar‘s younger sister, Farida Khanum, yet another icon of Pakistani music) the girl developed into a fine dancer. In later years the gossipy Lahore press would call her ‘the face that launched a thousand mujras’. 

Her beginnings in the film world, however, were more notable for flops and missteps than success. It wasn’t until 1967, playing across from dreamboat Waheed Murad in Devar Bhabhi (Brother-in-Law, Sister-in-Law), that Rani at last ‘clicked’ with the public. A fabulous run of hits followed, including some of the Golden Era’s most beloved and commercially successful films:  Behan Bhai (Brother Sister/1968), Anjuman (1970),  Umrao Jan Ada (1972) and Ik Gunah aur Sahi (One Sin More/1975).

Some say that just as it was through the support and tutelage of Mukhtar Begum that Rani got a foot into the glamour profession , it was her marriage to producer Hassan Tariq who sustained it. No doubt Tariq did cast her in some of his best movies from which she surely benefited, but that is only to take away from her own talent.  As noted she was a great dancer and when she had a role she believed in her acting was strong.

In Seeta Maryam Margaret Rani had her hands full and the stage all to herself. A distressed woman abandons twin newborns on the streets of Lahore. Both are rescued by passersby: Bhagwan Das (Mohammad Ali) a poor Hindu and, Mr. Nameless (Talish) a wealthy Christian nightclub owner.  As Fate (and this particular narrative formula) would have it, Seeta the Hindu couple’s young daughter is identified as a changeling and her original mother and family cruelly rip Seeta away from the only family she’s known.  She is told her birthname is actually Maryam and her mother and uncle make it very clear that she is expected to be grateful for being rescued from the ‘idol worshippers’.

In the meantime, across town at the popular Blue Moon Club  the country’s finest men are led to financial ruin and reduced to wastrels by the hot dancer-cum-purveyor-of-the-feminine-arts Margaret. A tough, take-no-prisoners sort of girl Margaret seems happy to be pimped by her alcoholic father until she falls in love Maryam’s cousin, Rasheed (Faraz). Of course he rejects her because of her profession. But when a depressed and lonely Maryam discovers that Margaret is her identical twin she convinces the dancer to ‘switch’ places and finally find the love she has longed for all her life.

What makes this film rise above so many similar ones is Tariq’s attempt to expose the deep wounds and psychological scars of childhood neglect, abandonment and indeed,  abuse, on the individual as well as society at large. The film’s central device of uncertain and multiple identity, allows the director to confront not just the ambiguous nature of female identity and place in contemporary society but expose many of the culture’s still bitter, open wounds. From the legacy of Partition to religious hypocrisy and a booming class of out-of-touch elites. Pakistan too is found to be torn between families and faith and as confused about its true identity and place in the world as Seeta, Maryam and Margaret.

In the final interesting twist, it is Seeta/Maryam’s Hindu mother and wife of Bhagwan Das, played rather melodramatically by Deebo, who is held up as the true hero of the saga. ‘This woman who raised you and loved you even when she was forced by us to give you up, has through her faith and true love joined our broken hearts together. You are truly great,’ proclaims the girls’ uncle (Qavi) as the credits roll.

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The film’s soundtrack scored by the under appreciated A Hameed is thoroughly enjoyable. Every song not only advances and enhances the storyline but captures the mood appropriate to the scene. From an innocent and slightly sad Maryam who is exploring her lover for Rasheed, to the brazen lust and steely ambition of a hardshell Margaret. Musically, Hameed proves he’s just at home with rocking, sexy dance numbers to gentle love ballads.  Unlike the Tafo Brothers and M Ashraf whose creativity and bold sound experiments often kill the ambiance, Hameed was a master of taste and temperament.

 

Ay Bhai Ay Mister! Kuch Soch Samajh kar Baat Karo (Hey Bro! Hey Mister! Think a Little Before You Speak) is an upbeat, hummable melody. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi it seems innocuous enough except that it describes a horrific scene of Mr Nameless (Talish), pimping his beautiful daughter Margaret (who is actually, at this stage, a very depressed Maryam, having arranged for her twin to take on the person of Maryam to catch Rasheed!) by driving up the price of his drunken clients.

The two key musical elements employed by Hameed are percussion and strings.  Tabla, bongos and water drums are used really creatively and in perfect sync with lyric and rhythm to conjure the outer excitement of a mujra dance.  But the dark, beautifully orchestrated and performed strings bring out the dancer’s and scene’s haunting darkness.  Small combos and orchestras are commonplace in South Asian cinema music but rarely have they been used so evocatively and tellingly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mehkhane Mein Shaam Hui

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Tiger Gang, is an Urdu film released in 1974. Sadly, it failed to catch the imagination of Pakistanis and in the parlance of current political speak turned out to be a ‘Big Nothingburger’. In fact, it is only remembered today by a cult of B-Movie fans as an off beat addition to the work of a popular team of European-American actors and directors who made a bunch of James Bond and John Wayne swizzles in the 60s and 70s.

The film’s director, Harald Reinl, got his start in the movie world in Germany’s pre-Hitler interregnum. In the 1930s German audiences went nuts about a genre of movies known as bergfilme (mountain films) which in their ‘Hero vs. Nature’ action themes were akin to the American western. As a bit player and extra in some of these films Reinl worked alongside Hitler’s favourite cineaste, Leni Riefenstahl, and developed a life-long love of the action film if not the Fuhrer‘s politics.

Throughout a long career that saw him direct nearly 50 pictures–most with invigorating titles such as The Green Devils of Monte Cassino, Apache Gold  or No Gold for a Dead Diver— as well as gain an Oscar nomination  for his aliens-visit-the-earth documentary Chariot of the Gods (1970), Reinl also teamed up with American athlete/stuntman Brad Harris and Italian model-turned-actor Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella) to film the final instalment of a series of movies based on the prolific and popular Eurospy Kommisar X books by German pulp fictionist Paul Alfred Mueller.

Kendall and Harris were for a number of years the ‘Kings of Eurotrash’ movies. Playing FBI agent Tom Rowland (Harris) and private detective Joe Walker (Kendall) the duo made movies that relied on action, mateship, dumb humour, mild sexual titillation and heaps of references to the American western and British spy films they so happily ripped off.

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Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) and Joe Walker (Tony Kendall)

After years of struggle and development, the late 60s saw the Pakistani film industry feeling confident. With movies from their main competitor, India, banned a large homegrown crop of actors, directors, writers and musicians had developed strong fan bases. The industry was making money at last.  Not surprisingly, Lahore and Karachi attracted would-be stars from surrounding countries and with its ‘wild west’ borderlands Pakistan appealed to European film makers looking for something new.

Mueller, with typical Teutonic efficiency, wrote more than 600 Kommisar X novels  but only 7 were turned into films with Tiger Gang drawing the series to a close.  Like so many films of this genre several versions were made in various languages (in this case German, Italian, English and Urdu) and in the available copy of the Urdu version several scenes slip (unintentionally) between Urdu to English leaving one to delight in Mohammad Ali’s American accent one moment and Brad Harris’s fluent Urdu the next!

 

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  [Posters for Italian and German versions of the film]

 

Rowland much to his grumpy annoyance is sent off to Karachi to try to find the illusive New York mafia don Frank Stefani who is running a large international drug smuggling operation across the Afghanistan border. Unexpectedly, Walker is also in town investigating the death of a friend’s husband and the two old colleagues once again team up.  Superintendent Ali (Mohammad Ali) of the Lahore Police department provides local intelligence while his lady friend (and in real life, wife) Shireen (Zeba) works as the secretary of one Professor Tavari (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) who unbeknownst to everyone until the final 15 minutes of the movie is actually Frank Stefani.

In addition to the German and Italian cast and crew, the Pakistani version of  Tiger Gang brought in the skills of a new writer, Saleem Chisti, stunts coordinator, cameraman  and director/producer Iqbal Shehzad, brother of two Pakistani test cricketers. Shehzad, perhaps sensing that the local audience would require something more than a couple of goras beating up Pakistanis to create a hit, brought a clear middle-class sensibility to the effort. Whereas Rienl had been contracted to deliver another episode of a well-established action franchise, Shehzad saw an opportunity to make the film a bit more meaningful: an anti-narcotics family tragedy.

Chisti creates the character Hassan, played beautifully by Qavi, Shireen’s wayward brother.  A nice Muslim boy gone bad thanks to the heroin and hash that these hippies with loose clothes and looser morals are graphically depicted shooting up in cheap Karachi hotels. This central subplot of orphaned sibling love gives the audience a chance to have their heartstrings delicately plucked, not to mention create an occasion for music director Kamal Ahmed to pop in a few songs and dances of which Mehkane Mein Shaam Hui (Nightfall in the Tavern) is the pick of the bunch.

Sung by a young and prolific Runa Laila, (in addition to her film work, she made pop records, performed live and was a growing sensation in India) the song, performed by a sexy vamp (Nisho), is a medium paced number driven by accordion and jazzy organ.  Veteran poet Riaz ur Rahman Saghar’s lyrics of intoxication, nightfall, ‘parties’ and shocking glances suit the dual contexts of an upperclass dinner party as well as a dingy backstreet heroin den where Shireen goes to look for her troubled but beloved brother, Hassan.

Despite the best efforts of director, singer, composer, writer and actors Tiger Gang is never able to break free of its Eurospy action template. Though Zeba and Qavi turn in strong performances,  Mohammad Ali plods through proceedings with little of the grace he is remembered for.

Perhaps ‘Nothingburger’ is too harsh. Sukhi roti, anyone?

 

 

Zinda Rahen To Kis Ke Khatir

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Uf Yeh Beevian (Oh, These Wives!) is an Urdu film released in 1977 that  racked up more than 75 weeks in Karachi’s cinema halls to bag Diamond Jubilee status.

S. Suleman, a director who seemed to have a knack for producing hit movies, began his career playing the young version of Dilip Kumar’s character in 1948’s popular Mela. After migrating to Pakistan with his brothers who included the matinée idols Santosh Kumar and Darpan, Suleman established a reputation as a socially conscious and sensitive director.  Many of his films such as Lori (Lullaby) and Baji were praised and appreciated for their progressive social messages.  They were also popular. Baji, which starred both of Suleman’s brothers,  attracted 5 Nigar Awards including the coveted Best Picture Award in 1963.

Suleman was not one to sit on his laurels.  Conscious of the tendency among his peers to rely on formulas and plagiarizing movies from across the border he deliberately set out to try new things. Comedy proved to be the new frontier he was looking for and throughout the 1960s and 70s he created several well regarded and fondly remembered comic films like Uf Yeh Beevian.

An outrageous early scene which depicts what can only be called a home invasion by a group of clap happy dancers not withstanding,Uf Yeh Beevian begins as a standard middle class social drama. Zahid (Shahid) is informed by his auntie with whom he lives, that arrangements have been made for his engagement to a lovely girl, Nadira (Shabnam) from Lahore. But when they return from the airport trouble is already brewing. Nadira is modern and liberated but rude, entitled and agressive. Zahid and his aunt are horrified and beg  her to leave.

Similar disasters unfold when Zahid pays a visit to Lahore and discovers that Nadira is now a panch waqt namazi (prays 5 times a day) and ultra conservative Islamic girl. Zahid is totally confused until Nadira confesses that she’s been testing him and that in fact she loves him and hopes he will marry her.  Delighted and relieved Zahid does exactly that and they set the wedding date for after Nadira’s return from Nairobi where she goes to visit family. Tragically, Zahid reads of a plane crashing near Nairobi killing all aboard. Nadira is assumed dead and Zahid sinks into a depression and upon the advice of a friend takes up drinking whisky to drown his grief.

Concerned family and friends arrange another marriage for Zahid with a feisty controlling girl named Najma (Najma) who manages to make Zahid forget Nadira. One day out of the blue, however, Nadira inexplicably appears in Zahid’s house, healthy and ready to pick up where she left off before flying to Nairobi. What follows for the rest of the film is Zahid running between Nadira and Najma in ever more ridiculous circumstances. Shahid most known as a romantic lead reveals an easy way with comedic material and plays the exasperated and increasingly exhausted husband with aplomb. Both wives soon cotton on to the deception and in their own turns express their anger by using their legs and fists on poor Zahid.

At this point one may be tempted to note a hint of the progressive social commentary S Suleman loved so much: women are standing up for their rights and refusing to be belittled by the patriarchy that permits men to enjoy multiple women. But one would be wrong. For very quickly the film resolves the drama in a most reactionary way.  Zahid’s driver (Lehri) explains to the angry wives that his boss had kept his double marriage secret because ‘he didn’t want to hurt your feelings. He loves you both.’  When they hear this Nadira and Najma join forces and voices (they speak the same lines in unison) and rescue Zahid who is ready to leap to his death from the top of a building.  “We will all live together in the same house,” they assure Zahid and enjoy a final group hug as the films rolls to farcical end.

Zinda Rahein to Kis ki Khatir (For Whom Should I Stay Alive?) is the best song of this otherwise silly movie.  Zahid is reeling from Nadira’s apparent death in the plane crash and with his alcoholic friend Mushtaq takes to the bottle at a Islamabad club.  The music composed by M Ashraf is modern enough for dancing but sufficiently low key to match the mood of a desperately sad Zahid.  Mehdi Hassan gives Agha Hassan Imtisal’s down beat lyrics a suitably melancholy tone. Actor, singer and lyricist work together to make a poignant and moving moment the highlight of the film.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain

umrao jaan

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.

 

Make Love Not War

maut ke saudagar

Maut ke Saudagar (Merchants of Death) is an Urdu film released in 1976.

One of the challenges facing those of us who write bout Pakistani films is that of the many thousands that have been released over the years (over a 100 a year in the Golden Age of the 60s and early 70s) relatively few are publicly accessible on the internet or for purchase.  Many of the ones that are available suffer from horrible sound and vision making watching them an exercise in self-torture.

Maut ke Saudagar is in that vast category of films about which I can only conjecture information.  I’ve not been able to locate any reference to the film on any of the several excellent Lollywood-related sites on the net. And the authoritative text, Mushtaq Guzdar’s out of print book Pakistan Cinema: 1947-1997 also has no mention of the film.

But clearly, from the album cover of the soundtrack, such a film was made and at least a few of the songs from the soundtrack were released.  And while the song we highlight today is sung in Urdu and English, I can’t absolutely be sure the film was made in Urdu. Often Punjabi songs appear in Urdu films and vice versa.

So while much about this movie remains a mystery this particular track is a winner.

Nahid Akhtar and A Nayyar (?) sing a stoner’s duet that opens with a man taking a long toke and exclaiming

Kash pe kash lagao/ nashe mein dub jao

[Take hit after hit/lose yourself in the high]

Nahid echoes the final phrases of both lines before repeating them in a dreamy slur, one of her many artistic trademarks. A female falsetto chorus joins in as the lead singers toss the sexy title line back and forth.  The rest of the song’s lyrics are emblematic of the hippie generation: love everyone equally be they black or white; don’t let religion turn us into haters; respect for humanity.

The song sounds like classic M Ashraf or Tafo with its gurgling electronics, tasty guitar licks, and a general happy bounce. But the information I have (don’t rely on it) suggests the music is composed by Kamal Ahmed, an Indian immigrant (Gurgaon) who composed the scores for some classics like Basheera and Rangeela.

Sadly this little gem remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery.  But there is sparkle aplenty here!

Shola sa Badka Badka

Jasoos

Jasoos (Spy) is an Urdu film released in June 1977.

The film stars Sultan Rahi who holds a position not unlike that of Noor Jehan in the Pakistani film industry. Just as she was the undisputed Malika Tarannum (Empress of Melody), Sultan Rahi is by far the most recognized male face of Pakistani movies. Together both icons moved way beyond mere superstar status to that of exalted deities.

Rahi’s great fame started in the mid-70s and reached its most dizzy heights in the 80s when his face was visible on nearly every movie poster in nearly every town. Beginning as an anonymous extra, he graduated to short ‘fighting’ roles before gaining a few notices in the early 1960s as a character actor of some talent.

Though himself from an Urdu speaking Indian immigrant background, Rahi did most of his acting in Punjabi films. Indeed, the whole genre of so-called gandasa (long handled ax) movies which has dominated Punjabi filmdom since the late 70s, is built almost entirely upon the face and voice of Sultan Rahi.

Gandasa films are generally set in village Punjab and involve lots of blood letting, clannish revenge and sentimental references to the land of the five rivers. Action, fights and other displays of testosterone-driven aggression keep the lungi-clad, horse riding characters occupied and moving to a climatic gory end. Rahi made hundreds of such films and through them, his fortune. But he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his niche and expressed a deep longing to be given a challenging ‘real’ role.

Jasoos was made in 1977 and captures Rahi at a critical point in his career. His epic Maula Jat, which would forever change Pakistani movies, was still two years away. Rahi had made a number of Urdu movies before Maula Jatt but in the 17 remaining years of his life would appear in just 14 more. From 1979 on it was action, action, action and Punjabi, Punjabi, Punjabi. One can understand why he longed for that call that never came to play a more complex character.

Though Jasoos was an action thriller with a fair quota of guns, car chases and killing Rahi is given the space to explore a range of emotions that moved beyond righteous indignation. As Imran, the dashing head of a Private Detective agency, Rahi reveals a natural comedic touch as, he delivers genuine humour with understatement, facial expression and subtle body language.

Even more compelling is his interaction with leading lady, Mumtaz who plays Shama a simple country girl caught up in a web of intrigue. Rahi, sans wig and ax, was a ruggedly handsome hero. His winning smile, as well as an ability to flirt softened his action hero tendencies and made women’s hearts melt.   Though the film’s production was cheap and Iqbal Yusuf’s direction nothing to write home about, Rahi’s humane performance lifts Imran’s character out of the realm of caricature and holds the otherwise manic movie together.

Jasoos is the story of a mysterious black-hooded killer determined to get his hands on the Will of Seth Azam, (Changezi) a wealthy landlord. The Seth, sensing he is being targeted for murder, hands the Will over to Imran with instructions that he is to act as Executor in the event of his murder.

Sure enough, a few days later, the Seth is murdered, sending Imran on the trail of corrupt police, a conniving widow (Rozina) and her ‘helpful’ brother, the mysterious masked murderer, two thugs and a gang of female baddies led by a master of disguise (Ghulam Mohyideen). Along the way, he comes to the aid of and falls in love with young Shama (Mumtaz), a mountain lass who turns out to be the illegitimate daughter and sole beneficiary of Seth Azam’s many properties.

As the gangsters, female spies, and police chase Imran and Shama across northern Pakistan we are treated to some of the most unusual and unlikely of sub plots, such as pagans dancing in front of huge Easter Island-like statues chanting “Zambo! Zambo!”, and a nautanki performance in which actors who appear to be identical physical specimens of Imran and Shama do a snake charmer’s dance in which 8 women dressed in black, swivel and writhe on the ground like cobras! None of this advances the plot even a centimetre.

In the end, Imran rescues Shama who is bound to the tracks of a fast approaching mail train by hanging from the cattle catcher and scooping her out of danger at the last second. The gang of baddies are discovered to actually be a crack group of undercover police operatives and the widow’s brother is demasked as the murder!

Phew!

There are action films and then there is Jasoos.

The film’s soundtrack, by the enigmatically named Tafo is just as abrupt and weird as the plot. Tafo is in fact, a collective of musicians led by the ace tabla maestro Ustad Altaf Hussain Tafo Khan and his brother, Nisar Hussain on the accordion. Throughout the 70s, often in collaboration with M Ashraf, but also on their own, they contributed some of the liveliest, most diverse and innovative sounds in Pakistani films.

Tafo was/were early experimenters with electronic instruments, including drum machines, fuzz pedals and synthetic loops of sound. In several scenes such as the aforementioned “Zambo Zambo” tribal dance, they seem to have been given free reign to make up anything they wanted. The result is at both visually quaint and sonically bizarre but ultimately hilarious and immensely creative.

In Shola sa Badka Badka (Burning like a Flame), Tafo spend the first half of the song simply making one of the mysterious female spies, the striking Chakori, move to all sorts of electronic beats, squelches and sizzling electric guitar riffs. She jerks, twitches, lunges and writhes for a couple minutes as the musicians give vent to a full orchestra of canned sounds. The dance is provocative and at times channels a young Elvis Presley. It’s easy to see how Chakori caught Rahi’s eye and landed the female lead in Maula Jatt.

Both musicians and dancer seem eager to impress the producers with EVERY possible sound and move they can conjure. Accordions, blaring trumpets, catchy guitars and burbling fizzes of electricity keep Chakori pumping, shaking, writhing, sliding, twisting and shaking as a confused Imran watches from a balcony window and the master of disguise observes from behind the drapes.

The voice is that of Nahid Akhtar, the Multan girl with the galvanised vocal chords. Akhtar worked often with Tafo and M Ashraf, producing dozens of memorable songs throughout the racy 70s and into the conservative 80s. Her wide, open voice which crescendos like a silver cornet in a hot jazz ensemble is instantly recognisable. Combining the charisma of Noor Jehan with twice the gumption of Asha Bhosle and Usha Iyer combined, Nahid Akhtar owned the disco/saucy song genre like no one else before or since.

Jasoos may not have set Lahore aflame, but once again, the music, as well as an unexpected and pleasing performance by Sultan Rahi makes this a film worth checking out.