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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dil Dhadke Main Tujh Se Yeh Kaise Kahoon

anjuman

Anjuman (Anjuman) is an Urdu film released in 1970. It was a Platinum Jubilee ‘superhit’, with the public lining up at cinemas for 81 weeks straight to watch the show.

The film tells the story of Anjuman, a much-sought-after tawaaif (courtesan) who has caught the lustful eye of Nawab Wajahat Ali (Santosh Kumar). Anjuman (Rani) sadly is depressed and lovesick. She has no interest in the Nawab but under pressure from her mother strings the nobleman along to get access to his millions.

Meanwhile, Asif (Waheed Murad) the Nawab’s supposed younger brother has an unhealthy set of feelings for his sister-in-law, Nawab sahib’s wife,  played beautifully by Sahiba Khanum.  These feelings are eventually ( and thankfully) redirected to Nusrat (Deeba) an old childhood friend who has recently migrated from India.

The more he hangs out with Anjuman the more coldhearted Nawabsahib becomes towards his wife and one day his excuses of ‘working late’ are exposed as lies. He confesses his affection for Anjuman to his wife but tells her to put up and shut up, which, of course, she does.

Asif is sent on a mercy mission to the dancing girl’s house. In a pique of righteous rage he tells her to stay out of his family’s affairs and desist from seeing his elder brother, the Nawab. As soon as she lays eyes on the handsome Asif, Anjuman falls in love. She agrees to break things off with the Nawab (no biggie, she couldn’t stand the man anyway) on the condition that Asif replace him.

So much does Asif love his sister-in-law who is suffering because of this prickly situation he agrees. ‘At least I’ll save her marriage,’ he says to himself.

Asif becomes increasingly alienated from himself and his family and Nusrat and sinks into the bottle to soothe his conflicted feelings.  About two thirds of the way through the film you are hit with the depressing realisation that all the main characters are incredibly unhappy, either abandoned by those they love, stuck in torturous moral dilemmas or scorned by society.

Eventually, though, things turn out ok. Sort of. When Anjuman refuses to see the Nawab anymore he realises the error of his ways and begs forgiveness from his wife. Asif has it out with his sister-in-law who accuses him of abandoning Nusrat. He lets Bhabi (sister in law) know of his deal with the devil, Anjuman. Bhabi confronts Anjuman and reveals that Asif is not her brother-in-law but in fact her son! ‘Take my husband if you must, but give me back my boy!’ Anjuman reluctantly agrees to release Asif from his vow but insists that she will dance at Asif and Nusrat’s wedding the following week.

With order restored to the feudal Universe the Big Day is marked with a wonderful dance by Anjuman. Just as the dance nears conclusion Anjuman collapses and dies at the feet of Asif. The final scene depicts Asif laying flowers at her tomb with hunched shoulders and a heavy heart.

The story may be full of moral quagmires, numerous loose ends and uncomfortable depictions of unchecked human desire but the music once again provides a degree of artistic ballast.

The tawaaif  film is a well-established sub-genre of South Asian cinema and is usually set in mid-19th century feudal Muslim India. In the case of Anjuman the location is contemporary 1960s Lahore which adds a hint of implausibility to the whole movie. Music director Nisar Bazmi does his best to cater to this split world by working in two idioms. In scenes involving Nawab sahib he creates the familiar haunting sarangi-based soundscape that such tawaaif movies employ. However, when Asif is in Anjuman’s company, he resorts to a more modern, ‘western’ sound led by non-traditional instruments like the guitar.

Dil Dhadke Main Tujh Se Yeh Kaise Kahoon (My Heart Races to Tell You) is a song Anjuman sings as she dances temptingly in front of grim Asif who has come to scold her.

It’s a delightful little song for a number of reasons. First, the twangy electric guitar intro would not be out of place on a Marty Robbins or Johnny Cash record. The country & western sound is so unexpected and refreshing at this point in what has turned out to be a heavy story you immediately perk up and find new energy to continue watching.

Second, it is a reminder of how connected the film culture of Lahore was with what was going on elsewhere in the world.  Sounds and musical styles from north America and other places were familiar to music directors in Pakistan and it is a testament to their creative talents that they could so quickly and naturally adapt these sounds to their own context.

Third, the smooth-as-polished-leather guitar playing is proof of just how talented the anonymous studio musicians in Lahore were. The string section too, is able to conjure a sound that is every bit as emotional and on point as Barry White‘s Love Unlimited Orchestra.

But in the end, it is the coquettish delivery of Runa Laila that makes the song so cool.  Laila was a Bengali girl raised in Karachi and grew up hearing the rock/pop music of Karachi’s then active nightclub scene as well as falling in love with the vocals of Ahmed Rushdie.

As soon as she burst on the scene in the 1966 film Hum Dono (We Two) she was recognized as an exceptional talent. In a few years she was a regular performer in India and the UK. She was one of Pakistan’s true pop stars and made well-received records of non-film music as well.

Her light and crisp voice is perfect for pop and upbeat music. Dil Dhadke is certainly one of my current favorites.

Anjuman

Jee Rahe Hain Hum Tanha

sharmiliee

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

Ding Dong Ding Dong

deewar

Deewar (Wall) is an Urdu film released in 1976. It achieved ‘flop’ status and sunk like a stone.

The film starred Babra Sharif who had debuted in films two years earlier. Though her dominance of the industry was still some years in the future she had received very good reviews, won a Special Nigar Award (Pakistan’s Academy Awards) and had starred in some very successful movies by this point.  Sadly, Deewar, in which she shared the limelight with Ghulam Mohiuddin, was a disaster.

The music was composed by M Ashraf and as such is always worth investigating. Ashraf loved to experiment with rhythms, styles and sounds.  One of his favorite signatures was a steely electric guitar riff such as the one that opens this number. It’s edgy, its liquid and when mixed with a snappy snare drum puts the listener on notice “You’re about to have some fun!”

You don’t need to see the film to know what is going on in this scene.  We are witnessing a wild dance party of hip people who are busy flirting and being silly.  The title of the song is repeated like a nonsense nursery rhyme by Ahmed Rushdi by way of welcoming Mehnaz who tells us the best thing in the world is L.O.V.E.

From this point on we are off to the races.  Manic accordion solos swirl around repeated choruses of Ding Dong Ding Dong, an early Moog keeps the bass line bubbling while that electric guitar makes strategic stabs into the sound-osphere.

This track is not exactly an ‘item number’ and should rightly be classified as a dance or disco song. And as the whole concept of co-educational partying and dancing is deemed to be a Western innovation it is important for lyrics, at least in part, to be sung in English. And so about 2 and a half minutes into the proceedings Ashraf changes things up by incorporating the melody lines of the famous Punjabi ditty Balle Balle. Instead of shouting Balle Balle (Punjabi for ‘hooray’, from the Persian word, baleh meaning ‘yes’) the English words, hello hello are substituted.

Hello Hello/ You know it is I love you

I will sing with you, my sweety

And I die with you/Hello Hello I miss you

Hello Hello/ You know it is I love you

Ahmed Rushdi was a regular partner of M Ashraf and the most successful male playback singer of the era. He modeled his singing style on that of Mohammad Rafi which is especially noticeable on more subdued tracks.  But Rushdi was an expert rocker as well. He could sing with gusto and as he demonstrates here could make suitably lusty grunts when required.

As for Mehnaz, she turns in a very credible somewhat raunchy performance which matches the mood perfectly. Mehnaz was from a famous music family (her mother was Kajjan Begum) whose reputation was made with a light classical repertoire of ghazal, dadra and thumri.  Songs such as this inane piece must have made her squeamish, but if so, she hides it very well.

The last part of the song is a riot of English love banter which sort of brings the song to a shambolic climax 6 minutes later.

Ding Dong