I am Black Beauty

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am black beauty/Love me

I am white beauty/ See me

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

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

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

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Jee Rahe Hain Hum Tanha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunha