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?

 

 

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Ae Roshniyon Ke Shahar Bata

Chingari

Chingari (Spark) is an Urdu film released in 1964.

As a commercial venture, Chingari, whose star-studded cast included Shamim Ara, Ejaz, Santosh Kumar, Deeba and Talish, was an average picture.  It didn’t sink like a stone to the bottom of the Ravi River but it didn’t exactly soar over the top of the Hindu Kush either.

But as is frequently the case many box office failures contain lots to be admired and treasured, and such is Chingari.

Khawaja Khursheed Anwar was the one-man force behind this film.  In addition to producing and directing the feature, he wrote the screenplay and composed the wonderful music.

Born into an educated, upper class Punjabi family from Mianwali (western Punjab), Khursheed Anwar followed in his father’s footsteps by studying the Law.  At Punjab University he was friends with the great Urdu poet/writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz with whom he shared a passion for literature and music.  Interestingly, at  college Faiz was more interested in music and Anwar in poetry!

Because he came from a family of means, Anwar sahib was able to pursue his passions rather than follow a legal career and by the late 1930s was employed as a program producer by All India Radio in both Lahore and Delhi stations.

AR Kardar,  one the pioneering figures in Lahore’s early movie industry, approached Anwar for music for the film Kudmai (1940, which he was producing in Bombay. Several of the songs immediately caught on with the public and further work and success followed in films such as Parekh and Parwana.

1947 brought the Partition.  Anwar opted to return home to Lahore rather than stay on in what seemed at the time time to many Muslims, a hostile Hindu India.  The late 40s were hard years for cinema in Lahore but by 1949 Anwar was getting work and contributed music to Singhar.  From that point on he remained active in the film and music industries producing or composing music for such memorable films as Heer Ranjha (1970), Intezar (1959) and Ghoonghat (1962).

This film is not your run-of-the-mill romantic/family drama but something far more substantial. It is a dark study of Pakistan society in transition and what emerges is a grim picture indeed.

The film’s hero is a do-good, nosey, unctuous novelist named Nadeem (Ejaz) who is obsessed with the degradation of society. In order to get close up, all the better to dissect the flith and moral corruption, he masquerades as a taxi driver.  He uses this position to rescue fallen women (those who love dancing the twist and drinking booze) and return them home to their mothers and the safety of an honorable home.

The films’s message is that Pakistani society is being overrun by devilsh puppets in the form of loose lustful women obsessed with dancing drinking and fornicating.  The opening credit sequence pretty much sets the tone as the camera pans across movie posters, soft porn magazines and novels with titles like “Seductress” and “Lust”.

The men in the picture are amazingly weak specimens, either disabled or willing dupes of conniving women (with the exception of Nadeem, who is just a prat).  The women are intent on infecting society with their bad behaviour and even willing to murder in order to get their way. And in the end all the remains of the characters’ universe is deception, death and destruction.

I’ve not seen enough Anwar films to know whether this ultra-conservative take is genuinely held or simply the telling of a bleak tale, but on face value this is a very reactionary, fear-based work of art.

And yet, it is art. The acting is all of a high standard with Santosh Kumar as the blind musician Sajjad particularly well played.  The director’s love of art and culture is evident throughout in the central character’s chosen profession as well as that of the blind Sajjad,  but also in a hilarious gallery scene in which Nadeem and Shamsa (Deeba) discuss a piece of modern art: a double portrait of the classical singing duo Nazakhat  Ali and Salamat Ali.  

But of course, it is the music score that is most masterful. Every song is appropriate to the story line with sophisticated melodies and excellent deliveries by Salim Raza and Noor Jehan. Anwar switches between western jazz/surf music with repeated motifs whenever there is a scene or discussion of modern ‘culture’. Or malevolent intent! The music is never over powering or jarring but always adds an appropriate level of energy or tension.

The song for today itself is a masterpiece.

It opens with what must be some of the earliest ‘rock’ music picturised on South Asian film, a dance party in full swing at a dance school. A male voice commands the crowd of party goers to push back so as to make space for dancing. Then an acoustic guitar plucks out the melody line while handclaps keep time.  Strings swell up and give way to a lonely sax solo that creates an edgy, slightly tense atmosphere.

Nadeem exits the nightclub as the camera jumps from nightscape (blurry lights on city roads and flashing neon signs) to nightscape (a cinema house showing the Italian erotic picture ‘Women By Night’).

Mehdi Hassan, whose reserved style of singing is perfect for this scene, gives voice to Ejaz‘s anxiety.  “Oh tell me city of lights/why is this gathering of friends so filled with poison?” The be zaar hero stands in a torpor outside the nightclub where gyrating women are seen in silhouette. On the busy night streets other women parade without men and display the latest fashions on designer runways.

The song, sung in a jazzy minor key, creates a waking dream in which the wild sounds of the nightclub  breakthrough regularly to heighten the effect of the hero’s uncomfortable alienated vision.  Whereever he looks, in all four directions he sees nothing but drunkeness, promiscuity, poverty and pornography.

Ae roshiniyon ke shahar bata/be chaini hai be zaari hai

Badaani hai badkari hai/ tehzeeb nai chingari hai

Ek aag  nadi char tarf/ yeh kaisa macha hai/ shahar bata

[Oh city of lights tell me/ there is unease and emptiness

There is poverty there is bad deeds/ this new culture is a spark

a river of fire burns all around/how did this happen/ tell me, oh city]

Musically Anwar conjures a soundscape that intimately mirrors the noir nightscenes. He uses the guitar and sax to dramatic effect with both instruments contributing to the sense of angst. The guitar is plucked in a rhythm that hammers the brain and the sax seems to moans like a ghoul whenever it pushes its way in from the background.  In between bells and vibes keep everything bubbling and unstable.

South Asian film songs are often dismissed as a thousand ways to say I love you.  This song is strong evidence of the genre’s ability to express feelings far deeper and darker than mere romantic love. What Anwar and Mehdi Hassan have created is nothing short of a 5-minute dissection of  Pakistani culture captured at a mercurial moment of transformation.  It is a stunning but ultimately disturbing statement.

The final point of interest in this song is that we are treated to a glimpse of what Pakistan’s major cities looked like in the early 1960s.  A city where women roamed in sarees after dark and where cinemas showed cutting edge European movies and where the luxury hotels ruled the night with their glitzy foyers and nightclubs.