Don’t Drink Darling

black-mail-pak-1

Black Mail is an Urdu film released in 1985. In essence the movie was an Urdu version of a bloody Punjabi action film. The cast included the two great alpha males of Punjabi cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi and followed the essential fisticuff  and revolver driven story of violent revenge.

Ironically, black mail plays a rather insignificant part in the fast paced and goonda heavy plot line. Apparently, gangster Dara played wonderfully with a Clint Eastwood type sullen bravado by a blonde-wigged Mustafa Qureshi has blackmailed the despicable and amoral industrialist Sethji (Qavi) but its not clear. Both leads toss the word around from time to time but the real driving force in this game is greed and revenge with love coming in a distant third place.

Roshan (Ghulam Mohideen) was blinded as a young boy when an enraged Dara throws him against the wall after killing his sister who walked out on their engagement.  While walking in a park one day he is slapped by an angry lady doctor named Najma (Shehnaz) who doesn’t recognise that he is unable to see.  Tormented by guilt at her insensitive action she vows to fix Roshan’s eyes and give him sight at last.

In the meantime, and for most of the middle hour and a half of the film, Sultan Rahi who plays the good-hearted, rough speaking, matchstick-chewing goonda has a series of fights with Dara and his henchmen. When they are not fighting each other they take turns scaring the living daylights out of Sethji and eagerly grabbing the vast sums of money he throws their way in order to save his life.

In the end, Roshan’s operation is a success. But when he discovers that the murderer of his family is Dara, he puts his eyes to use to plot revenge rather than gaze longingly into the eyes of Najma. A tense, fast paced  final few minutes keeps you glued to your screen. Though a vital part of the story is missing from the YouTube version of the film we presume Dara and Roshan fight it out. But Dara manages to escape to the top of a water tower. Realising he is surrounded by police and can run no longer he throws himself off the tower to bring a rather gruesome curtain down on the show.

Black Mail is a bloke’s movie. The action centers around four angry and emotionally stunted men though Rahi does give his Robin Hood-esque character a certain charm with his broken Urdu, cowboy boots and his famous smirk.  More so than in many other Urdu movies the women play almost entirely facilitative roles. Nazli who once was the paramour of chubby comedian Nanna (and possibly the reason for his bloody suicide?) does nothing but dance and sing for Raja.  Even Shehnaz whose role as Dr. Najma is slightly more complex (but not much) appears only to drive the action forward and enable Roshan to exact his bitter revenge.  Most marginalised is Julia, (unknown) Dara’s girlfriend who appears just once and that to sing a song.

After escaping narrowly yet again Dara comes home exhausted. ‘I’ve had such a terrible day,’ he tells Julia, ‘I just want to drown my sorrows.’

Julia protests and says, ‘No drinking. Tonight you’re going to talk to me.’

Gripped with a panic that all men can relate to, Dara swats her gentle hand away and gives a look that says, ‘You crazy, or what?’

Immediately, Julia hops up to sing and perform what can only be called a didactic item number.

Mast bhare yeh aanken/Jaisi hai warning

Don’t drink darling/don’t drink darling

Though its hard to square Julia’s desire to have a deep and meaningful talk with the her sexy gyrations her efforts do have the effect of calming the beast within Dara.

This song has received considerable coverage in the West in the past several years and its not hard to see why.  Music Director Kemal Ahmad has concocted a bubbly sound full of synths, congas and what sounds like a harpsichord.  Lyricist Taslim Fazli’s ploy of dropping in one English word at the end of several verses–warning, shining, morning–is both clever and humorous.  Nahid Akhtar of course, sings with a gusto and energy that more then compensates for the rather awkward and sometimes out of sync movements of Julia.

As the old saying goes, this song alone is worth the price of admission to Black Mail.

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Wadah Karo Tum

bigdi naslein

Bigri Naslein (Spoiled Generations) is an Urdu film released in 1983 with a heavy hitting cast led by Mohammad Ali and Rani. It achieved Silver Jubilee status, so was quite popular with the punters.

 

Wadah karo tum (Promise Me), a song from the soundtrack, is one of those Pakistani film songs which exists like a bauble that has fallen off the Christmas tree and rolled under the sofa. It lays there hidden, completely disconnected from its source and reason for being. But when you pick it up long after Christmas Day you discover underneath the dust there is still a little shimmer and shine.

 

It’s a dainty little ditty and the closest thing to genuine ‘bubblegum’ I’ve heard in Pakistani film music. In this sappy love song full of heartfelt confessions and urgent demands lovers frolic under blue evening skies and birds chirp in the branches. All the while an intoxicating sonic atmosphere swirls around. You can almost see the unicorns and rainbows in the far meadow.

 

The song is the creation of Kemal Ahmed, a Bengali who drew upon the rich folk culture of his motherland and who preferred a soft, gentle approach to music composition. An approach that emphasized melody and texture over the lively rhythm and percussion championed by Punjabi colleagues such as Nazir Ali, who also contributed to Bigri Naslein.

 

The song itself is a near-perfect pop song. Ahmed creates an entirely credible six-minute world where love is spoken in sweet melodies, gently strummed guitars and the quicksilver sound of santoor descending the scales like a waterfall splashing down the side of a mountain. Into this perfect little world of puppy love, Ahmed injects a layered female chorus that sounds like a band of half-crazed angels.   The ladies’ voices envelop the entire piece with their non-syllabic singing but also repeatedly veer close to the edge of pleasantness with some raw and jagged wailing. At first, this is slightly disconcerting but in fact, it is the perfect antidote to such a saccharine confection. The tension created by the high-pitched choir pushing against the lush melody is spot on.

 

None of this is exceptional or unique. South Asian music directors of the Golden Age at their best were creative geniuses, fluent in multiple musical languages and supported by talented musicians who could play any number of Eastern and Western instruments. What makes Wadah karo tum a truly outstanding piece of puffery is the singer.

 

Less than 40 seconds into the song the opening two syllables of the lyric–‘wa’ ‘dah’–emerge from the background, whole, complete and polished. As if they have always existed and are coming from the very vortex of heaven. Is the singer a woman or a man? There is something familiar about this otherworldly voice but we struggle to put our finger on it.

It is not until the first verse, sung in a slightly lower register, that the penny drops: this is none other than the great ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali!

 

Ghulam Ali, who was rigorously trained in classical music by some of the tradition’s luminaries has spent his entire career devoted to interpreting the ghazal. Unlike most of his peers, including arguably the greatest ghazal singer of the past 50 years, Mehdi Hassan, who recorded hundreds of film songs, Ghulam Ali’s filmi output is relatively minor. Indeed, his best-loved film song, the ghazal, Chupke chupke raat din appeared in an Indian film Nikaah (1982).

 

So, to hear him in a Pakistani movie, singing an entirely disposable piece of filmi pop is akin to finding a small diamond at the bottom of the biriyani. Though the lyrics are inane Ali turns in a worthy performance. Indeed, his masterful breath work, subtle use of vibrato and deep feel for melody takes Wadah karo tum to an entirely new plane. From mere bubblegum to something ethereal. A genuine keeper.

This is  a genuine keeper.