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.

 

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Teri Talash Main Sadiyon Se

aar paar

Aar Paar (Around Here) is an Urdu film released in March 1973.

It seems to have been a B-movie going by the name of the leading players: Nisho, Shahid and Husna, a beautiful actress who was never able to break out of her ‘supporting’ roles but who, nevertheless, is fondly remembered for her contribution to the movies.

As is so often the case, the soundtrack of this commercial flop, contains some real jewels. The filmi music scene was dominated, like in India, by a solid core group of superstar music directors (arranger/composers), singers and musicians. So powerful were their perceived abilities that even second and third rate films sought them out.  It appears that producers paid big money for these magical names as a kind of insurance policy: the film may end up a flop but if we include a song or two by Noor Jehan or Mehnaz maybe we can move a few lakh (hundred thousand) more tickets.

In 1973 there were no bigger names in Pakistani music than Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hassan. Indeed, if you had to do a quick shortlist of the top 5 singers of Pakistan  you would probably list these as Number 1 and 2.  [And if you extended that list to take in all of South Asia, most people would have both names in the Top Ten.]

Noor Jehan came up through stage acting and singing. At the time of Partition in 1947 she was an established actress with several major motion pictures to her credit and her singing voice has been deemed ‘the best of all time’ for female playback singers.

Mehdi Hassan emerged out of a different tradition. Born into a traditional Rajasthani musical home, his family moved to Pakistan soon after 1947.  Though classically trained Hassan’s professional career started by singing for Rafiq Anwar’s 1956 film Shikaar.  For the rest of his career his mellow, burnished voice provided hundreds of films with moments of elegance and grace.  In addition to films, Hassan built a reputation as one of the finest proponents of the ghazal and other semi-classical genres like thumri, dadra and geet.

Both singers contributed their formidable talents to Aar Paar but even so the film was unable to make an impression.  The musical director was another Big Name, M Ashraf, who in 1973 was just approaching the height of his own powers as a highly inventive and influential musical mind.

In Teri Talash Main Sadiyon Se (I’ve Been Searching for You for Centuries) they play a straight bat. Ashraf eschews flashy fusion of electric guitars and Moogs and avoids wild dance or disco beats. Rather,  the maddeningly short piece places Mehdi Hassan’s voice within a gorgeous light melody with traditional subcontinental instruments. As such the song is a throwback to an earlier time before Pakistani films went nuts about experimenting with Western sounds.

 

Enjoy this gentle, lilting paean to love from one of the greatest of South Asian vocalists.

Talash

Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai

zerqa

Zarqa (Zarqa) is an Urdu movie released in October 1969.

In the 1960s Pakistan’s film makers often found inspiration in the national struggle of the Palestinian people and audiences generally responded well to such films. Shaheed, which included many of the same stars as Zarqa was a massive box office draw in 1962 and it seems to have inspired the making of the latter.

Zarqa tells the story of an Arab woman who against great odds is able to become a fighter within the Palestinian liberation movement and through daring, courage and self-sacrifice wreaks massive destruction on the Israeli occupying military. Leila Khaled, a Palestinian female armed fighter who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969, is often cited as the role model for Zarqa, though this seems unlikely given the timing of the hijacking and the production of the film.

The film is violent, ideological, but in places quite moving. Talish, a fine character actor, plays Major David, a sadistic Israeli officer charged with capturing the Palestinian underground leader Shabaan Lutfi (Allaudin). Ejaz, the biggest male star of the 60s, is given a relatively minor role as a ukulele strumming Fatah fighter torn between love of his woman, Zarqa, and his motherland. But Neelo in the title role is the true star of the film.

And indeed, though the film was massively popular, running for over 100 weeks and thereby earning the status of Pakistan’s first Diamond Jubilee film, the dramatic, actual life backstory is far more interesting than what turns out to be a predictable politically correct (anti-Imperialist, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestine) potboiler.

The film’s director, Riaz Shahid, was a prominent member of the leftist clique of Pakistani artists and intellectuals that hovered around poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Shahid began his career as a journalist, working on Faiz’s weekly Lail-o-Nihar but moved to screen writing by the late 1950s. In 1964 his collaboration with Communist poet Habib Jalib on the film Khamosh Raho, a hard-hitting story about the kidnapping of rural women for the sexual pleasure of elite Pakistani society, announced his arrival as a serious filmmaker.

Jalib and Shahid hit it off and developed a partnership over several years and titles including Zarqa. Jalib’s populist, simple but powerful anti-authoritarian poems had gained him many stints behind bars as well as deep respect among peers and the public. Indeed, many of the film songs by which he is remembered were popular first as political poems and mushaira (poetry reading) stoppers.

Neelo, the cute dancer-actor got her start in cinema with a bit part in the Hollywood mega production Bhowani Junction, filmed in Lahore in 1954. Born into a Christian family and christened Cynthia Alexander Fernandes, Neelo caught audiences attention with her role in Saat Lakh (1956). From that point on she became one of Pakistan’s most ‘bankable’ headliners and racked up a number of major hits as well as three Nigar Awards including Best Actress for Zarqa.

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In 1965 the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Pakistan and was hosted by the Nawab of Kalabagh the then Governor General. Neelo, who was at the height of her popularity was ‘instructed’ to appear before the Shah to dance.   She refused. An agitated Nawab dispatched the police to seize her and bring her forcibly to Governor’s House. But no sooner did she take to the floor then she collapsed. Some say she fainted from the shame her dancing would bring upon her paramour Riaz Shahid. Others suggest she tried to commit suicide. In any case, Neelo was rushed to the hospital and the incident became an instant cause célèbre.

Jalib, ever sensitive to the abuse of power by the country’s leaders, penned a poem in the actress’ honour in which the opening lines trumpeted

Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-shahenshahi hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of Imperialism!)

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

Aaj qatil ki yeh marzi hai ki sirkash ladki

(Today the ruler wishes of you, you stubborn girl)

Sir-e-qatil tujhay koroon se nachaya jay

(That you be made to dance by whipping)

Maut ka raqs zamanay ko dikhaya jay

(This deadly dance is for the world to see)

Is tarahan zulm ko nazarana diya jata hai

(This is a spectacle of the power of darkness)

Raqs zanjeer pahin kar bhee kiya jata hai

(For dances can also be performed wearing chains)

 

When it came time to cast Zarqa, Shahid chose Neelo who was by now his wife. Jalib’s poem was included almost word for word with only ‘Imperialsm’ being substituted by ‘slavery’ in the opening line.

“Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-ghulami hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of slavery!

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

So sings Mehdi Hassan as a fettered Zarqa moves and groans in pain with each stab of Major David’s cigarette against her exposed skin. The scene is gruesome but effective and forms the emotional and dramatic centerpiece of the film.

The film’s music was composed by Rashid and Wajahat Attre, a father and son team with a strong predilection for raga based music. Originally from Pune father Rashid passed away during the film’s production leaving Wajahat to complete the score, a task he didn’t feel completely up to. The film’s other songs, though not bad, suffer when stacked up against the gut wrenching spectacle of Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai, surely one of the great instances of art imitating life in South Asian film.

Raqs

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.

Yeh Mausam Hota Hai

miss-hongkong

Miss Hong Kong is an Urdu movie released in 1979.

The first in a series of ‘Miss’ films (Bangkok, Singapore, Istanbul, Colombo) this film starred Babra Sharif (if you don’t know by know, the biggest female star of the late 70s and 80s) in the title role. You can see her doing a jig with a couple of sailors on the album cover above.

While the films were not necessarily huge hits the series represent an important development in Pakistani cinema: the feminist film. Now let me immediately qualify that statement by confessing I do not mean this claim to stand up to academic rigour. I have not seen this film and  have no real idea what messages it does or does not send regarding women.

The reason I use the word feminist is more straightforward. The Miss series, as well as a whole raft of other films with titles such as Lady Commando and Lady Smuggler, are the work of Pakistan’s first successful female director, Shamim Ara.

Shamim Ara was not the first woman to direct a major commercial picture in Pakistan. This honour goes to Noor Jehan who directed herself in the Punjabi classic Chan Way  in 1951.  But it was a one-off job for Ms Jehan. It is widely understood that she was ably assisted by her husband, who agreed to go uncredited.

Ara, however, was well and truly in charge behind the camera in each of these films. Given the national and social context of Pakistan this is nothing to be sniffed at.  In an industry in which women were cast almost always as foils, victims, vamps and long suffering mothers to have them in leading roles, and in the case of Lady Smuggler and Lady Commando, in roles that directly confronted and challenged the notions of ‘good woman’, ‘villain’ and the male monopoly of power, money and violence, Ara’s work is almost revolutionary.

And remember, these pictures were not made in the ‘good old liberal days of Ayub Khan or Z.A. Bhutto’, but at the beginning of Zia ul-Haq’s campaign to Islamisize Pakistan. A campaign that severely restricted the participation of women in public life.

Once again the music composer is the prolific M Ashraf. The film, shot on location in Hong Kong, gives Ashraf space to experiment with sounds that sound vaguely Far Eastern, via electronic keyboards and flutes.

Yeh Mausam Hota Hai (This Season is Such) our selection for today is a gorgeous little melody. It is delivered straight-no-chaser with little innovation or experimentalism as far as instruments or beats are concerned. The sonic framework is classic north Indian filmi (tabla, acoustic guitars and soaring strings) with just a short interjection by a rather annoying synth in the early section.

The singers, two of Pakistan’s most respected artists, both of whose natural artistic element was the concert hall rather than the movie house, are Mehdi Hassan and Mehnaz.  Whenever I hear Mehdi sahib singing in films I have the feeling of driving a Maserati to the local dhaba to buy some keema naan.  Such a masterful creation being put to the most mundane use.

But alas, artists must eat too. Even if it is just keema naan.

For all of that, this is an infectious little tune; I’ve been humming it all day. I’m sure you will be too.

HongKong

Dama Dam Allah Hoo

mohabbat-aur-majboori

Mohabbat Aur Majboori (Love and Compulsion) is an Urdu film released in September 1981.

The film appears not to have made many waves or at least not for very long.  Clearly a story of conflicted and unrequited love, the headline star is the beautiful Babra Sharif who plays a sophisticated Pakistani-British expat who returns home and family.  She is met by relatives and driven to the mazar of Sain Baba in the mountains of Kashmir, where the first song of the film, Dama Dam Allah Hoo is heard.

The song is performed by Mehdi Hassan who needs no introduction to most readers. Arguably the best male ‘light classical’ singer of his generation and popular not just in Pakistan, but in India as well as the South Asian diaspora, Hassan is best remembered for his non-film repertoire of ghazals.  His voice is instantly recognisable for its smooth timbre and understated delivery.  He infused each song with a natural unhurried dignity, which is calming and luscious at the same time.

Sufi shrines (mazar) are an important part of the cultural and geographic landscape in Pakistan.  They are visited regularly by seekers of all faiths who come to pray, rest, socialise and seek boons from the charged energy of the Saint that encompasses the surrounding area.  Women come to seek the birth of children.  Men seek the Saint’s help for business success. And in the film, Babra Sharif has come with an unspoken desire for love.

The concept of ishq (Love) is central to the Sufi message.  The Almighty is approached in the form of the Beloved.  The individual seeker is the Lover who wants to drown and lose his sense of self (diwana) in the Love of God.  The line between divine love (Ishq) and romantic love (Mohabbat) is a thin one, especially in the popular imagination.  And shrines are considered to be places where earthly relationships can be sourced or repaired.

This version of the sort of song Sufi sains (wandering minstrels/mystics) would perform at a mazar is lovely, if not exactly inspiring.  The rougher ecstatic edges of the real deal have been polished for the middle-class audiences the filmmakers are targeting. Mehdi Hassan’s voice was never designed to sing jubilant spiritual chants and seems slightly out of place in the context of religious and ritual intensity.

The title of the song, as well as its repeated refrain Dama Dam Allah Hoo, references the Sindhi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s mazar in Sehwan. The chant/hymn Dama Dam Mast Qalandar, is the single most famous line in South Asian mystical music and instantly associates the listener with  Qalandar and the Sehwan shrine.

I selected this song mainly because of the awful events that have transpired in Sehwan in the past few days.  In a time like this  Mehdi Hassan’s  subdued rendition is just the sort of balm we all require.

Dama Dam