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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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?

 

 

Thehra Hai Sama Hum Tum Hain Jahan

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Amber (Amber) is an Urdu movie released forty years ago in January 1978. With veteran director Nazrul Islam behind the camera and a gaggle of heavy hitting stars such as Mohammad Ali, Nadeem and the versatile Mumtaz, Amber zinged off like a rocket, running for an incredible 85 weeks at Karachi’s Koh-i-noor Cinema.

As with many Pakistani films it is hard to share the public’s madness for what today seems a run of the mill romcon with all the usual plotlines of inter-generational conflict, mistaken identities and parents struggling with drink and anger management issues.  Which is not to say Amber is a complete waste of time. Nadeem once again shows his comedic skills and Mumtaz manages to hold our attention with nary a twerk or breast boom.

Mohammad Ali, by now one of the older statesman of Pakistani movies, plays Ali, a rich man wound tighter than a maulvi’s mouth in Ramazan. His beloved wife dies in childbirth but Ali has little time for his son, Nadeem (Nadeem), The boy grows up to be a spendthrift playboy at University, always getting in and out of trouble with the help of his scheming best friend (Munawar Saeed).

All roads lead to marriage in Pakistani films and the heart of the movie is a farcical double-cross cum blackmail cum deception powerplay that has Nadeem tricking Amber (Mumtaz) and her family into thinking he’s a bawarchi (cook) which allows him to get close to the the beautiful Amber. The comedy is laid on thick as Ali, Amber, Nadeem grin, smack, drink and stumble their way through series of circumstances which get more tangled than one of Nadeem’s, the supposed cook, bowls of noodles.  But in the end, unsurprisingly, love prevails and Amber marries Nadeem making Ali happy in the autumn of his years.

Robin Ghosh is charged with the soundtrack which like the film itself doesn’t hold up as well as many of his other scores.  But the highlight, sung by Mehdi Hassan, is a desi cover of one of the most famous pop songs in the world.  In 1959 the Belgian folk legend Jacques Brel composed what he referred to as a ‘hymn to the cowardice of men’, Ne me quitte pas (Don’t Leave Me). The song’s doleful and slightly lethargic melody instantly caught on not just in the French-speaking world but across the entire globe. Versions of the song have been recorded in at least 26 languages including Afrikaans, West Frisian, Arabic and Slovene. In English alone 17 artists ranging from the country star Glen Campbell to the smoothest of all lounge singers Frank Sinatra have recorded If You Go Away, the Rod McKuen penned Anglo iteration.

Ne me quitte pas is often thought of as a love song but according to Brel it is nothing of the sort.  At the time of the composition Brel’s girlfriend became pregnant with his son. With what he termed masculine ‘cowardice’ Brel refused to take any responsibility for the child. His girlfriend threw him out and the song later came out of a bout of Brel‘s regret and remorse.

Interestingly, this backstory  is somewhat mirrored in Amber. The song, Thehra Hain Sama Hum Tum Jahan comes at the very beginning of the film, on the occasion of Ali’s suhag raat (marriage night).  As he falls into the arms of his young bride (Deeba) he sings of eternal love and never leaving her, she begins to tear up in a sort of premonition of disaster.  Several months later she dies whilst giving birth to their son Nadeem.

Ghosh doesn’t stray too far from the original melody though of course the words have changed to suit a different cotext.  The key feature of the song besides the golden nuanced voice of Mehdi Hassan is the lovely plaintive violin that drives the melody gently forward.

 

Bhar Do Jholi

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Bin Badal Barsaat (Rain Without Clouds) is an Urdu movie starring Mohammad Ali, Zeba, Shahid and Sangeeta released in March 1975. Running for 54 weeks in Karachi it attained coveted Golden Jubilee status.

The film takes its title from a 1963 Indian horror film but tells a story not of curses but of a couple’s struggle to produce and raise a family. Zarina (Zeba) and Judge Akbar Ali (Mohammad Ali) are hopeful that at last they might have a child after several years of trying unsuccessfully. Zarina is so upset by her apparent infertility she advises Akbar Ali to find a second wife if the situation continues.  “A wife that can’t produce a child is not worth anything,” she tells him.

A few months later Zarina does in fact deliver a healthy boy but through a series of twists of Fate, double crosses and colossal misreadings of the tea leaves the boy, Anwar, goes missing and ends up as a Pakistani Oliver Twist, cutting people’s pockets as part of a gang of beggars and prostitutes led by an obese and lecherous Fagin called Dada (Ilyas Kashmiri). Eventually, through yet more incredible strokes of luck,  tortured confessions and even torture itself, the family is reunited thanks to the efforts of the golden hearted dancing girl Gori, played by the stunning beauty, Sangeeta and her reformed pickpocket fiance Badhshah (Shahid).

Though this film was a big hit there is not much to recommend it as far as the storyline, script or acting goes. Once again it is some of the music and one performance that saves the day. Sangeeta‘s playful enactment of the good hearted but mistreated dancing girl Gori shows up all the leading big names. By comparison Mohammad Ali and Zeba seem to sleep walk through their parts.  A Karachi girl, Sangeeta got her start in 1971’s Yeh Aman (This Peace) but is perhaps best remembered for her work behind the camera as producer and director of such films as Society Girl, Nikah (Marriage) and Muthi Bhar Chawal (Fist Full of Rice).

In this film Sangeeta sticks to acting and dancing and leaves the direction to yet another woman, Zeenat, herself an actress whose track record went back to 1946 when she shared the screen with Noor Jehan in Hamjoli. After Partition Zeenat produced and directed half a dozen other films beginning with Khula Ja Sim Sim (1959). Her last appearance as director came in 1980 with Aap ki Khatir.  The story of Pakistan’s women directors and producers is one that needs to be explored and told.  Like so much else in Pakistan it comes a pleasant surprise that in country with such deep prohibitions against women working in the public sphere, and that too in such an industry as the movies, these women were able to martial the resources and withstand the severe social pressure to make so many films.

In the mid-1970s three giants of qawwali music were vying, sometimes bitterly, for top spot in listeners hearts. One one hand a raucous, dishevelled and brilliant upstart from Lahore, named Aziz Mian had sent shockwaves through polite society and the qawwali world with his hypnotic paeans to drunkenness and spiritual complaint.  Horrified and scandalised, the Karachi-based sibling duo Sabri Brothers represented the traditional, less ecstatic , devotional stream of qawwali. The Brothers and Mian traded barbs publicly, and in song, but all three sang their way to the bank, making fortunes through their cassettes and live concerts.

The music for Bin Badal Barsaat was composed by another woman, Shamim Nazli, sister of playback singer Mala. In a critical scene near the film’s denouement, Nazli inserts one of the Sabri Brothers‘ most popular songs Bhar do Jholi (Fill My Sack) to accompany a distraught Mohammad Ali who has gone to a shrine to pray for God’s forgiveness and mercy and the safe return of his son, Anwar.  The scene’s emotional tension is heightened by the qawwali beat,  acute lyrics and resounding voices of the Sabris who give a genuine qawwali performance rather than a rip-off filmi qawwali number.

Bin Badal Barsaat may not be top quality cinema but as a study of the role of women in Lollywood, both on and off the screen, it is a film well worth viewing.

 

 

Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati

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Ajnabi (Stranger) is an Urdu film released in November 1975. Though it ran for 20 weeks it was a commercial stinker and thus, receives the ugly sobriquet, ‘flop’.

1975 delivered a bumper crop of films. A total of 112 were released that year and Pakistan was riding high.  The disastrous civil war which had seen the creation of Bangladesh (and the loss of 50% or more of the audience for Urdu films) was history. Zulfikar Bhutto, the charismatic Prime Minister was confident and supreme in his political power. The country was positioning itself as the leader of the Muslim bloc of countries. Just a year earlier Bhutto had hosted the 2nd Islamic Summit in Lahore.  The casinos and cabarets in Karachi’s hotels were frequented by the rich citizens/subjects of more conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. Alcohol flowed openly. Religious parties occupied the pesky margins of national life. The Army, chastened after its humiliating defeat in 1971, was licking its wounds back in the barracks.

So shining was this golden age.

Though Ajnabi had a gaggle of stars (Mohammad Ali, Deeba and new arrival, Babra Sharif) it was unable to excite. Director Ali Sufiyan ‘Afaqi‘ was in essence a writer and journalist with an impressive CV in newspapers, magazines and as a screen writer. Throughout his long career (he passed away in 2015) he was associated with a number of major Pakistani films, the most famous of which is probably Kaneez (Slave Girl, 1965) which he both produced and wrote.  But Ajnabi was considered worthy enough, along with two other Afaqi films, Aas and Saiqa,  to be selected to represent Pakistan in the illustrious Film Festival of Asia and Africa held in Tashkent, USSR (Uzbekistan) in 1976 (?).

The song Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati (I Can’t Sleep All Night) is the work of the music director Nisar Bazmi and playback singer Nayyara Noor. It’s nothing to get overly excited about but does possess a nice lilt.  The entire 3 and half minutes is wrapped in swirling silvery strings  infused with flutes that sound like birds chirping in a morning tree. Its a dreamy sort of song.  One of restless anxious love,

Raat bhar neend nahi ati hain

Chandni dil ko tard pati hain

Kya yeh hua/ kyon yeh hua

Bata deejeeye

Zara meri nafs dekh kar dawa deejeeye

[I can’t sleep the night through

the moonlight makes my heart quiver

what is happening/ why is this happening?

oh tell me please!

Check my pulse and give me some medicine]

Nayyara Noor was born into a Punjabi merchant family in Assam, on the far eastern flank of India in 1950. At the age of 7 or 8 her family, sans her father who stayed behind to settle the family business, moved to Lahore.  In the early 70s, just a few years before Ajnabi was released, Nayyara put the industry on notice by winning a Nigar Award for best singer in her very first movie Gharana (1973).  What followed was a sparkling career as a playback artist and respected ghazal singer. Her interpretations of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry are particularly special.

In Raat Bhar she gives a perfectly toned performance. Her singing and aspiration is light and coquettish. She captures the starry eyed rapture of the young love-struck girl to a T. As she sighs into the line about having her pulse checked we are instantly transported into the bedroom of a teenager gazing at the picture of her absent lover.

This is pure pop and as such is quite disposable. But like all pop music it has enough of that essential dam to keep you humming the melody for  days on end.

Well done I say. Well done.

 

 

Wadah Karo Tum

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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.

 

Kya Haseen Jism Hai

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Ik Gunah aur Sahi (One Sin More) is an Urdu film released in 1975. It ran for 52 consecutive weeks in Karachi’s cinema halls achieving Golden Jubilee status.

The super hit film was  based on the controversial short story Mummy by Sa’adat Hasan Manto. Manto is considered one of the Urdu language’s best writers and is appreciated(for his concise prose and deprecated for his unabashed discussion of topics such as sexuality, which his peers found distasteful.

Mummy is a portrait of one Stella Jackson, an Anglo-Indian woman in Poona (Pune) who is painted in the shades of a madam/procuress for those connected with the film industry.  The story begins by attaching all the stereotypes of ‘loose’ Christian, Anglo-Indian (Eurasian) women to Stella: heavily made up to the point of ugliness, drinker, prostitute.  By the end of the story, however, Manto is less moralistic about Mummy and leaves the reader feeling a great deal of empathy and compassion for his character.

I’m really looking forward to watching this film to see how director Hassan Tariq (who also wrote the screenplay) handles the drama.  The film starred beauty queen/dancer Rani (Tariq’s ex-wife) and dashing leading man Mohammad Ali.  

The album cover of the soundtrack (above) is revealing on a couple of counts. First, the image of a modern young lady giving you a ‘come hither’ look next to a bottle of whiskey pretty much sums the storyline for the casual observer. The whiskey, Vat 69, was apparently the preferred poison of villains and vamps on both sides of the border. Watch any film made in Lahore or Mumbai from this era (60s-80s) and you’ll see Vat 69 in the clutches of some shady character or another.

The other interesting thing about this cover is the prominence given to the music director,  Nisar Bazmi.  Not every music director would be afforded such visibility and only those whose name would in its own right draw customers into the cinema or shop.  Bazmi, without a doubt was one of the few.

Originally from Maharashtra, Bazmi began his career in Bombay and until he left for Pakistan, the mentor to one of the greatest musical duos of Indian film, Laxmikant Pyarelal.  In Pakistan, he composed music for dozens of films in a wide range of styles from folk and classical to pop and rock.

Today’s song Kya Haseen Jism Hai (What a Beautiful Body You Have) is an ‘item number’ but without the usual disco/dance beats.  Rather Mehnaz delivers the mid-tempo number with huge pathos and sadness.  This the song of a woman who knows exactly what sort of world she is living in. A world of fleeting desires and pleasures where bodies are sold and traded for cash and cheap, hollow laughs. Through unrelentingly depressing lyrics and Mehnaz’s moody singing, the audience is treated to a cold critique of a certain class of cashed up Pakistanis who lived lives far removed from those of most of the audience.

The music is understated, which as I said, is not what one would expect from a vamp’s nightclub solo .  Bazmi gets some excellent, soulful electric guitar licks out of his band of musicians and expertly increases the emotional tension by employing a small orchestra of strings but overall the music is composed in such a way as to give Mehnaz the space to do her moody interpretation of a very sad business.

VAT 69

All in all, top shelf stuff!