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.

 

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Shola sa Badka Badka

Jasoos

Jasoos (Spy) is an Urdu film released in June 1977.

The film stars Sultan Rahi who holds a position not unlike that of Noor Jehan in the Pakistani film industry. Just as she was the undisputed Malika Tarannum (Empress of Melody), Sultan Rahi is by far the most recognized male face of Pakistani movies. Together both icons moved way beyond mere superstar status to that of exalted deities.

Rahi’s great fame started in the mid-70s and reached its most dizzy heights in the 80s when his face was visible on nearly every movie poster in nearly every town. Beginning as an anonymous extra, he graduated to short ‘fighting’ roles before gaining a few notices in the early 1960s as a character actor of some talent.

Though himself from an Urdu speaking Indian immigrant background, Rahi did most of his acting in Punjabi films. Indeed, the whole genre of so-called gandasa (long handled ax) movies which has dominated Punjabi filmdom since the late 70s, is built almost entirely upon the face and voice of Sultan Rahi.

Gandasa films are generally set in village Punjab and involve lots of blood letting, clannish revenge and sentimental references to the land of the five rivers. Action, fights and other displays of testosterone-driven aggression keep the lungi-clad, horse riding characters occupied and moving to a climatic gory end. Rahi made hundreds of such films and through them, his fortune. But he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his niche and expressed a deep longing to be given a challenging ‘real’ role.

Jasoos was made in 1977 and captures Rahi at a critical point in his career. His epic Maula Jat, which would forever change Pakistani movies, was still two years away. Rahi had made a number of Urdu movies before Maula Jatt but in the 17 remaining years of his life would appear in just 14 more. From 1979 on it was action, action, action and Punjabi, Punjabi, Punjabi. One can understand why he longed for that call that never came to play a more complex character.

Though Jasoos was an action thriller with a fair quota of guns, car chases and killing Rahi is given the space to explore a range of emotions that moved beyond righteous indignation. As Imran, the dashing head of a Private Detective agency, Rahi reveals a natural comedic touch as, he delivers genuine humour with understatement, facial expression and subtle body language.

Even more compelling is his interaction with leading lady, Mumtaz who plays Shama a simple country girl caught up in a web of intrigue. Rahi, sans wig and ax, was a ruggedly handsome hero. His winning smile, as well as an ability to flirt softened his action hero tendencies and made women’s hearts melt.   Though the film’s production was cheap and Iqbal Yusuf’s direction nothing to write home about, Rahi’s humane performance lifts Imran’s character out of the realm of caricature and holds the otherwise manic movie together.

Jasoos is the story of a mysterious black-hooded killer determined to get his hands on the Will of Seth Azam, (Changezi) a wealthy landlord. The Seth, sensing he is being targeted for murder, hands the Will over to Imran with instructions that he is to act as Executor in the event of his murder.

Sure enough, a few days later, the Seth is murdered, sending Imran on the trail of corrupt police, a conniving widow (Rozina) and her ‘helpful’ brother, the mysterious masked murderer, two thugs and a gang of female baddies led by a master of disguise (Ghulam Mohyideen). Along the way, he comes to the aid of and falls in love with young Shama (Mumtaz), a mountain lass who turns out to be the illegitimate daughter and sole beneficiary of Seth Azam’s many properties.

As the gangsters, female spies, and police chase Imran and Shama across northern Pakistan we are treated to some of the most unusual and unlikely of sub plots, such as pagans dancing in front of huge Easter Island-like statues chanting “Zambo! Zambo!”, and a nautanki performance in which actors who appear to be identical physical specimens of Imran and Shama do a snake charmer’s dance in which 8 women dressed in black, swivel and writhe on the ground like cobras! None of this advances the plot even a centimetre.

In the end, Imran rescues Shama who is bound to the tracks of a fast approaching mail train by hanging from the cattle catcher and scooping her out of danger at the last second. The gang of baddies are discovered to actually be a crack group of undercover police operatives and the widow’s brother is demasked as the murder!

Phew!

There are action films and then there is Jasoos.

The film’s soundtrack, by the enigmatically named Tafo is just as abrupt and weird as the plot. Tafo is in fact, a collective of musicians led by the ace tabla maestro Ustad Altaf Hussain Tafo Khan and his brother, Nisar Hussain on the accordion. Throughout the 70s, often in collaboration with M Ashraf, but also on their own, they contributed some of the liveliest, most diverse and innovative sounds in Pakistani films.

Tafo was/were early experimenters with electronic instruments, including drum machines, fuzz pedals and synthetic loops of sound. In several scenes such as the aforementioned “Zambo Zambo” tribal dance, they seem to have been given free reign to make up anything they wanted. The result is at both visually quaint and sonically bizarre but ultimately hilarious and immensely creative.

In Shola sa Badka Badka (Burning like a Flame), Tafo spend the first half of the song simply making one of the mysterious female spies, the striking Chakori, move to all sorts of electronic beats, squelches and sizzling electric guitar riffs. She jerks, twitches, lunges and writhes for a couple minutes as the musicians give vent to a full orchestra of canned sounds. The dance is provocative and at times channels a young Elvis Presley. It’s easy to see how Chakori caught Rahi’s eye and landed the female lead in Maula Jatt.

Both musicians and dancer seem eager to impress the producers with EVERY possible sound and move they can conjure. Accordions, blaring trumpets, catchy guitars and burbling fizzes of electricity keep Chakori pumping, shaking, writhing, sliding, twisting and shaking as a confused Imran watches from a balcony window and the master of disguise observes from behind the drapes.

The voice is that of Nahid Akhtar, the Multan girl with the galvanised vocal chords. Akhtar worked often with Tafo and M Ashraf, producing dozens of memorable songs throughout the racy 70s and into the conservative 80s. Her wide, open voice which crescendos like a silver cornet in a hot jazz ensemble is instantly recognisable. Combining the charisma of Noor Jehan with twice the gumption of Asha Bhosle and Usha Iyer combined, Nahid Akhtar owned the disco/saucy song genre like no one else before or since.

Jasoos may not have set Lahore aflame, but once again, the music, as well as an unexpected and pleasing performance by Sultan Rahi makes this a film worth checking out.