Aurat Raj (Women’s Rule), a passionate, frenetic and highly subversive film about a hoary social issue, the place of women in society, is an Urdu movie released in 1979.
Made by one of Lollywood’s more intriguing characters, the comedian Rangeela (Mohammad Saeed Khan), Aurat Raj is a grand statement delivered in the form of bizarre slapstick. Every comedian knows it’s all in the timing. Sadly, Rangeela misjudged his. The film was released just as President General Zia ul Haq was imposing on the country a conservative social vision diametrically opposed to the film’s message. The film was a box office dud.
As the title suggests, Aurat Raj, imagines a world in which Pakistani women wear the pants (literally) and men are reduced to hapless marionettes with little purpose beyond fulfilling the passions of their female rulers.
Soofia (Rani) is married to a despicable, violent drunkard (Waheed Murad) who schemes about divorcing his wife all the more to go whoring with a different woman every night. Unexpectedly and inexplicably, Rani harnesses her inner tiger and leads a revolution of the oppressed. She rallies the female masses around the platform of ‘breaking the chains of thousands of years of mistreatment and repression by our supposed protectors’ and her Women’s Party ultimately wins a national election.
Insecure in her mandate, Soofia approaches some shady foreigners for a weapon that will overturn the gender tables. The arms dealers prepare and explode a smoke bomb which turns men into grotesque dupatta-covered minions. The women morph into uniformed, bellowing men who have no hesitation to fire their automatic rifles at any male who dares raise his voice against them.
Over the course of two hours the men are subjected to every crime (rape), abuse (beating), prejudice (pardah and lack of education) and humiliation (public dancing) imaginable by the once meek but now vengeful women of the country. Myriad sub-plots rise and fall like half-formed dreams but there is no doubt that the point of such nonsense is serious. Though the on-screen role reversal is farcical the film is successful in generating compassion and sympathy for women as well as disgust with ‘Patriarchy’.
Born in Afghanistan, by the 1950s Rangeela found himself in Lahore as a painter of billboards and avid bodybuilder. He got a lucky break when he was dragooned into filling in for a missing comic on set. His oversized head and skinny frame caught the imagination of the public and more roles followed.
A person who at first appeared to be a poorly educated Pashtun hick, in time turned out to be a cinematic renaissance man. Rangeela is considered not just one of Pakistani’s best comedians but was a leading man and an accomplished director. He displayed business acumen by establishing his own production house, sang songs as a playback singer and even composed music for some films!
With movies like Aurat Raj and the eponymous Rangeela (1970) in which he played a socially rejected cripple based on the hunchback of Notre Dame, Rangeela showed himself to be an auteur of some vision and courage, as well.
Throughout the film, Rangeela deploys music as a lively dramatic device. The election victory of the Women’s Party is secured largely due to a troupe of female qawwals who make the case against the men and their evil ways in song. A qawwali-like atmosphere is used again as Waheed Murad (the nasty husband) begs ‘women not to defame themselves by auctioning their men in public’.
(The singer of this particular song is one Nasreen Talib about whom very little information is available on the internet. I hope to have further details at some later stage.)
At various points in the film, music director Nazir Ali and Rangeela ‘sample’ other famous songs such as Amanat Ali’s elegiac Inshaji Utho and Lata’s Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal (Daag 1952). In keeping with the tenor of the film, these ‘serious’ or sentimental songs are used to great comedic affect, such as when after a major military operation that pitches a female army against the rebellious burqa-clad men, a shell shocked Rani is left standing alone in a devastated landscape. Suddenly, we hear Kishore Kumar singing Yeh Kya Hua Kaise Hua (Prem Nagar 1974) from an abandoned soldier’s radio!
But the most compelling use of music and song in Aurat Raj is the frequency with which the post-bomb men/ladies are made to dance for the pleasure of the women/men. Seeing macho matinee stars such as gandasa wielder Sultan Rahi and ‘Chocolate Hero’ Waheed Murad desperately shaking their hips and pumping their chests is not a pretty sight. At first hilarious, the spectacle soon becomes farcical and then vulgar. Before too long one cannot help but feel the weight of the humiliation that is heaped upon the head of the mujra dancer, who is more often than not a woman
Aurat Raj may be one of the strangest films ever conceived. And though its execution is haphazard it deserves recognition as a heartfelt attempt at social change. The film is noteworthy also as a fabulous testament to the unfettered artistic imagination of the one-of-a-kind Rangeela, Pakistan’s unlikely but original women’s rights activist.