Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain

umrao jaan

Umrao Jan Ada (Umrao Jan Ada) is an Urdu film released in December 1972. It was a popular film achieving golden Jubilee Status (50 consecutive weeks) in cinemas in Karachi.

The story upon which the film is based is a classic of Urdu literature. Umrao Jan Ada is considered by some to be the first novel in the Urdu language and takes its title from the professional name of a famous dancer/courtesan (طوائف) who worked in the city of Lucknow. Mirza Hadi ‘Ruswa’, the author, apparently was acquainted with Umrao Jaan (though her historicity is not confirmed) and upon his request she narrated her story to him.  The book (which I read many years ago when I was studying Urdu as a graduate student) is told in the first person and tells how she was kidnapped, trafficked and rose to fame as a much-sought after female companion to the Nawabs of Awadh.

The novel which is full of tragedy and romance has inspired several films in Pakistan and India as well as a lavish Pakistani television series.  The 1981 Indian version starring Rekha is one of the peaks of creativity in Indian popular cinema. It’s music alone, composed by Khayyam with lyrics by Sharyar and sung mostly by Asha Bhosle, makes the film a classic. But Rekha’s acting and dancing were equally mesmerising. Director Muzaffar Ali led his team in accumulating 6 Filmfare Awards (sadly, though Rekha was nominated she did not win Best Actress) and the first Matri Shree Media Award for Best Picture 1982.

So, any other movie version of Umrao Jan has a very high bar to jump over.  And to be honest this Pakistani film does not hold up to Muzaffar Ali‘s stunning historical epic. But before it can be dismissed (and it should not be)  it is useful to highlight some of the things that really work here.

The first thing to remember is that the Pakistani version was released almost a decade before Ali’picture.  And in that sense, it is unfair to judge the former by the latter. Technology had advanced considerably in that time and Bombay always had larger budgets than Lahore.

It’s also difficult not to conclude that the 1981 Indian version of Umrao was influenced by this cross border film.  The Pakistani version does a good job of recreating the nawabi (noble) culture of Lucknow, especially its highly contrived social etiquette and deeply held values of honour, purity and class. Director Tariq Hassan (Ik Gunah Aur Sahi, Neend) does an excellent job of poking fun at the artifice, sycophancy and licentiousness that characterised a feudal culture on the verge of collapse.  His use of exaggerated hand gestures and incessant eulogising by hangers on at first seems over the top but you soon understand that this is deliberate mockery.

While Rani does an excellent job of portraying the deep emotional wounds as well as the steely determination of the kidnapped Ameeran (Umrao Jan’s given name) her dances are a faint shadow of what Rekha conjured. Is this, I wondered as I watched, an echo of the inherent discomfort Muslim society has with female dancers? Perhaps the choreographers were unfamiliar with traditional forms of dancing and unsure about how to direct her. Whatever the reason, this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the film.

The other principal actors, Shahid as Nawabzada Salim, Rangeela as Salim’s best mate, Talish as the conniving, dictatorial Nawabsahib and Nayyara Sultan as the dignified and aloof Khanum all contribute good performances. Shahid, in particular, is an engaging, somewhat spoiled and immature young nobleman. His smile and dimples are hard to resist and for my money he’s got one of the best ‘drunk’ faces ever seen, all glowering hard eyes and puffy cheeks.

Nisar Bazmi composed a sonically authentic and solid score built around the sarangi, the chief instrument of vocal accompaniment until the advent of the harmonium in the late 19th century. Saifuddin Saif, the respected poet and lyricist, wrote some memorable lyrics while Runa Laila handled most of the lead vocals. The more I listen to Runa’s singing the more I am impressed by its deep melodious core which while gorgeous, in this context does not quite match the raw emotion of an unhappy Umrao Jan.

Jo Bacha Tha Woh Lutane Ke Liye Aaye Hain (I’ve Come to Steal the Things That Remain) is the final song of the film and comes just a few minutes before the end.  After Salim marries and then cruelly discards Umrao, she swears never to meet him again. But Salim remains smitten and refuses to comply with his father’s demand that he marry his cousin Farzana.

Angry and frustrated, Nawabsahib (Talish) approaches Umrao and pleads with her to dance one final time for Salim at his house so that ‘he will remember you as you are –just a prostitute and not a wife’.  Though she has refused to see him, for the sake of their child and her desire to let Salim (Shahid) get on with his life, she agrees.

Bazmi correctly chooses Noor Jehan, by this time a seasoned 30 year veteran of films, rather than Runa, the responsibility of singing this dramatic, emotionally-intense song.

Jo bacha tha woh lutane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to steal the things that remain)

Aakhri geet sunane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to sing the final song)

Hum to mujrim ki tarah aaye hain (I’ve come here as if a criminal)

Kaun paiman-e-wafa thoda gaya (Who broke the faith?)

This first verse is sung directly to Salim who squirms uncomfortably with guilt and regret.  After each line Bazmi inserts a dark billow of strings that moves the melody up both the musical and emotional scale. Noor Jehan is virtually at the outer reaches of her soprano as the feeling builds and builds.

The next verse is addressed to her her young son who sits on the lap of Nawabsahib, not recognising his mother.

Dil ka har zakhm dikhane ke liye aaye hain (I’ve come to expose every wound of my heart).

But as the verse comes to a close the child breaks into tears and reaches out for Umrao who embraces him only to be grabbed away by a disgusted Salim.

Umrao’s tragic singing exposes the cruelty, hypocrisy and secrets of all the sharif (respectable) people in the room and with her work done she races from the house.

The print (like so many other Pakistani films) is dreadful but if you are to handle that slightly psychedelic constraint, this is a film definitely worth watching.

 

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.

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

Akhiyan Laryan Te Pyar Hoya

lahori-badshah

Lahori Badshah (Master of Lahore) is a Punjabi film released in July 1977.  It is considered a ‘superhit’ and achieved Platinum status, running for more than 75 consecutive weeks in cinemas in Lahore.

It would be two years yet before the release of Maula Jat the biggest grossing and probably best known film Pakistan has ever produced.  But the genre of rural-based, blood-drenched feudal soap operas, which Maula Jat epitomised was already a staple of Punjabi cinema. Though there are vast differences between American ‘westerns’ and this sort of Punjabi film, in some ways it is easier to get a grip on them if they are approached as a sort of South Asian cowboy movie.

The hero is a rugged and rough man driven to violence not by nature but by necessity, usually to right some deep moral transgression. A family’s honour has been besmirched by another clan. Outsiders are threatening a cultural code. A woman has been raped. Interestingly, religion, while often invoked as part of the moral universe is far less of a motivator for the hero’s action than a desire to protect Punjabi ‘culture’.  Defining exactly what that culture IS is another matter but it appears (to me) to be a melange of family honour, rural social order, land and masculinity.

Sultan Rahi, was, until his murder in 1996, the icon of Punjabi pictures. He’s the one pictured in the photo above. He starred in Maula Jat and countless other similar pictures in which he developed a very loud, brash mode of delivering his lines.  He did not hesitate to swing his gandasa (ax) to defend the ‘culture’ and inevitably would end up dripping in blood by the time the final credits rolled.

Noor Jehan, aka Madam or Malika Taranum (Queen of Melody), who sings today’s song is without dispute the single most important and influential figure in Pakistani cinema history.  She grew  up in an artistic environment, singing and acting in traveling shows with her sister.  After some musical training in Calcutta she made the move in the 1940s to Bombay and became an instant celluloid sweetheart. She was gorgeous, a good actor and was blessed with the most beautiful, evocative voice.  Indeed, she is regarded by all and sundry, even her peers in India as well as Pakistan, as the greatest female playback singer of all time.

She chose the more professionally challenging route of opting for Pakistan in 1947. Had she stayed on in India her fame and fortune would have been incalculable. But as a loyal Punjabi and a firm believer in the idea of a separate state for India’s Muslims, she ‘returned’ to an industry that was nearly out for the count.  But her spirit energised others and she was able to play a major role in reviving the Lahore movie making business. Though she was forced to quit acting–pressures from her husband–she made a mark as Pakistan’s first female film director and of course, graced hundreds of soundtracks with her versatile and powerful singing.

I have always found that Noor Jehan was in her element when sang in Punjabi rather than Urdu. In Punjabi she is absolutely one with the music, not just the rhythms and melodies but the lyrics as well. She inhabits her Punjabi songs in a way she doesn’t with Urdu. And while she was able to sing in any number of moods and styles the way she let loose in Punjabi feudal movies is spectacular.

Akhiyan Laryan Te Pyar Hoya is a right rocker. Driven by Punjabi beats, swelling strings and Madam’s equally heaving breast, the heavy breathing and flirtatious moans make this number a true piece of gold.  And when she’s not emoting her love she lets her voice burst forth without let in a typical Punjabi /rural style.  Like the flare of a trumpet there is a certain blast of sound that  hurtles forth out of her mouth which commands as much attention as a bloody gandasa. You know she means business!

Badshah