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?

 

 

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Don’t Drink Darling

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Black Mail is an Urdu film released in 1985. In essence the movie was an Urdu version of a bloody Punjabi action film. The cast included the two great alpha males of Punjabi cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi and followed the essential fisticuff  and revolver driven story of violent revenge.

Ironically, black mail plays a rather insignificant part in the fast paced and goonda heavy plot line. Apparently, gangster Dara played wonderfully with a Clint Eastwood type sullen bravado by a blonde-wigged Mustafa Qureshi has blackmailed the despicable and amoral industrialist Sethji (Qavi) but its not clear. Both leads toss the word around from time to time but the real driving force in this game is greed and revenge with love coming in a distant third place.

Roshan (Ghulam Mohideen) was blinded as a young boy when an enraged Dara throws him against the wall after killing his sister who walked out on their engagement.  While walking in a park one day he is slapped by an angry lady doctor named Najma (Shehnaz) who doesn’t recognise that he is unable to see.  Tormented by guilt at her insensitive action she vows to fix Roshan’s eyes and give him sight at last.

In the meantime, and for most of the middle hour and a half of the film, Sultan Rahi who plays the good-hearted, rough speaking, matchstick-chewing goonda has a series of fights with Dara and his henchmen. When they are not fighting each other they take turns scaring the living daylights out of Sethji and eagerly grabbing the vast sums of money he throws their way in order to save his life.

In the end, Roshan’s operation is a success. But when he discovers that the murderer of his family is Dara, he puts his eyes to use to plot revenge rather than gaze longingly into the eyes of Najma. A tense, fast paced  final few minutes keeps you glued to your screen. Though a vital part of the story is missing from the YouTube version of the film we presume Dara and Roshan fight it out. But Dara manages to escape to the top of a water tower. Realising he is surrounded by police and can run no longer he throws himself off the tower to bring a rather gruesome curtain down on the show.

Black Mail is a bloke’s movie. The action centers around four angry and emotionally stunted men though Rahi does give his Robin Hood-esque character a certain charm with his broken Urdu, cowboy boots and his famous smirk.  More so than in many other Urdu movies the women play almost entirely facilitative roles. Nazli who once was the paramour of chubby comedian Nanna (and possibly the reason for his bloody suicide?) does nothing but dance and sing for Raja.  Even Shehnaz whose role as Dr. Najma is slightly more complex (but not much) appears only to drive the action forward and enable Roshan to exact his bitter revenge.  Most marginalised is Julia, (unknown) Dara’s girlfriend who appears just once and that to sing a song.

After escaping narrowly yet again Dara comes home exhausted. ‘I’ve had such a terrible day,’ he tells Julia, ‘I just want to drown my sorrows.’

Julia protests and says, ‘No drinking. Tonight you’re going to talk to me.’

Gripped with a panic that all men can relate to, Dara swats her gentle hand away and gives a look that says, ‘You crazy, or what?’

Immediately, Julia hops up to sing and perform what can only be called a didactic item number.

Mast bhare yeh aanken/Jaisi hai warning

Don’t drink darling/don’t drink darling

Though its hard to square Julia’s desire to have a deep and meaningful talk with the her sexy gyrations her efforts do have the effect of calming the beast within Dara.

This song has received considerable coverage in the West in the past several years and its not hard to see why.  Music Director Kemal Ahmad has concocted a bubbly sound full of synths, congas and what sounds like a harpsichord.  Lyricist Taslim Fazli’s ploy of dropping in one English word at the end of several verses–warning, shining, morning–is both clever and humorous.  Nahid Akhtar of course, sings with a gusto and energy that more then compensates for the rather awkward and sometimes out of sync movements of Julia.

As the old saying goes, this song alone is worth the price of admission to Black Mail.