Wadah Karo Tum

bigdi naslein

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.

 

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.

 

Dil Dhadke Main Tujh Se Yeh Kaise Kahoon

anjuman

Anjuman (Anjuman) is an Urdu film released in 1970. It was a Platinum Jubilee ‘superhit’, with the public lining up at cinemas for 81 weeks straight to watch the show.

The film tells the story of Anjuman, a much-sought-after tawaaif (courtesan) who has caught the lustful eye of Nawab Wajahat Ali (Santosh Kumar). Anjuman (Rani) sadly is depressed and lovesick. She has no interest in the Nawab but under pressure from her mother strings the nobleman along to get access to his millions.

Meanwhile, Asif (Waheed Murad) the Nawab’s supposed younger brother has an unhealthy set of feelings for his sister-in-law, Nawab sahib’s wife,  played beautifully by Sahiba Khanum.  These feelings are eventually ( and thankfully) redirected to Nusrat (Deeba) an old childhood friend who has recently migrated from India.

The more he hangs out with Anjuman the more coldhearted Nawabsahib becomes towards his wife and one day his excuses of ‘working late’ are exposed as lies. He confesses his affection for Anjuman to his wife but tells her to put up and shut up, which, of course, she does.

Asif is sent on a mercy mission to the dancing girl’s house. In a pique of righteous rage he tells her to stay out of his family’s affairs and desist from seeing his elder brother, the Nawab. As soon as she lays eyes on the handsome Asif, Anjuman falls in love. She agrees to break things off with the Nawab (no biggie, she couldn’t stand the man anyway) on the condition that Asif replace him.

So much does Asif love his sister-in-law who is suffering because of this prickly situation he agrees. ‘At least I’ll save her marriage,’ he says to himself.

Asif becomes increasingly alienated from himself and his family and Nusrat and sinks into the bottle to soothe his conflicted feelings.  About two thirds of the way through the film you are hit with the depressing realisation that all the main characters are incredibly unhappy, either abandoned by those they love, stuck in torturous moral dilemmas or scorned by society.

Eventually, though, things turn out ok. Sort of. When Anjuman refuses to see the Nawab anymore he realises the error of his ways and begs forgiveness from his wife. Asif has it out with his sister-in-law who accuses him of abandoning Nusrat. He lets Bhabi (sister in law) know of his deal with the devil, Anjuman. Bhabi confronts Anjuman and reveals that Asif is not her brother-in-law but in fact her son! ‘Take my husband if you must, but give me back my boy!’ Anjuman reluctantly agrees to release Asif from his vow but insists that she will dance at Asif and Nusrat’s wedding the following week.

With order restored to the feudal Universe the Big Day is marked with a wonderful dance by Anjuman. Just as the dance nears conclusion Anjuman collapses and dies at the feet of Asif. The final scene depicts Asif laying flowers at her tomb with hunched shoulders and a heavy heart.

The story may be full of moral quagmires, numerous loose ends and uncomfortable depictions of unchecked human desire but the music once again provides a degree of artistic ballast.

The tawaaif  film is a well-established sub-genre of South Asian cinema and is usually set in mid-19th century feudal Muslim India. In the case of Anjuman the location is contemporary 1960s Lahore which adds a hint of implausibility to the whole movie. Music director Nisar Bazmi does his best to cater to this split world by working in two idioms. In scenes involving Nawab sahib he creates the familiar haunting sarangi-based soundscape that such tawaaif movies employ. However, when Asif is in Anjuman’s company, he resorts to a more modern, ‘western’ sound led by non-traditional instruments like the guitar.

Dil Dhadke Main Tujh Se Yeh Kaise Kahoon (My Heart Races to Tell You) is a song Anjuman sings as she dances temptingly in front of grim Asif who has come to scold her.

It’s a delightful little song for a number of reasons. First, the twangy electric guitar intro would not be out of place on a Marty Robbins or Johnny Cash record. The country & western sound is so unexpected and refreshing at this point in what has turned out to be a heavy story you immediately perk up and find new energy to continue watching.

Second, it is a reminder of how connected the film culture of Lahore was with what was going on elsewhere in the world.  Sounds and musical styles from north America and other places were familiar to music directors in Pakistan and it is a testament to their creative talents that they could so quickly and naturally adapt these sounds to their own context.

Third, the smooth-as-polished-leather guitar playing is proof of just how talented the anonymous studio musicians in Lahore were. The string section too, is able to conjure a sound that is every bit as emotional and on point as Barry White‘s Love Unlimited Orchestra.

But in the end, it is the coquettish delivery of Runa Laila that makes the song so cool.  Laila was a Bengali girl raised in Karachi and grew up hearing the rock/pop music of Karachi’s then active nightclub scene as well as falling in love with the vocals of Ahmed Rushdie.

As soon as she burst on the scene in the 1966 film Hum Dono (We Two) she was recognized as an exceptional talent. In a few years she was a regular performer in India and the UK. She was one of Pakistan’s true pop stars and made well-received records of non-film music as well.

Her light and crisp voice is perfect for pop and upbeat music. Dil Dhadke is certainly one of my current favorites.

Anjuman

Aurton Apna Naam Bad Naam Na Karo

Aurat raj

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.

Kya Haseen Jism Hai

ek-gunah-aur-sahi

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!