Seeta Maryam Margaret is an Urdu movie released in 1978. It racked up pretty good sales and Silver Jubilee status on the back of a triple role played by legendary beauty, Rani.
One of the recurring trends in popular South Asian cinema is to title movies with multiple character names like John Jani Janandran; Ram aur Shyam and; Sita aur Geeta. For the most part these films are big hits because either you get a couple big name stars in the lead roles, such as in Amar Akbar, Anthony which starred Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor the three hottest leading men of the time (1977) or, a star gets to delight and confound by playing multiple look-alike roles.
Throughout the Golden Era of Pakistani film, certain producers got a lot of flack for being so-called plaigerists. The distance between the elevated comfortable place most critics live to the jerry-rigged, hot and industrially unsafe Lahore film studios is very great indeed, and while it is easy to condemn (some) Pakistani films for their heavy sampling of ideas, scripts and even sounds from their colleagues in Bombay, it does nothing more than give those of us who point fingers a warm, fuzzy feeling of faux superiority.
These guys were in business. They needed to churn out hits and box office bonanzas to satisfy their backers as much as any film maker in history. If the politicians wanted to build a thick commerical and cultural wall between the two countries, so be it. Pakistani producers were not about to let a bit of politics get in the way of making a buck. If audiences in India–who in all major respects were essentially the same as Pakistani punters–were rushing to the cinema halls to see Amar, Akbar, Anthony, why not offer a slightly tweaked version called Akbar, Amar, Anthony and see what happens?
You wouldn’t turn down a cool beer on a hot day, so, why would you turn your back on the chance to cash in on a proven winning formula?
Eid-ul-Fitr, the happiest of Muslim holidays that marks the end of the month of fasting, Ramzan, is also the traditional opening day for potential blockbusters. In 1978, Pakistanis had two big releases to choose from. The above mentioned Akbar, Amar, Anthony, starring Mustafa Qureishi, a Punjabi retread of India’s mega-hit Amar, Akbar, Anthony, and an Urdu variant, clearly aimed at the female audience, titled Seeta, Maryam, Margaret.
Rani, the leading lady of the latter had been raised in an artistic environment. Her father had been the dedicated chauffeur to the playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri, a giant figure in South Asian theatre and cinema who, in the late 19th century got his start in adopting many of Shakespeare’s plays into a South Asian context including the script for the classic 1933 film Yahudi ki Ladki (The Jew’s Daughter) starring K.L. Saigal. Shortly before his death in 1935, Kashmiri moved to Lahore, then India’s and now Pakistan’s, centre of Urdu language, publishing and literature where he settled with his wife the marvellous and equally fabled artiste, ghazal singer Mukhtar Begum.
Though Kashmiri drew his last breath more than a decade before Rani was born, Mukhtar Begum sensed that the young girl, born Nasira, had that ‘something special’. And she should know. Several years earlier, while working with her husband in Calcutta, she came across another Punjabi belle named Allah Rakhi Wasai. Beautiful and blessed with a nightingale’s voice, the Begum took the youngster under her wing. She alerted a number of film producers and theatre directors, including her husband, to her protege who went on to scale the loftiest peaks of South Asian cinema as actress and singer Noor Jehan.
Though Rani was as beautiful as Noor Jehan she struggled to carry a tune. But under Mukhtar‘s guidance (and one assumes, that of Mukhtar‘s younger sister, Farida Khanum, yet another icon of Pakistani music) the girl developed into a fine dancer. In later years the gossipy Lahore press would call her ‘the face that launched a thousand mujras’.
Her beginnings in the film world, however, were more notable for flops and missteps than success. It wasn’t until 1967, playing across from dreamboat Waheed Murad in Devar Bhabhi (Brother-in-Law, Sister-in-Law), that Rani at last ‘clicked’ with the public. A fabulous run of hits followed, including some of the Golden Era’s most beloved and commercially successful films: Behan Bhai (Brother Sister/1968), Anjuman (1970), Umrao Jan Ada (1972) and Ik Gunah aur Sahi (One Sin More/1975).
Some say that just as it was through the support and tutelage of Mukhtar Begum that Rani got a foot into the glamour profession , it was her marriage to producer Hassan Tariq who sustained it. No doubt Tariq did cast her in some of his best movies from which she surely benefited, but that is only to take away from her own talent. As noted she was a great dancer and when she had a role she believed in her acting was strong.
In Seeta Maryam Margaret Rani had her hands full and the stage all to herself. A distressed woman abandons twin newborns on the streets of Lahore. Both are rescued by passersby: Bhagwan Das (Mohammad Ali) a poor Hindu and, Mr. Nameless (Talish) a wealthy Christian nightclub owner. As Fate (and this particular narrative formula) would have it, Seeta the Hindu couple’s young daughter is identified as a changeling and her original mother and family cruelly rip Seeta away from the only family she’s known. She is told her birthname is actually Maryam and her mother and uncle make it very clear that she is expected to be grateful for being rescued from the ‘idol worshippers’.
In the meantime, across town at the popular Blue Moon Club the country’s finest men are led to financial ruin and reduced to wastrels by the hot dancer-cum-purveyor-of-the-feminine-arts Margaret. A tough, take-no-prisoners sort of girl Margaret seems happy to be pimped by her alcoholic father until she falls in love Maryam’s cousin, Rasheed (Faraz). Of course he rejects her because of her profession. But when a depressed and lonely Maryam discovers that Margaret is her identical twin she convinces the dancer to ‘switch’ places and finally find the love she has longed for all her life.
What makes this film rise above so many similar ones is Tariq’s attempt to expose the deep wounds and psychological scars of childhood neglect, abandonment and indeed, abuse, on the individual as well as society at large. The film’s central device of uncertain and multiple identity, allows the director to confront not just the ambiguous nature of female identity and place in contemporary society but expose many of the culture’s still bitter, open wounds. From the legacy of Partition to religious hypocrisy and a booming class of out-of-touch elites. Pakistan too is found to be torn between families and faith and as confused about its true identity and place in the world as Seeta, Maryam and Margaret.
In the final interesting twist, it is Seeta/Maryam’s Hindu mother and wife of Bhagwan Das, played rather melodramatically by Deebo, who is held up as the true hero of the saga. ‘This woman who raised you and loved you even when she was forced by us to give you up, has through her faith and true love joined our broken hearts together. You are truly great,’ proclaims the girls’ uncle (Qavi) as the credits roll.
The film’s soundtrack scored by the under appreciated A Hameed is thoroughly enjoyable. Every song not only advances and enhances the storyline but captures the mood appropriate to the scene. From an innocent and slightly sad Maryam who is exploring her lover for Rasheed, to the brazen lust and steely ambition of a hardshell Margaret. Musically, Hameed proves he’s just at home with rocking, sexy dance numbers to gentle love ballads. Unlike the Tafo Brothers and M Ashraf whose creativity and bold sound experiments often kill the ambiance, Hameed was a master of taste and temperament.
Ay Bhai Ay Mister! Kuch Soch Samajh kar Baat Karo (Hey Bro! Hey Mister! Think a Little Before You Speak) is an upbeat, hummable melody. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi it seems innocuous enough except that it describes a horrific scene of Mr Nameless (Talish), pimping his beautiful daughter Margaret (who is actually, at this stage, a very depressed Maryam, having arranged for her twin to take on the person of Maryam to catch Rasheed!) by driving up the price of his drunken clients.
The two key musical elements employed by Hameed are percussion and strings. Tabla, bongos and water drums are used really creatively and in perfect sync with lyric and rhythm to conjure the outer excitement of a mujra dance. But the dark, beautifully orchestrated and performed strings bring out the dancer’s and scene’s haunting darkness. Small combos and orchestras are commonplace in South Asian cinema music but rarely have they been used so evocatively and tellingly.