Man Mandir ke Devta

Lakhon-Mein-Aik-Header

Lakhon Mein Aik (One in a Million) is a ‘superhit’ Urdu film released in 1967.

In 1965 Pakistan fought and lost a war with its neighbour India. Tensions between the two countries were high and recent events clearly influenced the film.  Though twenty years had passed since Partition emotions on both sides of the border were still raw. Loyalties to family, faith, land, language and clan were for millions, especially Indian Muslims, still not completely decided.  In the film and arts community individuals continued to ‘test’ the waters in both countries, moving between India and Pakistan until another war in 1971 made such movements extremely challenging.

The film, a Pakistani classic, is distinguished by its liberal (or at least ambivalent) attitude to the thorny issue of cross-border relations.  While some critics have found its depiction of Indians/Hindus stereotyped, others, including myself, consider the story to be an honest telling of an extreme and traumatic event.

The film is set in 1948 Kashmir. Mob violence is building along the border and Ahmed (Talish) urges his Hindu friend Hardayal to escape to India until the situation returns to normal. Protesting that he has no ties to India and cannot tolerate the idea of leaving his homeland, Hardayal reluctantly agrees. While he’s gone Ahmed vows to take care of Hardayal’s daughter Shakuntala (Shamim Ara) as his own, while his own young boy Mahmood (Ejaz) is lost in the chaos.

Twenty years pass. Shakuntala is a gorgeous young woman and Mahmood has been adopted by a Pathan truck driver (Saqi) and rechristened Dildar Khan. The two fall in love but are ultimately foiled by their fathers’ and a busybody najumi named Ramzani. Hardayal eventually returns to the village to claim Shakuntala who with a broken heart embraces Fate, leaves Dildar/Mahmood behind and moves to India.

Life in India is as unwelcoming as Shakuntala had imagined. The local Hindu community, egged on by Brahmin pandits, rejects her as ‘unclean’ for having lived so long among the Muslims.  Hardayal receives an offer of marriage from the handsome but cold hearted forest officer Madhu (Mustafa Qureishi). It is not a happy marriage. Shakuntala professes her undying love for Mahmood which enrages Madhu who threatens violence and seeks help from a venal pandit only to happy to interfere for a fee.

In a dramatic finish the pandit manages to convince Mahmood to come to the forest on the pretext of meeting Shakuntala. When he arrives Madhu is waiting with a rifle but it is Shakuntala, caught between the two rivals, who is fatally wounded as she tries to cross the border’s barbed wire to Pakistan.

The film’s script was written by Zia Sarhadya self proclaimed Marxist who had developed a well respected CV as director (Footpath; Hum Log) and  writer (Baiju Bawra; Mother India; Elaan) in Bombay.  The conflicted feelings about ‘homeland’ and the rough realities of Partition expressed by Shakuntala were evident in Sarhady’s own life.  Born in Peshawar into a wealthy family, he came to Bombay in the 1930s where he worked closely with iconic director Mehboob (Mother India; Anmol Garhi) with whom he shared a progressive, liberal political ideology.

Sarhady migrated to Pakistan in 1958 and directed Rahguzar (Passerby) in 1960, he turned away from directing when the film fell foul of Ayub Khan‘s censors. He left the country for good after Zia ul Haq tossed him into solitary confinement for his ‘inclination to Marxism’ and supposed seditious activities.

Sarhady remained a committed leftist until his death in London in 2002. When asked if he had ever felt confused about his identity he replied, “No. I was fully satisfied about my future, even politically.  I couldn’t decide what to do [after living in Pakistan for a while] and where to live. So I went to England. Later I made some documen­taries in Pakistan but returned to India, the country I still love and admire. I have deep faith in the nobili­ty of mankind. All the rest is political gimmickry of the leaders and it is there in every religion.”

Another migrant from Bombay Nisar Bazmi composed an outstanding score for the film. Every song is a winner full of pathos and ripe with emotion making the soundtrack one of the most beloved in Lollywood history.

Man Mandir ke Devta (Oh God of My Mind’s Temple) is a dream sequence after Shakuntala arrives in her new ‘home’ in India.  Stuck as she is between a cruel man from her own community whom she detests and her true love Mehmood who lives across the barbed wire in Pakistan, Shakuntala is in deep mental agony.  In her dream she prays and dances before her Bhagwan in the local temple.

Noor Jehan gives a masterful performance. The Queen of Melody captures Shakuntala’s feeling of grief, anxiety and need for resolution with restraint and subtle emotion.

Jug ka rishta/ jhoota rishta (this world’s ties are false ties)

Preet ka bandhan/ aaisa bandhan (the ties of the beloved are so strong)

Mar ke bhi/nahi toote (even death cannot sever them)

Dono rishte/kaise nibhaun (how can I stay true to both?)

These  lines  capture not just the troubled heart of a woman separated from her lover but encapsulate perfectly what so many of those involved in this film (Noor Jehan, Bazmi, Sarhady, Talish,  Afzal Hussain) and indeed, the entire ‘Partition Generation’  must have wrestled with half a century ago.

Lakhon Mein Aik is a moving testament to the resilience and triumph of the ‘nobility of mankind’ over the ‘political gimmickry of leaders’.

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Jiya More Lage Na

Bhool

Bhool (Forgetfulness) is an Urdu film released in November 1974.  A major success at the box office, Bhool ran for 52 weeks straight in Pakistan’s major center, Karachi, achieving coveted Golden Jubilee status.

1974 was just about the shining peak of the Urdu film industry. The mood in the country after a devastating decade of military rule, civil war and loss of half of the country’s territory to the new state of Bangladesh, was finally upbeat. A populist and very popular self acclaimed Islamic Socialist leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the charismatic international face of Pakistan.   Public life was relaxed and tolerant. Rock bands like The Moonglows and Willie Po and the Boys had the young folks dancing, while Turkish belly dancers swayed and shimmied for the businessmen in the bars of Karachi’s finer establishments.

The movie industry was exploding as well. It was that golden time when talent and stars abounded. The early stars like Santosh Kumar, Sahiba Khanum, Neelo, Noor Jehan, Mohammad Ali and Talish were the revered elders and a whole slew of new comers such as Waheed Murad, Shahid, Shabnam and  later, Babra Sharif and Ghulam Mohiuddin brought a sparkling, relaxed and often irreverent attitude that perfectly matched the times to the screen.

Nadeem who headlined in Bhool along side his most prolific screen paramour,  Shabnam, was also pretty busy in 1974. He starred in 13 other films that year two of which were released on Christmas Day and 9 of which ran for at least 25 weeks (Silver Jubilee)!  He was the very definition of ‘hot’.

Shabnam, a Bengali beauty was married to music director Robin Ghosh, also from what was once known as East Pakistan. Nadeem had been part of their circle in Dhaka in the early 60s and it was there that he tried to get his initial break into the movies…as a playback singer. It was not to be. The young boy with the doe-y eyes and playful smile was made to be in front of the camera. The dream of being the next Mohammad Rafi was quietly abandoned.

In addition to a glittering cast of stars that included Babra Sharif and Afzal Ahmad (see previous post on International Gorillay) some very big names were involved off screen. Shamim Ara, starlet of the 50s and early 60s turned director was Bhool’s producer and S. Suleman handled the direction.  A respected talent Suleman’s  Gulfam (1961) is regarded  as one of the best Pakistani pictures of all time.  Throughout a long career, he developed a canny talent for making hit pictures that often starred his brother Darpan, focused on progressive social themes and portrayed powerful women characters.

Bhool falls into the category of ‘social drama’ that defined classic Urdu films. It is also evidence that Nadeem had not yet entirely reconciled himself to his decision to leave singing behind.  In at least 4 of the films 7 songs including the jazzed up thumri  Jiya More Lage Na (I Don’t Feel Like Living) which I share today, Nadeem is the lead vocalist.

The pace of this song is quick and the mood jovial.  A swell of strings provides the introduction and sets the stage for some Latin rhythms that quickly give way to a trumpet trio and a descending electric guitar run that signals  ‘spy master-cum-playboy’ approaching.

Robin Ghosh is fast turning into my favorite music director. Everything he does has class, be it a slow burning lover’s lament or a rocking party song like this. The way he is able to create excitement by combining modern pop sounds (slashing guitar, Hammond organ squelches), international flavours (Mexicali trumpets) and strings (silky then plucky) with a raucous call and response chorus is pure magic.  There is not a dull or lazy bar in this piece.  Indeed, the only downer is Nadeem himself. His voice wobbles like he can’t quite find the key.  Almost out of tune. And even when he hits his stride his voice comes out as flat and stiff as a cold chapati.

Still the song stands as a wonderful contribution and example of the genius of Robin Ghosh.

Main Walayat Kahnu Aa Gaya

playboy

Playboy (Playboy) is an Urdu film released in September 1978.  Filmed on location in the UK it was a blockbuster hit, running for more than 54 weeks in Karachi.

Nadeem was the movie’s headliner and in the absence of his usual matinee shadow Shabnam, he was supported by the up-and-coming starlet Babra Sharif.  Shamim Ara, the beautiful actress-turned-director, was behind the camera and M Ashraf, by this time the most in-demand music director in the industry, was in charge of the songs and music.

The film is on my ever-growing ‘To Watch’ list but in the meantime, here is a scathing review from one Pakistani critic who also makes the very Trumpesque claim that the film is among the POTUS’s favourites!  Alas, while we now  know that there is nothing so outlandish as to dismiss categorically about Herr Trump the only reference this scrivener could find to ‘Donald Trump + Playboy movie’ was that he did appear (graciously, fully clothed) in a soft porn film produced by Playboy magazine twenty years or so after Ms. Ara‘s film was thrilling audiences in Pakistan.

Main Walayat Kahnu Aa Gaya (I Have Come from Overseas)* one of the more enduring songs from the film is wonderfully sung, in Punjabi, by the full-throated Shaukat Ali. In the movie an obese Nanha, the public’s favourite film comedian of the era  does a rather blubbery exotic dance in various locations across London as a perplexed and bemused public tries to play along.

The lyrics appear to be (at least in part) a dialogue about the virtues, vices and strange ways of living in the white man’s world.  But you don’t have to know Punjabi to enjoy this song.  The whole thing is driven by powerful Punjabi percussion and a hypnotic snake charmer’s been (gourd pipe) which tries to smooth out the rather awkward hip shakes of goofy Nanha. But the real star of the music is what is picturised as an electric guitar but in actually sounds like an electrified sarod or rubab.  The instrument gives the song an urgent electric edge and does a beautiful job of bridging the multiple contextual gaps of tradition and modern, village and urban, East and West.

Though he keeps the synths and wailing guitars out of this number Ashraf still manages to create a real rocker; one that is worth repeated listenings whether or not you have the patience to watch the entire movie or not.

 

Walayat

 

 

*I’m not a Punjabi speaker so this is my guess at the title.

 

 

Yeh Mausam Hota Hai

miss-hongkong

Miss Hong Kong is an Urdu movie released in 1979.

The first in a series of ‘Miss’ films (Bangkok, Singapore, Istanbul, Colombo) this film starred Babra Sharif (if you don’t know by know, the biggest female star of the late 70s and 80s) in the title role. You can see her doing a jig with a couple of sailors on the album cover above.

While the films were not necessarily huge hits the series represent an important development in Pakistani cinema: the feminist film. Now let me immediately qualify that statement by confessing I do not mean this claim to stand up to academic rigour. I have not seen this film and  have no real idea what messages it does or does not send regarding women.

The reason I use the word feminist is more straightforward. The Miss series, as well as a whole raft of other films with titles such as Lady Commando and Lady Smuggler, are the work of Pakistan’s first successful female director, Shamim Ara.

Shamim Ara was not the first woman to direct a major commercial picture in Pakistan. This honour goes to Noor Jehan who directed herself in the Punjabi classic Chan Way  in 1951.  But it was a one-off job for Ms Jehan. It is widely understood that she was ably assisted by her husband, who agreed to go uncredited.

Ara, however, was well and truly in charge behind the camera in each of these films. Given the national and social context of Pakistan this is nothing to be sniffed at.  In an industry in which women were cast almost always as foils, victims, vamps and long suffering mothers to have them in leading roles, and in the case of Lady Smuggler and Lady Commando, in roles that directly confronted and challenged the notions of ‘good woman’, ‘villain’ and the male monopoly of power, money and violence, Ara’s work is almost revolutionary.

And remember, these pictures were not made in the ‘good old liberal days of Ayub Khan or Z.A. Bhutto’, but at the beginning of Zia ul-Haq’s campaign to Islamisize Pakistan. A campaign that severely restricted the participation of women in public life.

Once again the music composer is the prolific M Ashraf. The film, shot on location in Hong Kong, gives Ashraf space to experiment with sounds that sound vaguely Far Eastern, via electronic keyboards and flutes.

Yeh Mausam Hota Hai (This Season is Such) our selection for today is a gorgeous little melody. It is delivered straight-no-chaser with little innovation or experimentalism as far as instruments or beats are concerned. The sonic framework is classic north Indian filmi (tabla, acoustic guitars and soaring strings) with just a short interjection by a rather annoying synth in the early section.

The singers, two of Pakistan’s most respected artists, both of whose natural artistic element was the concert hall rather than the movie house, are Mehdi Hassan and Mehnaz.  Whenever I hear Mehdi sahib singing in films I have the feeling of driving a Maserati to the local dhaba to buy some keema naan.  Such a masterful creation being put to the most mundane use.

But alas, artists must eat too. Even if it is just keema naan.

For all of that, this is an infectious little tune; I’ve been humming it all day. I’m sure you will be too.

HongKong