Us Bewafa ka Shahar Hai

shaheed 1

Shaheed (Martyr) is an Urdu movie released in 1962. Though it was a political movie about a third country it was well received by the public.

If I had to sum up the story in one sentence this would be it: an anti-Imperialist take on Lawrence of Arabia. Of course, the central character, Lawrence, is portrayed in a different light than the self proclaimed hero of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In Shaheed Lawrence (Talish) is a conniving, pith helmet-wearing, pipe-smoking European / Jewish oilman who plays off one faction of Arab tribesman against the other to wrangle a 100 year lease to extract oil from the motherland.  Laila, played by the young and gorgeous Musarrat Nazir, is Lawrence’s femme fatale, who after being ousted from the tribe for her flirtatious ways sets herself ablaze, razes the foreign interloper’s refinery to the ground and restores the pride of the Arabs. A loose woman is the martyr of the title.

Such radical ideas were what audiences expected of Khalil Qaiser, who along with a group of other creatives such as poets Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, writer/director Riaz Shahid and actors Talish, Saqi and Allaudin (all of whom appear in Shaheed) produced a number of politically tinged and socially progressive films (Clerk, Zarqa, Khamosh Raho) throughout the 1960s.  Though the country for most of the decade was under the dictatorial hand of Field Marshall Ayub Khan, this group’s approach to social criticism broadly aligned with Ayub’s secular, forward looking, internationalist vision for Pakistan.  Sadly, just a few years after Shaheed was released  Qaiser was gunned down by unknown assailants at his home bringing one of Pakistani film’s most promising careers to a tragic and premature end.

Music director Rashid Attre who composed the soundtrack of Shaheed was also a part of Lahore’s radical clique and frequently got the call from Qaisar and Shahid.  A Punjabi from Amritsar Attre was a ‘Lollywood’ original contributing songs to films as early as 1942 (Mamta).  A dapper dresser who had a soft spot for three piece suits Attre drew regularly on his training in Hindustani classical music bringing raga-based melodies and light classical forms like thumri into his work.

He also sought to put his music to the lyrics of the best poets, be it Faiz or as in the case of Shaheed, Munir Niazi whose poem Us Bewafa ka Shahar Hai aur Hum Hain Dosto has become one of the most loved Pakistani film songs of all time.

Laila, the sexually bold heroine of the film (Musarrat Nazir), is a much sought after woman in Watan the Arab oasis community where Shaheed is set. But her own affection for the blacksmith Haris (Ejaz) remains unrequited. Haris, instead, is in love with the Jewish beauty Aaliya (Husna) who together rouse their somnolent tribesmen to rise up against Lawrence and the Europeans.

After confessing but failing to gain the love of Haris Laila returns to her salon dejected and drunk.  In her stupor she gazes out over the silhouetted domes of Watan and begins her desolate lament

Us bewafa ka shahar hai aur hum hain dosto/Ashq-e-rawan ki nehar hai aur hum hain dosto
(There lies the city of the unfaithful one and here am I, friends
There flows the canal of moving reflections, and here am I, friends)

The song, which is built upon a gorgeous melody, sets the mood with a quiet acoustic intro before the glitzy twang of a Hawaiian guitar reveals Laila lying broken-hearted on the floor. As she staggers to her feet and sways in grief Laila pours her heart out before the silent city.

Tagged as the ‘second ‘Noor Jehan Naseem Begum was another Amritsari musician with a classical music background sings this sad song with grace and ease.  Trained in the art of singing by the great Mukhtar Begum, the young Naseem kicked off her career in 1956 and was the dominant female playback singer until Noor Jehan stopped acting and turned to singing full time. Attre and Naseem Begum with their shared background were a natural pair and worked together on many films.

Us Bewafa was an instant and enduring hit as was the film.  Shaheed won 9 Nigar Awards (Best Picture, Director, Female Singer, Music, Lyricist, Screenplay, Script, Actress, Supporting Actor) and remains one of the highpoints of Pakistani Urdu cinema.

 

 

 

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.

 

Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai

zerqa

Zarqa (Zarqa) is an Urdu movie released in October 1969.

In the 1960s Pakistan’s film makers often found inspiration in the national struggle of the Palestinian people and audiences generally responded well to such films. Shaheed, which included many of the same stars as Zarqa was a massive box office draw in 1962 and it seems to have inspired the making of the latter.

Zarqa tells the story of an Arab woman who against great odds is able to become a fighter within the Palestinian liberation movement and through daring, courage and self-sacrifice wreaks massive destruction on the Israeli occupying military. Leila Khaled, a Palestinian female armed fighter who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969, is often cited as the role model for Zarqa, though this seems unlikely given the timing of the hijacking and the production of the film.

The film is violent, ideological, but in places quite moving. Talish, a fine character actor, plays Major David, a sadistic Israeli officer charged with capturing the Palestinian underground leader Shabaan Lutfi (Allaudin). Ejaz, the biggest male star of the 60s, is given a relatively minor role as a ukulele strumming Fatah fighter torn between love of his woman, Zarqa, and his motherland. But Neelo in the title role is the true star of the film.

And indeed, though the film was massively popular, running for over 100 weeks and thereby earning the status of Pakistan’s first Diamond Jubilee film, the dramatic, actual life backstory is far more interesting than what turns out to be a predictable politically correct (anti-Imperialist, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestine) potboiler.

The film’s director, Riaz Shahid, was a prominent member of the leftist clique of Pakistani artists and intellectuals that hovered around poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Shahid began his career as a journalist, working on Faiz’s weekly Lail-o-Nihar but moved to screen writing by the late 1950s. In 1964 his collaboration with Communist poet Habib Jalib on the film Khamosh Raho, a hard-hitting story about the kidnapping of rural women for the sexual pleasure of elite Pakistani society, announced his arrival as a serious filmmaker.

Jalib and Shahid hit it off and developed a partnership over several years and titles including Zarqa. Jalib’s populist, simple but powerful anti-authoritarian poems had gained him many stints behind bars as well as deep respect among peers and the public. Indeed, many of the film songs by which he is remembered were popular first as political poems and mushaira (poetry reading) stoppers.

Neelo, the cute dancer-actor got her start in cinema with a bit part in the Hollywood mega production Bhowani Junction, filmed in Lahore in 1954. Born into a Christian family and christened Cynthia Alexander Fernandes, Neelo caught audiences attention with her role in Saat Lakh (1956). From that point on she became one of Pakistan’s most ‘bankable’ headliners and racked up a number of major hits as well as three Nigar Awards including Best Actress for Zarqa.

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In 1965 the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Pakistan and was hosted by the Nawab of Kalabagh the then Governor General. Neelo, who was at the height of her popularity was ‘instructed’ to appear before the Shah to dance.   She refused. An agitated Nawab dispatched the police to seize her and bring her forcibly to Governor’s House. But no sooner did she take to the floor then she collapsed. Some say she fainted from the shame her dancing would bring upon her paramour Riaz Shahid. Others suggest she tried to commit suicide. In any case, Neelo was rushed to the hospital and the incident became an instant cause célèbre.

Jalib, ever sensitive to the abuse of power by the country’s leaders, penned a poem in the actress’ honour in which the opening lines trumpeted

Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-shahenshahi hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of Imperialism!)

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

Aaj qatil ki yeh marzi hai ki sirkash ladki

(Today the ruler wishes of you, you stubborn girl)

Sir-e-qatil tujhay koroon se nachaya jay

(That you be made to dance by whipping)

Maut ka raqs zamanay ko dikhaya jay

(This deadly dance is for the world to see)

Is tarahan zulm ko nazarana diya jata hai

(This is a spectacle of the power of darkness)

Raqs zanjeer pahin kar bhee kiya jata hai

(For dances can also be performed wearing chains)

 

When it came time to cast Zarqa, Shahid chose Neelo who was by now his wife. Jalib’s poem was included almost word for word with only ‘Imperialsm’ being substituted by ‘slavery’ in the opening line.

“Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-ghulami hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of slavery!

     Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!”

(You can also dance in chains!)

 

So sings Mehdi Hassan as a fettered Zarqa moves and groans in pain with each stab of Major David’s cigarette against her exposed skin. The scene is gruesome but effective and forms the emotional and dramatic centerpiece of the film.

The film’s music was composed by Rashid and Wajahat Attre, a father and son team with a strong predilection for raga based music. Originally from Pune father Rashid passed away during the film’s production leaving Wajahat to complete the score, a task he didn’t feel completely up to. The film’s other songs, though not bad, suffer when stacked up against the gut wrenching spectacle of Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai, surely one of the great instances of art imitating life in South Asian film.

Raqs