I am Black Beauty

 

hqdefault

Akbar Amar Anthony (Akbar Amar Anthony) is a Punjabi movie released in 1978. There is no information on how the public responded to it so we can safely assume it was a flop.

There is a long established tradition on the subcontinent to ‘borrow’ ideas, film titles, story lines, melodies, singing styles and singers from wherever they may be found. You can give this practice different names–cross fertilization; inspiration; plagarism; theft–but it is unlikely to stop. We may like to think that there are Hindi movies (India) and Urdu/Punjabi movies (Pakistan). Two distinct industries separated by that nasty political and oft-contested border.

But the reality is there is a South Asian style of movie making that happens to be produced in different languages and in different cities (Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Chennai). And the flow of ideas and people between these places goes back to the very beginning of cinema on the subcontinent. Punjabis went from Lahore to Calcutta and even America to learn the ropes. Some of Indian cinemas all time greats took their first steps in the studios in Lahore. Without talent that originated in what is now Pakistan, Hindi cinema would be shadow of what it is today. And Pakistani directors and producers have always looked to Bombay for the next big idea.

So when Indian audiences thrilled and laughed their way through the mega blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony and made it the biggest grossing movie of 1977, prolific Pakistani director Haider Chowdhury saw the proverbial goose and golden egg. Tweak the title ever so slightly, bring in a big name star and lo ji, Golden Jubilee pukka garanti!

Alas, by the late 70s there was a new technology that had the middle classes all agog. The VHS was just beginning to disrupt the movie business in the same way the humble little cassette had the music industry about the same time. Indian movies, though officially banned in Pakistan, were available on pirated video tape from a mushrooming cottage industry of corner video shops.  Families were settling down night after night to watch Bombay’s latest offerings in the comfort of their own living rooms rather than make the trek to the neighborhood cinema.  By the time Akbar Amar Anthony was released in September 1978 most of the target audience had seen the original several times over.

And lets be honest, the Indian version starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Helen, Shabana Azmi and Pran was a tremendously fun film.  Clever story, good acting by a trio at the top of their game, good jokes, fantastic music and some hot dancing.  By comparison the local copy was as attractive as a cold plate of  congealed curry, hardly worth the two and a half hours and Rs 5 the poor working man had to part with for the pleasure.

The film begins interestingly enough. Three young brothers are separated at the time of Partition when mobs attack their loving home where they are celebrating a birthday party. One brother, Amar (Iqbal Hassan) is adopted by a Sikh family who are apparently on their way to India. Anthony (Mustafa Qureishi) is protected by a Christian priest who gives up his own son to placate the angry mob. Akbar (Asif Khan) remains with  his mother and blind sister.

Fast forward 30 years. Asif is struggling to get a job and is informed he has blood cancer. Amar is a village lout who spends his time beating up all comers (supposedly in a village right across the border). Anthony, hiding behind the guise of a priest, is a villainous gangster.

In a fit of rage Anthony kills his father and disposes of his body in one of Lahore’s canals. He is watched by Akbar who confronts him but Anthony persuades him to take the blame for the murder in exchange for Rs 100,000 which will be enough to get his sister’s eyes repaired. Anthony is also blackmailing Amar’s father and ends up killing him which brings the raging son across the border to confront the evil Christian.

To make a tedious story short the three men take turns trying to frame or kill each other until at last, bloodied and wounded they recall their family ties and collapse in front of their mother and sister as the call to prayer signals God is happy with the outcome.

The production is typical B-grade Punjabi which means cheap, hilariously unbelievable and violent. Though Iqbal Hassan is unable to produce any emotion or expression beyond ‘angry shouting man’ the rest of the cast try their best to make their characters slightly nuanced. Mustafa Qureishi as Anthony is the most accomplished thespian of the lot but his ridiculous wig and jeans make him appear like mutton dressed up as lamb (as the Aussies say).

Wajahat Attre also manages to produce several songs which serve as oases in an otherwise vast desert. Given the nature of the film–action, dishoom, biff and boff–the songs are mostly upbeat dance items in the rural Punjabi style.  In addition to the songs themselves Attre proves he’s got his finger on pulse with incidental music as well. As the action builds or a chase is on the soundtrack comes alive with some amazing organ playing that would make people like Jimmy Smith smile.

The scene is set by Anthony telling his henchmen that he wants some really special entertainment as he is inviting a foreign guest over for drinks. The guy on his left says ‘We’ve got it sorted boss. We have Black and White Beauty, tonight.”

Out bounce two girls in slacks one of whom is darkened with blackface. As the music begins, they announce:

I am black beauty/Love me

I am white beauty/ See me

A stonefaced hippy strums his Stratocaster as the girls sway and shake their ample bodies teasingly in front of Anthony and his Vat 69 drinking buddy.  What starts as pretty standard ‘item number’ soon turns into something a bit more edgy.  After a couple of verses the camera zooms in on the girls’ lips as they pout and make kissing sounds. The hippy twangs his strings.  This is all just tantalising foreplay it turns out. Several verses later the camera zooms in again this time to catch the girls making the same sounds but this time their faces and lips virtually locked in on each other.

Though the sex act and nudity are taboo in Pakistani films, dance scenes are never shy about suggesting physical lust and love. But this blatant, completely unexpected nod to lesbian sex leaves the audience, if not Anthony, completely gobsmacked.

I am Black Beauty is further evidence that you never quite know what you’re going to get in a second rate Punjabi movie.

Advertisements

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.

12

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