Mehkhane Mein Shaam Hui

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Tiger Gang, is an Urdu film released in 1974. Sadly, it failed to catch the imagination of Pakistanis and in the parlance of current political speak turned out to be a ‘Big Nothingburger’. In fact, it is only remembered today by a cult of B-Movie fans as an off beat addition to the work of a popular team of European-American actors and directors who made a bunch of James Bond and John Wayne swizzles in the 60s and 70s.

The film’s director, Harald Reinl, got his start in the movie world in Germany’s pre-Hitler interregnum. In the 1930s German audiences went nuts about a genre of movies known as bergfilme (mountain films) which in their ‘Hero vs. Nature’ action themes were akin to the American western. As a bit player and extra in some of these films Reinl worked alongside Hitler’s favourite cineaste, Leni Riefenstahl, and developed a life-long love of the action film if not the Fuhrer‘s politics.

Throughout a long career that saw him direct nearly 50 pictures–most with invigorating titles such as The Green Devils of Monte Cassino, Apache Gold  or No Gold for a Dead Diver— as well as gain an Oscar nomination  for his aliens-visit-the-earth documentary Chariot of the Gods (1970), Reinl also teamed up with American athlete/stuntman Brad Harris and Italian model-turned-actor Tony Kendall (Luciano Stella) to film the final instalment of a series of movies based on the prolific and popular Eurospy Kommisar X books by German pulp fictionist Paul Alfred Mueller.

Kendall and Harris were for a number of years the ‘Kings of Eurotrash’ movies. Playing FBI agent Tom Rowland (Harris) and private detective Joe Walker (Kendall) the duo made movies that relied on action, mateship, dumb humour, mild sexual titillation and heaps of references to the American western and British spy films they so happily ripped off.

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Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) and Joe Walker (Tony Kendall)

After years of struggle and development, the late 60s saw the Pakistani film industry feeling confident. With movies from their main competitor, India, banned a large homegrown crop of actors, directors, writers and musicians had developed strong fan bases. The industry was making money at last.  Not surprisingly, Lahore and Karachi attracted would-be stars from surrounding countries and with its ‘wild west’ borderlands Pakistan appealed to European film makers looking for something new.

Mueller, with typical Teutonic efficiency, wrote more than 600 Kommisar X novels  but only 7 were turned into films with Tiger Gang drawing the series to a close.  Like so many films of this genre several versions were made in various languages (in this case German, Italian, English and Urdu) and in the available copy of the Urdu version several scenes slip (unintentionally) between Urdu to English leaving one to delight in Mohammad Ali’s American accent one moment and Brad Harris’s fluent Urdu the next!

 

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  [Posters for Italian and German versions of the film]

 

Rowland much to his grumpy annoyance is sent off to Karachi to try to find the illusive New York mafia don Frank Stefani who is running a large international drug smuggling operation across the Afghanistan border. Unexpectedly, Walker is also in town investigating the death of a friend’s husband and the two old colleagues once again team up.  Superintendent Ali (Mohammad Ali) of the Lahore Police department provides local intelligence while his lady friend (and in real life, wife) Shireen (Zeba) works as the secretary of one Professor Tavari (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) who unbeknownst to everyone until the final 15 minutes of the movie is actually Frank Stefani.

In addition to the German and Italian cast and crew, the Pakistani version of  Tiger Gang brought in the skills of a new writer, Saleem Chisti, stunts coordinator, cameraman  and director/producer Iqbal Shehzad, brother of two Pakistani test cricketers. Shehzad, perhaps sensing that the local audience would require something more than a couple of goras beating up Pakistanis to create a hit, brought a clear middle-class sensibility to the effort. Whereas Rienl had been contracted to deliver another episode of a well-established action franchise, Shehzad saw an opportunity to make the film a bit more meaningful: an anti-narcotics family tragedy.

Chisti creates the character Hassan, played beautifully by Qavi, Shireen’s wayward brother.  A nice Muslim boy gone bad thanks to the heroin and hash that these hippies with loose clothes and looser morals are graphically depicted shooting up in cheap Karachi hotels. This central subplot of orphaned sibling love gives the audience a chance to have their heartstrings delicately plucked, not to mention create an occasion for music director Kamal Ahmed to pop in a few songs and dances of which Mehkane Mein Shaam Hui (Nightfall in the Tavern) is the pick of the bunch.

Sung by a young and prolific Runa Laila, (in addition to her film work, she made pop records, performed live and was a growing sensation in India) the song, performed by a sexy vamp (Nisho), is a medium paced number driven by accordion and jazzy organ.  Veteran poet Riaz ur Rahman Saghar’s lyrics of intoxication, nightfall, ‘parties’ and shocking glances suit the dual contexts of an upperclass dinner party as well as a dingy backstreet heroin den where Shireen goes to look for her troubled but beloved brother, Hassan.

Despite the best efforts of director, singer, composer, writer and actors Tiger Gang is never able to break free of its Eurospy action template. Though Zeba and Qavi turn in strong performances,  Mohammad Ali plods through proceedings with little of the grace he is remembered for.

Perhaps ‘Nothingburger’ is too harsh. Sukhi roti, anyone?

 

 

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Bhar Do Jholi

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Bin Badal Barsaat (Rain Without Clouds) is an Urdu movie starring Mohammad Ali, Zeba, Shahid and Sangeeta released in March 1975. Running for 54 weeks in Karachi it attained coveted Golden Jubilee status.

The film takes its title from a 1963 Indian horror film but tells a story not of curses but of a couple’s struggle to produce and raise a family. Zarina (Zeba) and Judge Akbar Ali (Mohammad Ali) are hopeful that at last they might have a child after several years of trying unsuccessfully. Zarina is so upset by her apparent infertility she advises Akbar Ali to find a second wife if the situation continues.  “A wife that can’t produce a child is not worth anything,” she tells him.

A few months later Zarina does in fact deliver a healthy boy but through a series of twists of Fate, double crosses and colossal misreadings of the tea leaves the boy, Anwar, goes missing and ends up as a Pakistani Oliver Twist, cutting people’s pockets as part of a gang of beggars and prostitutes led by an obese and lecherous Fagin called Dada (Ilyas Kashmiri). Eventually, through yet more incredible strokes of luck,  tortured confessions and even torture itself, the family is reunited thanks to the efforts of the golden hearted dancing girl Gori, played by the stunning beauty, Sangeeta and her reformed pickpocket fiance Badhshah (Shahid).

Though this film was a big hit there is not much to recommend it as far as the storyline, script or acting goes. Once again it is some of the music and one performance that saves the day. Sangeeta‘s playful enactment of the good hearted but mistreated dancing girl Gori shows up all the leading big names. By comparison Mohammad Ali and Zeba seem to sleep walk through their parts.  A Karachi girl, Sangeeta got her start in 1971’s Yeh Aman (This Peace) but is perhaps best remembered for her work behind the camera as producer and director of such films as Society Girl, Nikah (Marriage) and Muthi Bhar Chawal (Fist Full of Rice).

In this film Sangeeta sticks to acting and dancing and leaves the direction to yet another woman, Zeenat, herself an actress whose track record went back to 1946 when she shared the screen with Noor Jehan in Hamjoli. After Partition Zeenat produced and directed half a dozen other films beginning with Khula Ja Sim Sim (1959). Her last appearance as director came in 1980 with Aap ki Khatir.  The story of Pakistan’s women directors and producers is one that needs to be explored and told.  Like so much else in Pakistan it comes a pleasant surprise that in country with such deep prohibitions against women working in the public sphere, and that too in such an industry as the movies, these women were able to martial the resources and withstand the severe social pressure to make so many films.

In the mid-1970s three giants of qawwali music were vying, sometimes bitterly, for top spot in listeners hearts. One one hand a raucous, dishevelled and brilliant upstart from Lahore, named Aziz Mian had sent shockwaves through polite society and the qawwali world with his hypnotic paeans to drunkenness and spiritual complaint.  Horrified and scandalised, the Karachi-based sibling duo Sabri Brothers represented the traditional, less ecstatic , devotional stream of qawwali. The Brothers and Mian traded barbs publicly, and in song, but all three sang their way to the bank, making fortunes through their cassettes and live concerts.

The music for Bin Badal Barsaat was composed by another woman, Shamim Nazli, sister of playback singer Mala. In a critical scene near the film’s denouement, Nazli inserts one of the Sabri Brothers‘ most popular songs Bhar do Jholi (Fill My Sack) to accompany a distraught Mohammad Ali who has gone to a shrine to pray for God’s forgiveness and mercy and the safe return of his son, Anwar.  The scene’s emotional tension is heightened by the qawwali beat,  acute lyrics and resounding voices of the Sabris who give a genuine qawwali performance rather than a rip-off filmi qawwali number.

Bin Badal Barsaat may not be top quality cinema but as a study of the role of women in Lollywood, both on and off the screen, it is a film well worth viewing.