Thursday, 27 December 2012

The end: Shabistan cinema draws charred curtains

PESHAWAR: Ravaged by the fires fuelled by an angry mob protesting over the blasphemous film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ on September 21, the curtain has now fallen on the historic Shabistan Cinema.
The decades-old theatre situated along Grand Trunk (GT) Road near Jinnah Park shows no signs of the glamour it once exuded. The gate is shut and labourers can be seen razing its structure down brick by brick. A placard with a phone number near the gate reads: ‘Contact for purchasing bricks.’
Inside, the main hall is littered with bricks and metal beams, while the second floor has rolls of film strewn around in one corner. The walls, which are blackened by soot, are perhaps the gravest reminder of what happened on that day in September.
Labourers demolishing the structure are seemingly unaware of what the cinema represented in the past and what the future holds for it.
“Demolishing work is in progress for the past two weeks. First the roof was demolished and we are now tearing down the walls. We do not know anything about the owners and their plans,” said a worker at the site.
The person whose number is inscribed on the placard at the gate also expressed ignorance over whether the cinema was being demolished or reconstructed. “You better contact the owners, they have a business on Yadgar Chowk,” said the man who identified himself as Sher.
Aftab Sabri
The cinema’s former owner Aftab Sabri said he sold the building around a month ago.
When asked what was in store for the place now, Sabri said it was up to the new owners to use the property whichever way they like. “It is very unlikely that they will construct another cinema after demolishing its structure; and a plaza or market will probably be constructed in its place.”
“It was gutted beyond repair. Machinery, screen, roof – everything was destroyed,” said Sabri, adding that the damages amounted to millions of rupees.
Sabri said rebuilding the structure required a huge investment and since there is no guarantee it will not be torched again, he decided to sell it off instead. “Previously, it (the building) was on rent. I took over the cinema in the 1970’s.”
Shabistan over the years
Work on Shabistan Cinema was first initiated in 1946 by a prominent businessman of the time, Agha Jee Gul.
In the words of Mohammad Ibrahim Zia, a cultural enthusiast who conducted painstaking research on Peshawar’s actors in Bollywood, Shabistan was the first modern cinema opened after the creation of Pakistan.
“Its canteen was spacious and Syed Habib Shah, a leading art director of Lollywood, adorned one of its walls with a beautiful painting of Omar Khayyam’s quatrain,” recalled Zia.
He said the owners first planned to show ‘Jugnoo’ starring Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan at the time of its opening, but ended up showing another film ‘Mehendi’ due to the non-availability of the former’s print.
End of cinemas in Peshawar?
Shabistan is the latest in a series of cinemas closed down in the provincial capital over the past few years. Novelty and Palwasha cinemas were demolished a few years earlier and multi-storied buildings were constructed in their place.
Falaksair Cinema was also demolished to make way for a plaza despite being termed a protected heritage site under the Federal Antiquities Act.
September 21 was, however, the worst day for the city’s cinemas. Angry mobs torched four theatres: Shabistan, Naz and Shama in the city limits and Capital Theatre in cantonment limits.
But while the others slowly got up to their feet and restarted operations, the fate of Shabistan was not as fortunate.
With the closure of Shabistan, the number of cinemas in Peshawar has decreased to eight.
“It is sad that a city whose artists reigned over Bollywood and illuminated the art scene of the world is gradually being devoid of art itself,” lamented Dr Adil Zareef, a member of the Sarhad Conservation Network.

Monday, 24 December 2012

For Mehreen Raheel, it’s Pakistan first

The actor says she wants to do work that will represent her country.
After several delays, the film Tamanna has quietly finished filming this week. The film, starring Umair Rana, Salman Shahid and Feryal Gauhar has already been featured in film festivals for its catchy soundtrack sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. A less talked about late addition to the cast is the talented actor Mehreen Raheel, who has been given an extended role in the film.
Tamanna is a UK-Pakistani production and is the first full-length Pakistani feature film directed by a British director Steven Moore. The story of the film is about a director who invites a man to his house to play games, but instead, the two characters fight over a woman. The story revolves around love, adultery, robbery and a murder. The film has been shot entirely in Pakistan.
Mehreen has been seen as the face of several brands with the most popular being Ufone and appeared in many television dramas as well. She feels that the film Tamanna is part of a larger project to help develop a Pakistani film industry. This is her second project since the much talked about co-production film, Virsa.
“Since our film industry has been in decline in the recent past, everybody is now working hard to revive it,” she says. “There was a big gap but the film industry never died out.”
Mahreen Raheel
Mehreen believes that the Pakistani film industry is functional mainly for the masses. However, now the directors and producers are focusing on making movies for “the elite or the educated”. “We need some time but we are actually being recognised in the market now,” she adds.
As she grows, Mehreen is more concerned about her craft. Presently, she has two television dramas on air, including a PTV Home production Daag-e-Nadamat and also Hum TV’sZindagi Gulzar Hai. She dispels the notion that she is being type-cast in younger character roles.
“I am a character actor,” she explains. “If you give me a younger role, I will do a younger role and if you give me an older role, I will do that. People think I am being typecast, but there is a lot of other work I do that should be reviewed also.”
Mehreen feels that she is versatile and is interested in both films and dramas, but that there is no comparison between the two. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Film can be a royal experience — it is the ultimate exposure. And if it’s an international film, one is not restricted to being popular only in their country.”
She adds that the new-age film scene is about struggling, coming together and making sacrifices to generate a new environment in our film industry. She acknowledged that talented people are working towards making films, despite the barriers and hang-ups that still exist.
Mahreen Raheel  coat
“We have modern thoughts that we have to execute with stone-age equipment; so it will take some time to be nurtured,” says Mehreen, adding that things need to change for improvement in the industry.
“A lot of film offers are coming my way,” says Raheel. “But if I am going to do something I want to represent my country — that comes first. It has to be something that I am proud of.”
Mehreen plays the role of a young girl in the film and says it is an interesting one. “When we started out, there were limited scenes for me but as they saw my work, the director decided to add more,” she adds.
Joining the film at the tail end of production, Mehreen says that she is excited about the soundtrack. “The soundtrack for my first film was also sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, which was a super-hit,” shares Mehreen, referring to Rahat’s hit song, Mein Tenu Samjhawan.
The young actor feels that this film is different from other films because of the subject it tackles.
“It’s not about a social issue,” she says, adding that there’s enough media coverage on those problems. “We have enough issues being highlighted daily on news channels. [They] touch upon sensitive topics both social and political,” says Mehreen. “It [Tamanna] is a pure entertainer; the story is a murder mystery. It’s about our glory days of cinema.”

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Rising from the ashes: Capri cinema Reopened

Exactly three months after it was looted and burned in a riot, Capri Cinema will officially opened.
For weeks, cinema facades were covered with posters depicting the September 21 carnage and asking who would help. On Thursday, bystanders were admiring a massive new billboard for the movie.
Capri’s owner, Chaudhry Asif, smiled as he addressed a press conference at the cinema – it’s newly laid marble still sparkling – on Thursday evening. “They can keep breaking down cinemas – and we will keep building them,” he said.
“This has been a struggle,” Asif said. “With the help of our friends and family, we’ve been able to reopen it.”
Asif was not in Karachi when the city’s iconic cinemas were targeted by mobs. On that day, arsonists and rioters broke open the grilles and beat staff. The rampage, which took place as the country marked a national holiday for Yaum-e-Ishq-e-Rasool, saw prominent cinemas, such as Nishat, Capri, Bambino and Prince damaged and destroyed.
“I came back, and I came here first, and when I went to Nishat, I just sat down. This is my house, and so is Nishat, and everyone here is my family.”
Chaudhry Asif
But cinema owners at the press conference sounded a note of caution. The government, they said, must step up and ensure security.
Asif noted that let alone providing any help, there was not a “single phone call” from government representatives.
Mandviwalla said that the DC south had prepared a report on the riots and spoken to cinema owners about the damages. The report, as far as he knows, has been submitted to the government.
Nishat and Prince
While Capri is back in business, its neighbours – Nishat and Prince Cinema – are still closed.
Mandviwalla said that the damage to both was far more extensive than Capri’s, since they had “burned for four to five hours” and the roofs had caved in.
In October, the door to what was once an office at Nishat Cinema was still on its hinges. The glass was gone, as was the roof, screens and projectors. The chairs were made “from the best wood,” said Mukhtar, who worked there for over 20 years.
A hawk flew through the building, in the same space where crowds once hooted, applauded and cried at films. In one room, stacks of posters of the last few animated Hollywood films were charred, stuck together. A charred fire extinguisher clung to a wall.
In the rubble at Nishat were glimpses of the cinema’s rich past. An attendance book from 1981 recorded the daily attendance of the employees at ‘Nishat Talkies’ and their monthly salary, which then ranged in the hundreds. Another damp book, with roaches scuttling over it, was described as a ‘stamp book’ which had entries from July 1963, with meticulously recorded details of amounts paid out.
Employees at Nishat said that several prints of films from the past decade were also destroyed in the fire, including a print of Jinnah, as well as the colour version of Mughal-e-Azam.
Mandviwalla Entertainment’s Nawab Hazoorul Hasan said that Nishat had probably incurred a loss of Rs140 million in the September 21 riots.
“The process of deciding what to do with Nishat will only happen once the insurers assess everything. It could take a very long time,” he said.
The exterior of Prince Cinema presents as bleak a prospect. The large imposing gates are shut, and through the gate one can espy the charred structure, with three workers asleep in the midst of the rubble.
The cinema is currently being the subject of a property dispute case ongoing at the high court.
According to Muhammad Sohail, the manager at Prince, “This tragedy [riots] happened while it was in the court’s custody”. Until there is a verdict in the court case, the management of the cinema cannot make a decision on what to do with the building.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bahar Begum — Lollywood’s favourite mommy

In September, the expatriate Pakistani community in Norway honoured 70-year-old actor Bahar Begum with a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to the Pakistani film industry. Today, she is just as committed to acting as she was when she started her acting career in 1956, as a 14-year-old star in Chan Mahi.
Bahar’s name is tied to over 600 Pakistani films, but she gained widespread recognition for the roles in which she played legendary actor Sultan Rahi’s mother. Her film career is divided into two phases; her roles as a lead heroine and those as an emotionally strong mother. Her performances during the ‘70s, where Bahar played the matriarch, are culturally an important development for the trajectory of mainstream Punjabi cinema. Her most recent role was in Syed Noor’s family drama Shareeka, in which she played an urban mother. An eloquent speaker who speaks fluent English, Urdu and Punjabi, Bahar tells The Express Tribune that she’s still very much in the game.
While she grew up in Lahore, studying at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, she was given many roles in which she played a loud, unsophisticated rural woman. “Work, work, and more work made me a Chaudhrani,” says Bahar, referring to the characters she played.
“Sultan was around the same height as me and we could look into each other’s eyes,” says Bahar, as she recalls some of her films such as Sher Khan, Kaley Chor, and Maula Bakhsh. “Sultan Rahi and screenwriter-director Nasir Adeeb played a huge role in making my dialogues work,” she adds.
Bahar appreciates the feedback of her audience. She recalls that while she was shooting in remote villages in the 1980s, people would call her “Maa ji”, “Khala ji”, or “Chaudhrani”. It was just one example of how much she was adored by the audience.
She admits with pride that her personality has developed in a certain way because of the years she has spent in Lollywood, which she considers to be a part of her.  “Whenever I am asked if I have left the film industry, I reply by saying that I could never leave; it’s in my blood,” says Bahar.
Bahar left a lasting impression on her audience with her presence on screen, even in supporting roles. She attributes this quality to the studio system that was in place at the time which helped her build her career. She lauds the professionalism and quality of the films made and produced.
“Earning Rs10,000 to Rs12,000 was a big deal for a heroine when I started,” she says, talking with pride about how business went about in her prime. “My contract with director-producer Anwar Kamal Pasha was for three films. At that time, we did not get involved with money or contracts directly. Our families handled these things.” Lamenting the non-professional attitude of people in the film industry today, she adds: “Speaking about these things today is considered bad; these are the wrongs we made right, and everything went to the dogs.”
“During the second phase of my acting career, I developed a love for acting. Without that interest, one cannot improve,” says Bahar.
When you eat, breathe, and sleep Punjabi films for 56 years, it becomes a part of your anatomy. “I have absorbed the role to such a degree that when I walk into a house, I speak loud just like my character!” she laughs. “The industry temperament had become loud; it came to represent the culture of Punjab. When I would go to villages for shoots, I noticed women in those areas really did speak that loud, it was a part of that village atmosphere.”
When she returned to the film industry in the 1970s, Bahar said the scene had changed into a one that was ‘louder’, which then translated on screen in Punjabi films. She played the role of a strong and boisterous Punjabi mother, traits that other eras had failed to touch upon.
Bahar explains that old directors such as Aslam Dar had worked on stories in which the mother’s role was powerful. “Directors such as Aslam made it possible because of their emphasis on details,” says Bahar.
Sultan and Bahar had developed a unique rapport which was favourable for both. “The big skill for an actor is to look into a fellow actor’s eyes and then deliver a dialogue,” says Bahar. “It’s the difference between making something realistic or not.”

Friday, 30 November 2012

Revival of Pakistani film industry

‘Industry’ is an exaggerated word when spoken in reference to the current state of Pakistani films. With lack of technical crew and an absence of infrastructural support, output of Pakistani film industry stands frail – a stark contrast to the golden days of cinema that reigned supreme a few decades ago.
Dictatorial rules and lack of studious efforts to strengthen the film culture sent the industry down a spiral of gradual destruction as a result of which “Lollywood,” as it is popularly referred, stands in shambles. Gone are the days of romantic movies starring likes of Waheed Murad, Zeba and Muhammad Ali with chartbuster songs composed by Ahmad Rushdie.
That brand of cinema has reached its creative death and stands almost but over. But that’s not the end of it. While old cinema may have reached its threshold, the new age cinema has started spreading its wings thanks to young upcoming film-makers, whose love for the art of storytelling hasn’t diminished their passion despite the obstacles that come with pursuing a profession in film-making in Pakistan under current circumstances.
The list of problems start with funding issues and goes on to unavailability of technical crew, lack of equipment and absence of distributors or reliable distribution sources. While the idea of working for the big screen and being a part of the ‘film business’ sounds fancy in words, the truth is ‘film-making’ is an unprofitable business right now and one that requires tedious juggling. It is sheer passion, determination and perseverance that drive the film-makers of today.
Waar by Bilal Lashari, Lamhaa by Meher Jaffri, Josh by Iram Parveen Bilal, Gol Chakker by Aisha Lineaa and Shahbaz Shigri; the list of films due to be released in the coming year is a surprisingly long one and these are just the tip of the iceberg. There are several more in pre-production, scripting and production stages.
Usman Mukhtar
One commonality that these films share is the departure from typical Bollywood inspired films based on weak scripts, lackluster performances and complete absence of any substantial content. These films are giving rise to a newer, modern mode of cinema that is high on critical content which is more realistic and tackles current issues. One could argue that four or five films a year, don’t make a film industry but the truth is, we are at a juncture where we have to develop an industry from scratch. With minute individual efforts, a film here and there and unflinching support from press and film buffs, we have to kick start the momentum, cultivate the film culture and channel ideas. It will be a slow and tedious process but one that will take a massive movement with inputs by makers and audience alike.
“Ours is not a proper industry right now, but it is the beginning of an industry,” says Usman Mukhtar, an Islamabad based film-maker and actor, who also stars in Gol Chakkar.
But one could argue that all these films, under production right now, are composed of content very non-commercial in essence. Can we revive an industry when most of the work is unappealing to common lay men? Shouldn’t the focus be on making commercial films that appeal to the masses? Usman dismisses the notion by saying, “Every country has an audience of all intellect levels. Your audience will mature with time. If you start off at a low level then your standard will never improve. I am very pleased by the fact that our young film-makers are not being overly commercial. We don’t have an industry yet so we can mould it any way we want.”
Releasing films at foreign film festivals may rake in critical appreciation but the activity is pointless if the local audience doesn’t get to experience and appreciate cinematic endeavors of these film-makers. Most potent problems that these film-makers face are the funding and distribution issues — in a cash-stricken economy it is an uphill task to pull in an investor and the few distributors that do exist, are least interested in developing a film industry and more in making money. This is where multinational corporations and sponsors could come in. Instead of spending millions on mindless, trivial TV advertisements, they could help the film industry and these film-makers by sponsoring them. Take for instance the example of how alliance of “Coke Studio” and Coca Cola benefited both the brand and the music industry. It is the best thing that happened to Pakistan’s music industry in ages and Coca Cola, as a brand is more successful than it ever was and holds a sizeable market share in the cola industry.
Films are cultural archives of a nation. They document, project and channel cultural, social and political ideologies of a country and are resonates of an alive and active nation. Cohort endorsement is what our wrecked film industry needs right now along with sustenance, faith and backing on a national level. This is what it will take to pull it out of this state.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Goonda raj

Remember one thing, a Gujjar can sell his blood on the 11th of each month but he won’t sell milk,” Jagga Gujjar tells a group of shopkeepers. Jagga then goes on to beat them and instructs them to return the milk they had taken from him forcefully. He then takes it to the Dera Buddha Gujjar and distributes it amongst destitute children.
The scene is from the 1979 Lollywood film Wehshi Gujjar. On the face of it, to any modern critic of the Punjabi film industry, the story follows the ‘tried-and-tested’ Punjabi film formula: honour, bharaks (grandiose boasting), machismo and violence.
But there is something unique about this film. Not that Wehshi Gujjar is the second super-hit, after the success of Maula Jutt (1979), in the late 1970s to 80s period of Punjabi cinema, but the film is the first to be inspired by the story of a real-life goonda.
Jagga Gujjar, the film’s lead character, is a portrayal of Jagga Gujjar of Chowburgi, who is remembered till today for imposing the notorious ‘Jagga Tax’ on Lahore’s Bakra Mandi in the late 1960s.
“The film was actually going to be named Jagga Tax but the censor board did not pass the name. It was renamed Wehshi Gujjar to get it approved,” says Jagga’s nephew Chaudhry Imtiaz Gujjar.
Imtiaz, who is better known as Tajja, lives at the Dera Buddha Gujjar in Samnabad. This is the same dera which is referenced in the films Wehshi Gujjar, Puttar Jaggay Da (1990) andJagga Tax (2002). We enter through an arched gateway and walk past a parked land cruiser. Tajja is seated on a wicker lawn chair, with a loaded assault rifle lying next to him. “We are people with a lot of rivals and enemies,” explains Tajja, gesturing offhandedly at the gun.

The most famous of these rivalries, with Qila Gujjar Singh’s Shukerwala family, has since turned into a friendship but clearly that’s no reason for Tajja to let his guard down. Inheriting his uncle’s mantle, Tajja now runs Jagga Gujjar Productions. “The first film I produced wasPuttar Jaggay Da in 1990, which was a success. Then I made Jagga Punjab Da, which I had to release as Gujjar Punjab Da (1994). A decade later, I released Jagga Tax.”
the Flim
Tajja is clearly proud of his prolific film-making. “If you check the Guinness Books of World Records, you will find that I hold the record for the shortest time taken to produce a movie: 36 days to produce Jagga Tax, including the script, music and production at Bari and Evernew Studios. Then I made Numberdani (2010) in 30 days. Gujjar Punjab Da also took 30 days.”
Wehshi Gujjar, the first film on Jagga Gujjar, was made by Jagga’s brother, Chaudhry Miraj Din. “The story is more fiction than fact… but it is definitely about our family,” he says.
“While it is true that Gujjars do not sell milk on the 11th, no such event [with the shopkeepers] actually happened,” he says of the film’s opening sequence. “Puttar Jaggay Da is closer to the truth but it is also not a true story either.”
So what is the true story?
“Jagga was the name given to my uncle by his mother. From a very early age, he wanted to be remembered,” Tajja tells us. “People forget one thing… Jagga Gujjar spent only six months outside of jail before he was killed.”
Jagga, he explains, was jailed at the age of 14 for avenging the murder of his brother, Makhan Gujjar, at a mela in the year 1954. “Jagga killed the man who shot his brother eight days later. Holding Acha Shukerwala responsible for Makhan’s murder, Jagga organised an attack on Shukerwala from his jail cell. Two of Shukerwala’s men died while Shukerwala was wounded in the attack,” says Tajja. “He also killed a man from Acha’s group in jail before he was released on early parole in 1968 at the age of 28.”
“The fame Jagga earned was in the six months he was able to live out of jail,” he says. “I don’t know what story to tell of him. Wherever he went he fought people. He went to jail in an early age but continued to fight antisocial elements in society.”

The film Puttar Jaggay Da’s opening sequence is set in a Chowburgi market. When Buddha Gujjar, Jagga’s father, stops his horse carriage at a shop, people gather around him and sing praises of Jagga Gujjar to him. “Your son Jagga stopped a man from eve-teasing my sister,” says one. “Your son, Jagga, stopped a bootlegger from selling liquor,” says another. “Your son, Jagga, ensured that my husband returns home on time,” says a woman.
“This is true… the people in this neighborhood feared Jagga because he stopped young boys from eve-teasing and stopped others from bootlegging or selling narcotics,” says Tajja.
What is forgotten by most Punjabi film critics is that the goonda did not suddenly enter Punjabi film in the 80s. It was in fact in the 60s that the first real-life ‘goonda’ entered the film industry as a producer, and this is also when the real social context for these characters and stories was established: the enforcement of the Goonda Act in 1968.
The enforcement of the Goonda Act is one of the many events conveniently forgotten by many historians of Punjab… but film producers of the 80s did not forget it. Instead they re-wrote the script of the Goonda Act period through film and thereby reclaimed the role of thegoonda in popular imagination.
It was, in fact, Jagga’s great rival Acha Shukerwala, the pehlwaan from Qila Gujjar Singh, who was the first goonda to step into film production in 1965 with the hit film Malangi (1965). But contrary to what you may think, he was far from a social outcast and a criminal as far as the state machinery was concerned.
“Shukerwala was West Pakistan Governor Amir Muhammad Khan Awan’s right-hand man,” explains Kamran Chaudhry, producer of Bhai Log (2010). Chaudhry is Shukerwala’s nephew and is continuing the family’s legacy of film production. His office is located in Lahore’s film district, the Royal Park, opposite the Buddha Gujjar building, which is still owned by Jagga Gujjar’s family.
“Shukerwala would act as an enforcer for Amir Muhammad Khan… if there was a public agitation against a price hike, Shukerwala would be called to enforce ‘law-and-order’… If a politician was raising his voice, Shukerwala would be asked to deliver a ‘warning’,” Chaudhry says.
Amir Muhammad Khan, also the Nawab of Kalabagh, was in turn known as the right-hand man of then President Field Martial Ayub Khan. According to film lore, Governor Khan once ordered his men to abduct film heroine Neelo and forced her to dance for the Shah of Iran despite her refusal. Habib Jalib is said to have visited her in hospital after she attempted suicide following the humiliation at the hands of Khan. He composed the verses:
Tu ke na’wakif-e-aadaab-e-ghulami hai abhi
Raks zanjeer pehn ker bhi kiya jata hai
(You are still unaware of the etiquette of being a slave
One dances even when chained…)
The verses were later sung by Mehdi Hassan in the film Zarka (1969) and became the metaphor to remember the late governor with.
“The Goonda Act was enacted due to an incident involving my family,” Karman Chaudhry relates. “Acha Shukerwala had a rivalry with another group, which led to someone getting killed. During the hearing in the sessions court, one of the case witnesses was shot dead and his family took the body outside Governor House to protest. The then Governor Musa Khan imposed the Goonda Act [1959]. Acha and members of our family were rounded up and put in jail as suspects in the sessions court shootout case, and other known goondas were shot dead in staged police encounters.”
Tajja says Jagga Gujjar was the first person arrested after the enforcement of the act. “He was killed in confinement and then his body was thrown in the Bakra Mandi,” he says. “We were middlemen in the Bakra Mandi and the butchers tried to frame our family after Jagga was murdered. They murdered two of my brothers claiming they had returned to take Jagga Tax, but Jagga had never taken any tax himself. Police just created the propaganda of Jagga Taxto justify killing him… he barely spent six months out of jail before he was killed.” Tajja also says that there were between five and seven murder cases against Jagga. “Our entire family was forced to live within the confines of the Raiwind police area during this time.”
While the Goonda Act remained in force, over a dozen men labelled as goondas, including Jagga Gujjar and Kaka Lohar, were killed in police encounters across the Punjab area (then a part of the One Unit).
Coming out of this period, the families who had lost their relatives to the Goonda Act began pouring their money into film to reclaim their memory by offering a counter-narrative to the state.
The trend started when Chaudhry Miraj Din produced Wehshi Gujjar, and continued till Shahia Pehlwan of the Walled City stepped into film production. Riaz Gujjar, also considered a goonda, stepped into film production as well.
This era of Punjabi film featured not only a new generation of producers, but also saw the rise of new directors and actors. Filmasia distributor Mian Tariq, explains that this period was marked by the rise of actor Sultan Rahi. “Maula Jutt was released in 1979…and the rest is history,” he says.
“One of the lesser known stories is that a film, Wehshi Jutt, had been produced before Maula Jutt. Both films had taken Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s short story Gandasa on the culture of Gujranwala as the inspiration for their script.”
That one of the quintessential Urdu intellectuals was instrumental in the genesis of a genre of film considered so antithetical to the Pakistani cultural project is one of the great ironies lost in the cultural debate around the Punjabi film genre.
While Qasmi’s Gandasa might have unwillingly served as inspiration for the genre, Tariq considers the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 as another critical factor for the rise of the Punjabi film.
“Before East Pakistan seceded, Urdu film distributors had three circuits to distribute their films to: Punjab and the NWFP, Sindh and Balochistan, and East Pakistan. From the 1970s, we were left with only two film circuits and half the audience,” Tariq says.
“The death blow for veteran producers was General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship… 344 films were banned for ‘violating Islamic norms,’” he says.
Even Maula Jatt was not given clearance by the Censor Board but managed to attract huge audiences to cinema houses, thanks to the Lahore High Court’s stay order on the ban, which remained in effect for two years. Then Jagga Tax cleared the censor after being renamedWehshi Gujjar, and so a new chapter in the history of Pakistan film was opened: the goondas, who were successively nurtured and disposed off under Ayub’s rule reentered the public imagination under another dictator, General Ziaul Haq. Ironically, all this happened as the State pretended to be building a more puritanical culture.
The increasing popularity of Punjabi films in this period, while wriggling past an otherwise strict censor board, was not received kindly from all quarters. “There was an innate rivalry between Urdu and Punjabi filmmakers… most Urdu directors did not consider Sultan Rahi a hero,” Tariq explains. “To them, a hero was like a diamond… a beautiful individual who, when on screen, boys and girls would fall in love with.”
As old directors began to distance themselves from the new Punjabi circuit, a new set of directors replaced them. “The culture of film and the culture of the film studio completely changed with the entry of Punjabi film and the goonda as a producer,” Tariq says. “The films released in the 1980s were based on the goondas of the 1960s; the films released in the 2000s were based on the goondas of the 1990s. This is the untold story of Punjabi film.”
Seated at Evernew Studios, Shahid Rana, who considers himself a bit of an outcast amongst directors, says, “Society is what makes a goonda. When I made the film Goonda (1993), this was the concept of it. Sultan Rahi’s character is forced to confront a powerful man who attempts to rape a woman on a street crossing. When the man points a Kalashnikov at him, Rahi ends up shooting him by mistake and is sent to jail. After he returns from jail, it is people that make him a goonda to fulfill their own ends… Rahi is, if anything, the ‘reluctantgoonda’… he becomes what he does because it is society that needs him to be that way.” Rana says.
Rana’s current project is to make the film Jajji Bahadur, based on the life of Shahia Pehlwan’s rebel son, Jajji (real name: Javed Ilyas Butt). He is directing the film for Shah Din Productions, also known as Shahia Productions, for whom he has directed a number of films earlier, including Kalka (1990), Goonda and Puttar Shahiay Da (1986). “Jajji was killed due to their family enmities in the mid-1970s. He was famed for his bravery and had fought off numerous police encounters and survived,” he says.
Jajji’s brother Shahabuddin Butt also entered film production with the film Gentleman in 1969. The mantle was then taken up by their two younger brothers, Pervaiz Butt and Babar Butt, who produced Rana’s Kalka and now Jajji Bahadur.
“Having made Puttary Shahiay Da for the family earlier, the brothers now want me to make a film with Jajji’s name in the title,” Rana says.
The film’s title poster, which hangs on a wall in Shahia Pehlwan’s dera near the Taxali Gate features the real-life photograph of Jajji. A number of pictures of Shahia Pehlwan with President Ayub Khan are also on display. Some of Shahia’s nephews have also acted in the films their uncles produced.
“The film will depict Jajji’s true story. He was a wrestler who was forced onto the wrong side of the law. The police opposed him for his bravery and his parents tried to make him reconsider his path, but he became too set in his ways and was killed,” Rana says.
Caste identities in Punjab have continued to find themselves in a tense relationship with the Pakistani state and its cultural project. This tension has found its expression through finding for itself an anti-hero, the goonda, and representing his tragedy as an attempt to negotiate a space within the cultural realm.
Punjabi film has undergone a transformation from Malangi in the 60s to Wehshi Gujjar in the late 70s all the way to Jajji Bahadur in the 2010s. Over the last two decades, Punjabi films have been unable to replicate the financial success of previous goonda-oriented scripts.
The families of former goondas who entered film production have also not been blind to the need for new stories to reflect changing audiences. The hit films Chooriyan (1998) produced by the Jagga Gujjar family, Kalka from Shah Din Productions, and Bhai Log (2010) from Chaudhry Kamran represent attempts at carving out a new niche for Punjabi film.
Khurram Bari, the chief executive of Bari Studios, speaks of an abandoned attempt by an educated Gujjar family to produce a film titled Gentleman Gujjar. This, coupled with admissions by directors, producers and studio owners that the formula Punjabi film is no longer profitable, points towards a need for Punjabi film to reassess the changing place of caste identities within contemporary Punjab.
“When Jagga Gujjar was released from jail, a crowd of people is said to have stood outside to greet him at Mazang Chowk. When he died, thousands joined his funeral,” Tajja recollects. More recently, the funeral of local goonda Tipu Truckanwala also saw a massive crowd in attendance.
If this is true, then the popularity of films about goondas should come as no surprise to anyone. Nor should one forget that almost all of those killed when the Goonda Act was enacted in 1968, and those killed in police encounters in Shahbaz Sharif’s second term as chief minister of Punjab in the late 1990s, have at least one film to their names.
The goonda, considered the anti-thesis of the law, has, if nothing else, carved out an indelible chapter for himself in the history of Pakistani cinema. That alone is enough to give the goonda, and the late Sultan Rahi, immortality.