In the early 1970s, Pakistan was the fourth largest producer of feature films in the world. Yet because of war, politics and tit-for-tat embargoes by Pakistan and India, Pakistani cinema and its stars, music directors and singers remain a mystery to most movie lovers beyond the borders of the Land of the Pure.
Our new weekly series is your opportunity to get a glimpse behind the cultural purdah. Each week we look at one film through a song from its soundtrack and share with you the glorious voices and melodies, the personalities and scandals that delighted millions of movie fans just across the border.
In the 1960s, Pakistan’s filmmakers often found inspiration in the national struggle of the Palestinian people and audiences generally responded well to such films. Shaheed was a massive box office draw in 1962, and it seems to have inspired the making of Zarqa in 1969.
Zarqa tells the story of an Arab woman who 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.
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 back story 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 with Faiz’s weekly Lail-o-Nihar, and moved to screen writing by the late ’50s.
In 1964, Shahid’s 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 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 audience 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.
In 1965, the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Pakistan and was hosted by the Nawab of Kalabagh, the Governor of West Pakistan. 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 the 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 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 ‘Imperialism’ 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 music was composed by Rashid and Wajahat Attre, a father-and-son team with a strong predilection for raga-based music. Originally from Pune, 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.
This article, originally published at Scroll.in, has been reproduced with permission.