The story of Neelo, the Shah of Iran and Zarqa — the first diamond jubilee film of Pakistan

The story of Neelo, the Shah of Iran and Zarqa — the first diamond jubilee film of Pakistan

The dramatic, actual back story is far more interesting than what turns out to be a predictable, politically correct potboiler.
Updated 01 Feb, 2021

This excerpt is from an article originally published in March 2017

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.


KAZIM REZA Jan 31, 2021 12:35pm
Neelo , a dignified personality had proved in her life what is called self-respect. She loved her country, career, family, and the people of Pakistan. The film Zarqa haunts us to feel the pain and sorrow, and the blood of masses who live under the occupation forces, be it in Palestine even in India-occupied Kashmir. You have correctly put it as anti-imperialist. The saga of her indomitable courage that had been shown on Governor's house was an unknown episode that Dawn showed it well to readers.
Chrís Dăn Jan 31, 2021 02:06pm
What a movie was it!!!Voila. One of the best directed movies ,I watched in my whole life. And what an acting. Nelo became a personified Zarqa in my mind from that time. We do not have another Nelo-another talent which made her unique.
Zak Jan 31, 2021 02:22pm
Hope they release the film Zarqa in Arabic and for the palistinians. They will appreciate Pakistan picking and depicting their cause so much earlier on and Nilo was a great talented contributor.
Manek Premchand Jan 31, 2021 02:26pm
Beautiful read! And Mehdi Saab? Kya kehne...
Mj Jan 31, 2021 02:27pm
Great lady, didn’t know her before reading this article. May she rest in piece.
Zubair Ahmed Jan 31, 2021 03:22pm
What a movie was it!!!Voila. One of the best directed movies ,I watched in my whole life. And what an acting. Nelo became a personified Zarqa in my mind from that time. We do not have another Nelo-another talent which made her unique. Reply Recommend 2
KAZIM REZA Jan 31, 2021 03:30pm
Saw Zarqa in 1969 at Naraynganj a business center, jute terminal centre, and a subdivision where the Adamjee Jute Mill was located. It was packed Gulshan cinema hall.Then I was a student of class eight.
M. Emad Jan 31, 2021 04:34pm
Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid (the youngest National Parliament Member elected in 1970, and later a Bangladesh Liberation War organizer) few years ago in one of his humorous speeches mentioned that in 1960s he and some of his friends became fans of Neelo, and used to watch every Neelo film multiple times !!
Surinder Gill Jan 31, 2021 05:48pm
Sad. RIP. A poem of great Jalib sahib was truly brought to life by Neelo in Raqs zanzir pehan ke bhi kiya jata hey. A very strong message to persecuted and crushed humans.
asif Jan 31, 2021 06:47pm
Really great to know
Mushfiq Jan 31, 2021 07:02pm
The dynamic duo of Riaz Shahid and Nello produced some of the great Urdu movies! Nello was a lady of character and strong determination who stood against the oppressors of the time, her struggle is analogous to the lady's story told in Zarqa!
Ga Jan 31, 2021 07:57pm
Thank you for enlightening us. Pakistanis dont often celebrate their own art.
Ehsan Feb 01, 2021 04:33am
Utmost respect for our legendary actress and her defiant act, wish someone can make a movie about her defiance against all odds.
KAZIM REZA Feb 01, 2021 02:48pm
I have been greatly disappointed for not seeing any condolence messages from the hounarble president and the Prime minister of Pakistan on the sad demise of a great Pakistani like Neelo. To whom Pakistan does respect?
AZAM AKBAR Feb 02, 2021 07:58am
Inna Lillaahe Wa Inna Ilaiehe Rajeoun.
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Feb 02, 2021 12:30pm
What a sad, grave, gruesome, grim, gross and great tragedy? Inna Lilla Hay Waa Inna Illehey Rajayoon.
Qazi Tauqeer Ahmed Feb 02, 2021 09:13pm
@KAZIM REZA that's not correct. Condolences posted by PM on his Twitter account and acknowledged by her son Shan
KAZIM REZA Feb 03, 2021 12:41pm
@Qazi Tauqeer Ahmed So I stand corrected. Many many thanks.
Siraj Khan Feb 03, 2021 07:24pm
Well penned, my friend.