Pakistan’s film industry has produced blockbusters in all languages. After the industry matured, Pakistan made its name internationally and had superstars by the dozens. By late ’60s, Urdu films had Waheed Murad, Muhammad Ali, Nadeem and Kamal, while Punjabi films had Allauddin, Akmal, Habib and Kaifee who were ‘heroes’ of the day.
Most of them were able to ‘produce’ blockbusters either in Urdu or Punjabi. But there was only one actor and producer who was successful in both Urdu and Punjabi films. Like a true ‘hero’, Ejaz Durrani excelled in acting as well as production.
Tall, handsome and always smiling, Ejaz Durrani had an active career from 1956-74. He began his career in a supporting role in Munshi Dil’s Hameeda (1956) but his break came in 1957, with director Humayun Mirza’s Barra Aadmi, where he was paired with the Lara Lappa girl Meena Shorey.
Ejaz’s next venture was also with Mirza, who cast him with the ravishing Mussarat Nazir in the successful thriller Raaz (1959). The pair was recast by revolutionary director Khalil Qaiser in Shaheed three years later, where Ejaz proved his mettle in the presence of stalwarts such as Allaudin, Talish and Himalaywala.
Actor and producer Ejaz Durrani, who passed away on March 1, will always be remembered primarily as the personification of the Punjabi folk hero
Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm Nisar mein teri galiyon ke, was rendered on screen by Ejaz, when the leader of the tribe, in the film, was being sent into exile. It was the beginning of the tussle between writer-director Riaz Shahid and the regime of Gen Ayub Khan, who had just sent President Iskander Mirza packing, weeks after the civilian government had been toppled.
The year 1964 turned out to be excellent for Ejaz. He was the lead in Deewana (the first film of the ‘invisible man’ genre in Pakistan), which helped ace director of photography Raza Mir transition into a director. He appeared as the male lead in Beti and was also seen in the role of a novelist in Khawaja Khurshid Anwar’s Chingari the same year. He lip-synced to Mehdi Hasan’s Ae roshni ke shehr bataa, criticising the modern values and the errant ways of the youth.
After that, Ejaz shuttled between lead and supporting roles, successfully experimenting also with a negative role in Hasan Tariq’s Sawaal (1966), where Santosh Kumar played the lead for the last time. Ejaz was there with Darpan in Jalwa (1966) and in Badnaam (1966) with Allaudin. In Badnaam, Ejaz reunited with Neelo, who had married the legendary director Riaz Shahid, after her refusal to dance in front of a foreign dignitary.
Ejaz was the one rendering Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhi in Riaz Shahid’s Zarqa (1969), when Habib Jalib’s poem Neelo was used in another ‘take-on-the-regime’ blockbuster. Zarqa became Pakistan’s first Diamond Jubilee film, celebrating over 100 weeks.
Ejaz’s biggest success as an actor, however, was Lakhon Mein Aik (LMA), released in 1967 (Zarqa belonged completely to Neelo). In LMA, he plays a truck driver who loses his memory. Set in Kashmir, the film was remade as Henna by showman Raj Kapoor in 1990, where Raj’s son Rishi Kapoor reprised Ejaz’s role. Acting awards always eluded Ejaz, though; he lost the Best Actor Nigar Award for LMA to the then newcomer Nadeem.
When Ejaz joined Nadeem, Kamal and Deeba in Hasan Tariq’s multi-starrer Behen Bhai in 1968, he excelled in the role of a pimp who recognises his long-lost sister before it’s too late. The manner in which he held a cigarette in his hand and the unique way of snapping the fingers to shed the cigarette ash is still remembered and emulated by many. In an interview to this writer in 2017, Ejaz revealed it was he who had the story and the character written.
Ejaz had no qualms in playing a young-to-old character in comedian Rangeela’s directorial debut Diya Aur Toofan. His production skills were also evident in Punjabi film Heer Ranjha (1970), which broke all box office records. Screened around the same time, the Raj Kumar-Priya Rajvansh film with same title and story was released across the border. The Masood Pervaiz-directed film, however, immortalised Ranjha forever.
Sadly, the song Sunn wanjhli di mithri taan ve by Ejaz’s then wife, Malika-i-Tarannum Noor Jehan, was the beginning of the end of his relationship with Noor Jehan. The marriage, which was solemnised in 1959, ended in divorce in 1971. Ejaz’s growing relations with actress Firdous had a lot to do with the break-up.
By that time, Ejaz was busy with his next film, Dosti (1971). Dosti was one of the first few Pakistani films to be shot in the UK, and the Shabnam, Rehman and Ejaz-starrer celebrated a Diamond Jubilee, becoming Pakistan’s second Urdu film to achieve the status.
Ejaz then married the daughter of Sharif Nayyar, the director of Dosti. He lost couple of valuable years of his life when he was sentenced to jail in the UK for drug smuggling. Qamar Ahmed, renowned cricket writer and a close friend of Ejaz, believed he was framed as part of a conspiracy by some influential people in Lollywood.
“Ejaz had requested reels of Dosti to be sent to London in the summer of 1976, for screening. He himself went to the Customs at London airport to collect the boxes of films reels, unaware that his subordinates had stuffed marijuana in a few boxes, and even informed the British police. Ejaz was caught red-handed and served a couple of years in jail for something he had not done,” recalls Qamar Ahmed, who once travelled with Ejaz to Pakistan in the latter’s car from London.
Ejaz Durrani produced a couple of films in the ’80s, but mostly stayed away from the limelight. Old age and illness got the better of him and he died on March 1, 2021, at the age of 86.
Some may remember him as the face who took on the military regimes in Shaheed and Zarqa, others as the simpleton from Badnaam and Dosti. But till the end of time, Ejaz will be remembered as Ranjha by everyone, whose wanjhli (flute) never stopped playing till the time of his death.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 7th, 2021