S. Suleman, the man with the midas touch

Published 27 Apr, 2021 10:05am

Though he started off as an actor, he made a name for himself as an A-grade director.

Pakistan’s history is replete with examples of siblings making their name with sterling performances in diverse fields — be it sports or entertainment or any other sphere of life. However, a successful quartet from a family such as the Muhammad brothers of cricket, and the singing trio of Benjamin Sisters is a rare occurrence.

Similarly, the Lahore-based Pakistan film industry boasted of the talent of three Syed brothers, every one of them a star in his own right who shone in his own distinct colours.

Syed Suleman, aka S. Suleman aka Sullu Bhai, started as an actor, much like his two elder brothers, famously known as Santosh Kumar and Darpan, but later made a name for himself as an A-grade director. Though the youngest of the three, he was the first to step into the world of showbiz.

Born on December 29, 1938, in Hyderabad, India, Suleman first appeared on the big screen in 1947, when he played the younger version of Dilip Kumar in Mela (1948), where the then star-in-the-making Allauddin played the role of Nargis’ father. Suleman joined the Pakistan film industry in the mid-50s, when it was still in its struggling phase. He associated himself with the editing department, but his sheer dedication and sense of work led to legendary director/producer Anwar Kamal Pasha taking him on as his assistant.

The career of renowned director S. Suleman, who passed away on April 14, seemed to mirror that of the Pakistan film industry, from booming in the 1960s to disillusionment in the ‘90s and 2000s. But he will always be remembered for being a consummate versatile filmmaker

Suleman worked under Pasha’s able guidance in Sarfarosh (1956), where his eldest brother Santosh, and sister-in-law Sabiha Khanum, played the lead. S. Suleman then joined Jafar Malik for Saat Lakh (1957) and, when Darpan turned producer with Saathi (1959), he asked director Al-Hamid to make him his assistant.

Saathi’s success promoted Suleman as a director for Darpan’s next film, the musical costume drama Gulfam (1961). Suleman played the small role of Darpan’s brother in the movie, and Musarrat Nazir played the love interest of the title character. Darpan and Suleman collaborated on two more projects, Baaji (1963) and Taangewala (1963), while Santosh Kumar featured in Tasvir and Lori (both released in 1966). In the mid-60s, Suleman married actor/dancer Zareen Panna, and their union led to two sons and a daughter.

Suleman was also very close to the legendary pair of Muhammad Ali and Zeba. Zeba once admitted in a TV show that Suleman was also the reason behind the creation of Ali-Zeb Productions. Muhammad Ali, the man who later featured in the highest number of Suleman’s films (16 to be exact), wanted the director to forget the failure of Tamasha (1966), a film with a forgettable cast, where Muhammad Ali appeared in just a few scenes.

With Aag (1967), Suleman managed to form a team of his own. He joined forces with writer Agha Hasan Imtisaal, a magician with words, and legendary music director Nisar Bazmi, and their association produced hits such as Jaise Jaantay Nahin (1969), Bewafaa (Suleman’s only film with Waheed Murad, 1970), Sabaq (1972) and Shararat (1976).

'Aisay bhi hain meherbaan', 'Mausam haseen hai lekin', 'Abhi dhoondh hi rahi thi', 'Youn zindagi ki raah mein', 'Ranjish hi sahi' and 'Mera naam tera naam' are but just a few famous songs that came from the Bazmi-Suleman-Imtisaal trio.

Director Saqib Malik had Runa Laila’s 'Khilti kali ko dekh kar', from the film Sabaq, remixed for his 2019 film Baaji. “The songs from movies by S. Suleman were always catchy,” he says. “I used to stop whatever I was doing just to listen to the songs on the radio. The reason why I chose the title Baaji for my film was because Suleman Sahib made one with the same title revolving around the life of a middle-aged lady.”

After a good five years, and 10 films with Muhammad Ali and Zeba, Suleman associated himself with the then younger lot of actors such as Nadeem and Shahid. With the loss of the East Pakistan film industry, Nadeem and Shabnam needed a push in their respective careers, and they got the roles they duly deserved after joining hands with S. Suleman. The Nadeem-Shabnam pair clicked on screen after S. Suleman used them in as many as seven of his films.

S. Suleman was famous for selecting women-oriented themes. Take Zeenat (1975), for example. Though it earned Suleman his first Nigar Award as Best Director, the movie is still known as Shabnam’s film, despite the presence of heavyweights such as Nadeem, Shahid and Munawwar Zarif in the main cast.

S. Suleman also had a knack for launching future stars, such as Ghulam Mohiyuddin (Anarri), Babra Sharif (Intezar) and Wasim Abbas (Manzil), or nurturing actors such as Shahid (Ilzam), Najma (Shararat) and Mumtaz (Intezar), who went on to rule 1970s filmdom.

“It was Suleman Bhai who encouraged me to sign on for a short yet powerful role in Anarri, and later cast me as a lead in Shararat, Moam Ki Gurriya and Aaj Aur Kal [all released in 1976],” recalls veteran actor Ghulam Mohyiuddin. With actor Shahid, Suleman worked in six films, between 1976 and 1978, which included comedies such as Abhi Toh Mein Jawaan Hoon, Uff Yeh Biwiaan, and social films such as Mere Hazoor, Pyar Ka Waada and Talaq.

As a director with an excellent sense of framing and a love for music, S. Suleman mentored several legends behind the camera as well. Famed director Javed Fazil joined him as an assistant in 1969, producer/director Syed Noor, the man who initiated a semi-revival of Pakistan films in the 1990s, also assisted S. Suleman before becoming a full-time writer. And, as far as giving a break to singers is concerned, Suleman was behind the debut of Mujeeb Alam ('Main khushsi se kyun na gaaon', Lori), Tahira Syed ('Yeh mehfil jo aaj saji hai', Muhabbat), and Zille Huma, the daughter of Madam Noor Jehan ('Sulag raha hai tann mera', Very Good Dunya Very Bad Log).

With the advent of the VCR, Suleman turned to his best bet Muhammad Ali, making the action/thriller Manzil (1981), and the thoughtful Tere Bina Kya Jeena (1982). Suleman directed only three more films. His last film, Very Good Dunya Very Bad Log (1998), had a music score by Nisar Bazmi. 'Jaisa bhi hoon' main by singers Shazia Manzoor and Anwar Rafi is still as popular as 'Ghoonghat utha zara' by Humera Channa and Shazia Manzoor.

Producer Rashid Khawaja says that the work S. Suleman did in Very Good Dunya Very Bad Log remains unimaginable today. “Recently, I had the movie digitised for social media, and sent the links of some songs to Suleman Sahib. He said that ‘to do such songs back in the mid-90s was only a result of our craziness’, as the sets were too costly even by today’s standards,” says Khawaja, the co-producer of the film with Nadeem Mandviwala.

Suleman made all kinds of films, be it the costume drama Gulfam, comedies Shararat and Abhi Toh Main Jawaan Hoon or the love story Mohabbat, and addressed social issues such as the malice of dowry (Aaj Aur Kal) through them. He was a master at making all types of films. After directing 48 films, including two in Punjabi, S. Suleman moved to television. The transition proved to be successful and, in a short span of time, he directed a couple of hit serials such as Colony 52, Kiya Yehi Pyar Hai and Ana amongst them.

S. Suleman had been unwell for the last couple of years, yet he was always in high spirits. We had several conversations regarding the culture of the film world, despite him being bedridden. He finally moved on from this world on April 14 in Lahore, at the age of 82.

Ghulam Mohyiuddin, one of the many people greatly saddened by the death of Sullu Bhai, complained of the fact that most legends are fondly remembered only after they are gone. “We should change our approach and start praising our legends during their lifetime,” says the veteran actor. “We can never get another Nasir Kazmi, Habib Jalib or Jamiluddin Aali again, so we should start doing it.”

S. Suleman will forever be remembered as someone who personified the Pakistan film industry. He was at the top of his game when the industry was in its boom period during the ’60s, then vigorously fought the VCR culture in the ’70s, but reduced his workload when Punjabi films ruled throughout the ‘80s, shifting to television after being disillusioned by films in the ’90s and early 2000s, and passed away when the industry now seems to be on its last legs.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 25th, 2021

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