THIS is a set of familiar, old key words. Depalpur. Faridkot. A young Pakistani boy crossing over to India... . It even involves a famous name that rhymes with ‘gun’.
But hold it right there! This is an encounter of another kind. It is not about killing and devastation but about inspiration that makes youngsters set their eyes on distant targets. Mumbai once again.
Kashif Ali belonged to a Depalpur village not very far from where the Lahore film industry once offered its own heroes to the fans. He was enrolled in a religious seminary, and a year ago he crossed over to India near Kasur to chase a meeting with Mumbai film star Ajay Devgan.
The 13-year-old landed in Faridkot — a town on the Indian side of Punjab which has many namesakes in Pakistan and India, Ajmal Kasab’s Faridkot on Kasur-Depalpur Road being one of them. But for an act of fate Kashif could still be languishing in jail in alien territory, an addition, often only a statistic, in the numbers of Pakistanis held in Indian prisons.
Ajoka director Madiha Gauhar learnt about the Pakistani boy in jail when she was in Faridkot to stage a play. Help was sought, and help and sympathy arrived in the shape of a local sessions judge, Ms Archana Puri.
Ms Puri helped secure Kashif’s release and escorted him to the border for a handover to Pakistan. The boy was reunited with his widowed mother on Oct 9, and news reports the following morning brought the human-interest story to readers — with pictures of the boy, all dressed up in white and blue and ready to play a young Jeetendra.
Kashif Ali came back home at a particular moment in time. October is a depressing time in Lahore, when days are suddenly cut short and darkness is thrust upon the city all too abruptly.
This year, these hasty dark evenings have coincided with the debate on the future of young lives in this country and the young Devgan fan provided his share of stimulus for the sad discussion centring on what has been lost and what is fast eroding. What had forced him to go in the first place?
Finally someone spoke up on a deeply depressive October evening last week: the boy crossed over since he could find no heroes this side of the border. It is not that there is an embargo on idolising ‘foreign’ heroes. But did the young man have a choice close to home?
Not very long ago, the city had a galaxy of film stars with a following to boast of and when the borders so allowed, it would proudly send talent to Bombay, even to Calcutta.
The Mumbai actors were all there, commanding respect and followed madly here, but it was possible for a young boy to try the local market in case he wanted to save himself the trouble of illegally crossing the boundary. That option is not there now. Lahore had a constant supply of aspirants, from Depalpur and much beyond, who would converge outside its various film studios. They believed in the saying that all it took for a motley soul to embrace stardom was to catch the eye of someone famous entering or exiting the studio.
This belief was strengthened by frequent reports, real and made up, of people catching the right eye and getting stardom overnight. Besides the obvious victims, the decline of the Lahore film industry has also taken away a source of myths and legends, many of them casting the ordinary but a little imaginative people in lead roles against the film heartthrobs of the time.
Some of these stories have survived and do make it to sombre October-evening reminiscences…. The heroine someone ran into at a crockery shop…. The hero who spent many nights on the footpath…. The comedian someone else saw acting as a drug addict in the Walled City as an amateur before he became famous by playing the same role in his first film…. The visit to the studio where Noorjehan sang and was looked upon as the queen and where a chance meeting with an actress as humble and modest as Aliya would lead to the proud visitor narrating an unending series of tales to the captive audience.
As someone who first went to a school in Royal Park, vivid in my mind are scenes from the distributors’ offices which drew a steady traffic of clones and original stars — in fancy suits and burkas — in buildings that stand desolate today.
Routinely someone would turn up at a studio wanting to catch a glimpse of their favourite film icon, and occasionally a very determined fan pursuing his or her case to a point where admiration gave way to stalking would make it to a newspaper page. In one instance that comes to mind, the court was moved after a girl created a stir by claiming she was the sister of a famous hero.
Each locality of Lahore had a few showbiz icons living there. The images of famous Pakistani film actors adorned the walls inside a hairstylist’s salon where Rafi was as permanent a fixture as the daily Urdu newspaper.
We had a hero at every paan corner, a cigarette extending from his fingertips. A friend rightly points out that now the term ‘hero’ has gone out of fashion here — which is no surprise given that it was a pure filmy term and needed films to stay current.
For some time, television personalities tried to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the film industry here. Now most of the TV stars have also left.
You switch on the only city channel in Lahore one morning and find yourself watching a reporter posted at the airport and interviewing actors returning after completing a drama serial in Karachi. This is a connection to the glamour world alright, almost as long as runaway Kashif Ali was trying to establish.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.