I finally managed to get my hands on the DVD versions of three Pakistani films that I had once seen on the big screen many years ago, and was looking to do the same again, but this time in the privacy of my TV lounge.
I went looking for them to investigate a possibility of finding the cultural roots of what grew into religious and ideological extremism and myopia in Pakistan.
One can pin-point almost all of Ziaul Haq’s Machiavellian farce in the name of Islam as containing the main roots of the social and political extremism that now plagues the nation.
But I believe it is in the cultural legacy of such reactionary travesty in the 1990s where one can clearly locate the derivatives of the Zia era’s Islamist charade; off-shoots of a destructive legacy that eventually mutated into the kind of fanaticism that has become a troubling mainstay of Pakistani society ever since 9/11.
I will not go into the academic and scholarly details of this observation, but rather discuss the issue by reviewing the three films that I rediscovered. Two were made and released in the 1990s and one in 1980. They are interesting examples of the kind of mindset that many common Pakistanis started to develop at the conclusion of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ in the late 1980s.
But the first one arrived in 1980, or at the start of the so-called Afghan Jihad and during a period when the Ziul Haq dictatorship (1977-88) had begun to roll out his draconian policies (explained as being ‘Islamic’) in earnest. Starring famous Pakistan film actor, Muhammad Ali, it was called Sangram.
The film takes place in a land where there seems to be nothing but mud brick villages separated by miles and miles of rolling sand. One is not quite sure exactly what year, or for that matter, what century the story is taking shape because even though there are no electoral appliances to be seen, there are plenty of pistols and a rickety Jeep driven by an evil Hindu police officer. There is no shortage of camels, though.
Ali is Sangram, a Hindu in a village with a Hindu majority most of whose men prefer wearing tight leather pants and shirts made from what seems to be jute.
Ali’s character is a robber who also has a petite girlfriend (actress Mumtaz) who, however, turns significantly voluptuous while dancing around Sangram during the songs.
One day Sangram bumps into a Muslim holy man who looks like a cross between an ancient Byzantine priest and a 20th century Tableeghi Jamat evangelist.
The holy man succeeds in converting Sangram to Islam and renames him Muhammad Ali – a scene marked by a flash of lightening striking across the night sky on a perfectly sunny afternoon.
From then onwards, somehow, whichever scene Ali appears in, palm trees can be seen and his girlfriend’s voluptuous moves become radically understated but the songs keep rolling.
Of course, like all good converts, Ali makes it his duty to convert his contemporaries whether they like it or not. He gives up his life as a thief, a Hindu thief, mind you, discards his leather pants, takes to wearing the Arab thawb and spending rest of the film on the back of a camel.
After first converting his gang and then the whole village (with the help of a few emotional speeches and a couple of punches thrown at one of his doubting partners), he decides to lead an army of committed converts (on camels) on a mission to convert the Hindus of all the villages of this unnamed, surreal land populated by bumbling Hindus and a sprinkling of Muslim clerics who seem to emerge from behind sand dunes and then melt back into the sand.
After he is able to convert village after village, and after palm tree after palm tree begins to dot the scenes, a time comes when Hindu holy men begin to worry.
They conspire with the area’s police to eliminate Ali. This pushes him into becoming a guerrilla leader. He cuts down the Hindu priests until he is cornered and killed by the cops. But, of course, by then it’s too late.
By the way, it is only at the end of the film one finds out that the film took place just before the creation of Pakistan because as Ali lies on the sand dying from his wounds he looks up to see a Pakistan flag on a fortress.
Yes, the symbolism is unmistakable ‘Pakistan is the fortress of Islam’ (albeit created by jihadists and not by cigar-smoking, English-speaking lawyers).
As Ali’s character rolls to his death over the sand dunes, Jinnah must’ve rolled in his grave.
The second film is 1990’s ‘International Gorillay’ (Gorillay in Urdu means guerrillas, but also gorillas!).
The film is a remarkable celebration of a post-Afghan-jihad resurgence of Pakistan’s convoluted belief of being a ‘fortress of Islam.’ It was a huge hit when it was released in mid-1990 and has become a cult classic amongst oddball Lollywood aficionados.
Directed by eccentric Pakistani film director, Jan Muhammad – who then went on to direct the delicious Lollywood rom-com ‘Kuriyoon koh dalay dana’ (direct translation: Feeding women seed) – the farce was also one of the first Pakistani films to be banned (on video) in Britain.
International Gorillay takes on author Salman Rushdie as the film’s main villain, but the ban on the video was lifted when Rushdie himself stepped in and asked the British censor board to allow its release.