Pakistan’s first radical feminist

Updated August 17, 2014

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When modern feminism began to take root as a movement in the late 1960s and 1970s (in the West), a number of urban middle-class Pakistani women too began to echo the movement’s mantras and rhetoric.

Some of these women would eventually go on to form various women’s organisations that directly challenged what, according to them, were ‘anti-women laws’ of the dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq (July 1977-August 1988).

But one of the first prominent feminists in Pakistan was actually a man! He was the famous film comedian and director, Rangeela, who became the first Pakistani to fully express the concerns and beliefs of the 1970s ‘women’s liberation movement’ in the country. And he did that through a big-budgeted feature film that he directed, produced and acted in.


One of the first pioneers of women’s liberation in Pakistan was actually a man from Lollywood


The film was called Aurat Raj (Women’s Rule). It was released in 1979 but bombed at the box-office — despite the fact that it was made and released in an era when the Pakistan film industry was still thriving and the country’s cities and towns were dotted by thousands of cinemas and a huge cinema-going audience.

Documentarian, film historian and author, late Mushtaq Gazdar, wrote in his 1997 book, 50 Years of Pakistan Cinema, that one of the main reasons Aurat Raj flopped was that it was just too far ahead of its time (in the context of Pakistani cinema); and that Rangeela had to edit out a number of even more interesting ideas from the film because by the time the film was released, a reactionary dictatorship had replaced a populist government in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, Rangeela not only managed to make the radical film, but also got the distributors to release it in cinemas across the country.

In the 1970s, a majority of Pakistani films had actually ridiculed the antics of the period’s popular women’s liberation movement. But Rangeela decided to turn the tables and satirise those who were ridiculing the movement, especially men.

The most interesting thing in this respect is that Rangeela did not come from an educated or liberal background. He was a half-literate man who before becoming an actor, had eked out a meagre living by painting billboards.

In the 1960s he managed to rise as a film comedian, known for his awkward slapstick antics devoid of any wit whatsoever. His strange frame — big head, small body, thin legs — and the odd sounds that emerged from his throat and mouth were enough to make filmmakers cast him to provide a few mindless laughs in their otherwise more ‘serious’ films.

Bored with the slapstick routine and frustrated by the way filmmakers were constantly typecasting him, Rangeela formed his own production company. He started to direct and produce his own films and the first three released by his company (between 1969 and 1972) all scored big at the box-office.

Though he too continued to cast himself as a comedian, he gave himself a more central role in the plots and also introduced himself as a soulful playback singer.

With three major hits under his belt, his production company was suddenly flooded with millions of rupees. But he was still not satisfied. Restless as he was, he decided to put almost all of his earnings into an ambitious project that sought to bring to the big screen a Pakistani/Urdu version of Anthony Quinn’s 1956 Hollywood epic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Playing the misunderstood hunchback himself, Rangeela was gutted when the film performed dismally at the box-office. What’s more, he had lost almost all of the money that he had made during the previous three years. He had to revert to picking up stereotypical slapstick roles again to survive as a professional actor.

But bankruptcy and the collapse of his production company did not stop him from dreaming big. After managing to recover the money he had lost on the hunchback project by taking up dozens of comical roles in other people’s films, Rangeela reconstructed his production company.

In 1978 he again began to try plotting a film that would make him stand out as a film-maker. It was at this point that someone told him about an idea of a short story that famous Pakistani novelist, Shaukat Thanvi, had once mentioned somewhere about a world in which societies were entirely matriarchal.

Excited, Rangeela decided to expand the idea into a film. He signed on a number of the time’s famous actors and actresses and completed the film by early 1979. Once again Rangeela invested all of his earnings into an off-beat film project. The distributers were shocked at what they saw: A scathing satire on male-dominated societies. The film also parodied the concept of heroes and heroines in Pakistani films and was entirely sympathetic to the feminist point of view.

The film is actually like no other ever made in this country. It sees a repressed wife (played by Rani) of a flamboyant male chauvinist (played by Waheed Murad) — a man who treats women like objects.

The wife finally puts her foot down and organises a women’s movement in the area. The movement dramatically spreads and mobs of women begin to get hold of oppressive men and beat them up in the streets. The government intervenes and decides to hold an election to resolve the issue. The election is swept by the Aurat Raj Party, and the women gain political power. Rani becomes the country’s new leader and purchases a special bomb from a foreign country. The bomb is special because after exploding it turns all men into women!

All (original) women are elevated to the domestic, social and political positions that were once dominated by the males, and the men are relegated to wearing women’s clothes and pushed into occupations and duties that are stereotypically associated with women.

What follows is a hilarious, biting satire that attacks male chauvinism, social conservatism and female stereotypes constructed by the popular media in a patriarchal society.

The film was so visually and conceptually startling (for its time) that the audiences were not sure exactly how to respond. Rangeela once again went bankrupt.

In a 1990s essay of hers, the well-known TV producer, Shireen Pasha, wrote that some very good films began to flop from the late 1970s onwards. According to her one of the reasons was a demographic shift in the country’s film audiences. As the populist and extroverted social and cultural Zeitgeist of the decade began to recede and a more conservative mind-set began to take its place, the Pakistani films’ middle-class audiences became introverted and stopped venturing to the cinemas.

Romantic and social films began to flop and action flicks became popular. So one can deduce that though Pakistani cinema’s middle-class audiences (that constituted a huge female audience) would have been more appreciative of a film like Aurat Raj, those who actually went to see it belonged to an emerging new audience who had come to watch Waheed Murad as a smouldering Casanova and Sultan Rahi as the muscle man he would go on to become in the 1980s.

But what they got was Murad being beaten black and blue by Rani and Sultan Rahi in a blond wig, playing the role of a moustached mother-in-law!

As for Rangeela, he never recovered from the loss he concurred from this (albeit pioneering) cinematic debacle. He managed to remain afloat as a comedian for the next decade or so, but never again did he allow himself to dream this way. He died of liver failure in 2005.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 17th, 2014