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Social(ist) cinema: Habib Jalib and Riaz Shahid

Updated November 02, 2014

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Khalil Qaiser in the film Clerk, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive
Khalil Qaiser in the film Clerk, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive

It all started because of a shared love for betel leaves: filmmaker Riaz Shahid and poet Habib Jalib would often bump into each other at the same paan shop near Evernew Studios in Lahore. Whenever they would meet, their discussions would inevitably veer into ideology, politics and films. Over paan, the basis of Lollywood’s finest jori was laid.

Shahid was a screenwriter back then; he was a fan of left-wing icon Habib Jalib, and would often hobnob with various activists at socialist events in Lahore. His love for Palestine, Algeria and Kashmir was defined by ideology. This was an epoch when taraqqi pasand (progressive) poets and writers used to have a soft corner for anti-imperialist fighters from Muslim backgrounds.

Jalib, of course, was a celebrity in his own right. He was often the star attraction of many a mushaira, where his inimitable flourish and use of symbolism would shine through. As Zulmat ko Zia can affirm, Jalib had great control over the genre of symbolism. Then were songs such as Iss Shehr-i-Kharabi Mein from the film Mauseeqar, and Shauq-i-Awargi from the film Joker, that became film numbers after they had already been recited in mushairas and were known as Jalib’s literary creations.


Read the story of one of the most unique partnerships in Pakistani cinema


There was mutual professional respect between Shahid and Jalib, but soon, this relationship would turn into a lasting friendship and professional association.

  Riaz Shahid and Neelo, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive
Riaz Shahid and Neelo, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive

Shahid was into symbolism as a genre (a forte of all liberal and socialist elite). He wrote his dialogue with the same flourish that was the highlight of Jalib’s poetry. Impressed by Jalib’s flair and use of symbolism, he recommended Jalib to Jaffar Bukhari for his movie Bharosa, for which Shahid was writing the screenplay. Bukhari agreed. He was also handing a debut to music director A. Hameed, who later became a favourite for Khalil Qaiser and Riaz Shahid.

This group was ideologically on the same page: Shahid was immensely fascinated by the Palestinian guerrilla fighter Leila Khaled (of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). He made Musarrat Nazir’s role in Khalil Qaiser’s Shaheed turn and twist into Khaled’s adventures during the Arab-Israel war. Despite the fact that Laila Khalid never died, and Musarrat Nazeer dies in Shaheed, there were great parallels between the two.

Thus began the professional association of Shahid and Jalib. They worked together in most Khalil Qaiser films and all Riaz Shahid movies. These films include, among others, Khamosh Raho, ZarqaYeh Amn, and Bahisht. Qaiser had assembled a group that worked as a team at all times. Aside from Qaiser, Shahid and Jalib, Alauddin and Talish, the music director and the lyricists, all had a say in the film-making process.

 Habib Jalib, Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Habib Jalib, Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

The storyline of their first endeavour together should have been a precursor of the artistic brilliance that the Jalib-Shahid duo would become renowned for. Khamosh Raho was directed by Jameel Akhter and its film score was organised by Khalil Ahmed. The cast included Deeba, Yousuf Khan, Mohammad Ali, and Meena Shori — the movie was Mohammad Ali’s big break in Lollywood.

The movie was ostensibly about a brothel owner’s system of bonded prostitution — but it had many symbolic layers, one of which was the juxtaposition of arranged marriages and prostitution.

But the storyline was also a premonition of a war that was about to happen. The movie was released on July 17, 1964, when there was no apparent danger to Pakistan from India. Political insiders knew, however, that President Ayub Khan was going ahead with Operation Gibraltar inside Indian-held Kashmir.

Nisho and Sangeeta in a scene from the film Yeh Amn, Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Nisho and Sangeeta in a scene from the film Yeh Amn, Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

Jalib of course wrote the lyrics of Khamosh Raho’s songs. Mala’s super-hit number, Main Ne To Preet Nibhai Sanwarya Re, was written as the voice of the soil, rallying the troops to come to the safety of the borders. An apparently benign song, which seemed like a fiancée’s lament for her soldier husband on the border, thus turned into a song that warned people of an imminent invasion.

  Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

The line “Aaney Ko Hain Loag Paraey” was later followed by a scene that showed foreign military running into the fields, and the soldiers on the border looking over their shoulders at them. Phrases such as “Sipahi Laut Kar Aaja,” had special meaning in this context, and the civilian side seemed to be saying, “Main Ne To Preet Nibhai, Sanwarya Re, Nikla Tu Harjai!

Jalib’s song lines predicted the entry of “foreign people” into Pakistan; war broke out in September, 1965.

But this isn’t the only indication that Shahid and Jalib were predicting mayhem; the title, Khamosh Raho, itself was a warning. Jalib’s famous poem, Dastoor (The Constitution), which he read at Liaquat Bagh (Pindi) against Ayub Khan and for which he was jailed, was included in the movie.

A slight change was made to the first line: instead of Aesey Dastoor Ko, Subh-i-Bay-Noor Ko, the line sung by Ahmed Rushdi in the film was, “Tum Naheen Charagar, Koee Maney Magar, Main Naheen Manta.” The line had been changed, but the hard-hitting punch-line, which had been etched in the minds of the martial law administration, Main Naheen Manta (I do not acknowledge) was still there. The song passed the censor board.

  Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive
Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

Then there are the characters and the dialogue: Shahid had drawn inspiration for the storyline from events being reported in the press. The character of the brothel madam is based on Aqleem Akhter Rani, better known as ‘General Rani’, a madam who became a regular provider to the elite after Yahya Khan assumed power.

As per the storyline, the madam of the brothel, Meena Shori, uses Mohammad Ali to kidnap young women from their villages; these women are then presented to feudal lords and military officers.

 A publicity shot of film actress Tarana, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive
A publicity shot of film actress Tarana, Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive

Mohammad Ali eventually wakes up to a call of conscience; he fights from within the brothel to bring justice to the aggrieved. When the soldier hero of the film, Yusuf Khan, arrives to smash the brothel, he tells him, “Tum Sarhad Kee Hifazat Karo, Andar Hum Sambhal Lein Ge” (You safeguard the border, we’ll protect it from the inside). This was Shahid’s attempt at depicting civil-military jostling throughout Pakistan’s political history.

Another classic film driven by the socialist duo was of course Riaz Shahid’s Zarqa. The film was based on Palestine; it was released on October 17, 1969 — the same year that Ayub Khan handed over the reins of power to Yahya Khan.

Zarqa had the famous sequence of an Israeli general forcing a Palestinian woman — a worker of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group — to dance and thus do whatever was necessary to co-operate with Israeli intelligence. This sequence was the need of the film, but there was more: the scene was inspired by a real-life event that befell Neelo, the heroine of Zarqa.

News broke that before the film had even reached its halfway mark during filming, Neelo had been summoned to entertain the Shah of Iran, who was the guest of the government, by dancing for his pleasure. Some claim that the Shah was the guest of Nawab of Kalabagh, and it was the Nawab who had called for Neelo.

But during this ‘entertainment’, Neelo fell unconscious on the dance floor due to tension and fear. Some sources say she tried to commit suicide.

Since Neelo was very close to Riaz Shahid, and she was the heroine of the film, the firebrand director and a vital member of the socialist wing of the film industry, courageously, decided to incorporate this incident into his film.

The dance scene thus had a Zionist general, played by character actor Talish, forcing a Palestinian girl to dance, while her comrades were forced to watch the humiliation. The general was shown to make the girl scream by torturing her with lit cigarettes.

The symbolism hit back with enough impact to make it one of the most popular scenes of Zarqa. Through just one scene, Riaz Shahid and Habib Jalib were able to depict both the Palestinian plight and Neelo’s humiliation.

 Musarrat Nazir and Ejaz in the film
Musarrat Nazir and Ejaz in the film 'Shaheed', Photos courtesy: Guddu Film Archive

Jalib had penned a poem on the incident before the film had been completed; Shahid found space to accommodate it in Zarqa, albeit with slight modifications to its opening lines. The film song, composed by Wajahat Attre (and probably helped by Rasheed Attre) shifted the blame from the king to the army general. But in his poem titled Neelo, Jalib distinctly writes:

Too Ke Nawaqif-i-Aadab-i-Shahenshahi Thee

Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhee Kiya Jata Hai!

(You are unaware of the tenets of imperialism! You can also dance in fetters)

Since there was no king in Shahid’s adaptation, the wordings of the song were changed to:

Too Ke Nawaqif-i-Aadab-i-Ghulami Hai Abhi

Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhee Kiya Jata Hai!

(You are unaware of the tenets of slavery! You can also dance in fetters!)

This, of course, was no prediction. The Neelo incident had already happened. But it was by no means a one-off or isolated incident; during the reign of Yahya Khan, film actresses were regularly “invited” to the President House.

It was said at the time that Tarana, a stunning item girl and character-actress of our industry with an Iranian background, was often summoned by President Yahya Khan. Once, when she went to meet him, the doorkeeper failed to recognise her and didn’t let her in.

Tarana was finally called in, and she remained inside there for some time. Before leaving, she reminded the doorkeeper who she was. He gave her a bright salute, and said, “Mafi Do Begum Sahib. Pehle Aap Sirf Tarana Theen, Ab Aap Qaumi Tarana Hain! (I am sorry! You were simply Tarana before, but now you are the national anthem!”)

Tragically, Jalib and Shahid could only work together till 1972, when Riaz Shahid died in October of that year. Shahid’s final movie was Yeh Amn, a beautiful movie on Kashmir. Jalib wrote some songs for Yeh Amn too, including the super-hit Zulm Rahey Aur Amn Bhee Ho which was sung by Madam Noor Jahan and Mehdi Hasan.

In an irony of sorts, Yeh Amn was filmed during Yahya Khan’s regime, but was released after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had assumed power. But the film had been mercilessly mutilated by the censors of the democratic government. Shahid’s last movie was released in his lifetime.

Jalib continued to write for films, including films such as ZakhmiMuhabbat,  and Naag Muni, but the memorable combination of the greats was broken. Ever since then, no other scriptwriter or director has shown such nuanced understanding of political symbolism as these two stalwarts did. Even a genius like Hasan Tariq could not make movies on political issues that Riaz Shahid and Khalil Qaiser used to create.

With Shahid’s demise, Lollywood saw the passing of the last of its influential socialists.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 2nd, 2014