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ESSAY: THE FUTURE OF MAULA JATT

Updated October 08, 2017
Artwork: Wasiq Haris
Artwork: Wasiq Haris

History repeats itself, often in unlikely places. Such is the parity between Gotham’s Batman and Gujranwala’s Maula Jatt. I depicted their uncanny similarities first in a 2015 essay, and later in a 2016 viral mashup video of The Dark Knight’s trailer.

Each story circles two eccentric misfits pushing each other’s psychosis. Like the Joker, Noori is a laughing nihilist exuding ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ Like the Batman, Maula is an idealist orphan fighting to bring justice to his hometown; a fearless vigilante blocking Noori, threatening him … fascinating him.

It’s such ideological face-offs that make superhero stories modern folklore, told and retold as sequels and reboots. When I learned that a reboot of the Maula Jatt franchise was in the works, I was both excited and concerned. Excited, because I see Maula Jatt as a half-baked superhero now in the hands of some talented filmmakers. Concerned, because I could only imagine two approaches at the filmmakers’ disposal; both with pitfalls.

The first is a purist approach. A reboot is a remake with changes to garner fresh interest. A purist approach would change appearances: extravagant sets, modern cinematography etc but not the ideology. The story and characters would emulate that same old ethos, amplifying the same message. To put it mildly, such allegiance to the original Jatt films would be as tasteless as stale pakoras. Beneath their crumbling layers, these films push toxic masculinity like it’s going out of style; glorifying brute force and violence as attractive male traits. For instance, in the prequel Wehshi Jatt (1975), when a woman furiously rejects the sleazy advances from our hero’s sidekick, he slaps her so hard she rolls and falls, then turns and surprisingly thanks him for breaking her pride, tenderly confessing her undying love for him. In another instance, our heroine falls in love with Jatt without even meeting him — not because she learns he’s “sadiq aur ameen”, but because he slashes a bunch of villagers, stabbing one to death.

Will the makers of the Maula Jatt reboot take a purist approach or a revisionist one? M. Ali Kapadia offers a way out of the pitfalls of both approaches, taking inspiration from comic book multiverses ...

On the receiving end, Maula Jatt and Noori Natt can be shot over and over till they’re drenched in blood and the most it seems to do is make them dizzy. Some painkiller and bed rest and these blokes are jumping around the next day. Jatt can also hear his name miles away and break prison gates with a push. To all this, no supernatural explanation is ever provided; it is only explained that Jatt consumes an organic Punjabi diet (Punjabitarian?).

Joker through the ages: Golden, Silver and Bronze
Joker through the ages: Golden, Silver and Bronze

This is how the Jatt ethos functions. These peculiarities, no matter how bizarre, are its innate characteristics.

Which brings me to the second approach — revisionist. Here, the writers would deviate from the original ethos to better appeal to modern audiences — meaning they might end up changing most of what makes Maula Jatt, Maula Jatt; whether he’s fat, loud, how bullets affect him etc. Maybe he can’t hear his name miles away; he gets an SMS instead. Maybe he can’t push through prison gates; he’s an escape artist instead. Maybe the heroine doesn’t fall in love with him for his violence; she loves him for his charm instead. If so many changes continue, at some point you’ll have to ask yourself … why is this movie called Maula Jatt?

Maula Jatt (1979) is the most significant film in Pakistan’s history — and not for the best reasons. It isn’t Romeo & Juliet, open for celebratory remixes. This film is the lynchpin that dragged our film industry into the dark ages of gandasa culture. With revisionism, we’d be going back in time to re-imagine this tragedy in a better light. I only hope that in doing so, the filmmakers won’t be on some mission to repair the past.

These were the concerns. If Maula Jatt must be rebooted, its filmmakers must pick their poison. Which should it be, ideological baggage or historical baggage?

In another universe Superman lives in the Soviet Union and the Justice League are the bad guys
In another universe Superman lives in the Soviet Union and the Justice League are the bad guys

I pondered over this question for days, went for long walks, re-watched all the Jatt films with a fresh set of pakoras until finally … I saw the answer. It was in front of me all along. There is, in fact, a third option that’s neither purist nor revisionist. A new approach that isn’t incarcerated by any baggage, that justifies calling this reboot Maula Jatt while letting it be an entirely different animal.

Khawateen-o-hazraat … say hello to the multiverse approach.

See, decades ago DC Comics ran into a similar problem. In their case, they had already rebooted their characters creating many discrepancies.

For example, in the Golden Age (the ’30s-’50s), the Joker was a rich crime boss with a lair full of goons. He drove a fancy Joker car, used guns and was a social butterfly with a girlfriend — Harlequin.

In the Silver Age (the ’50s-’70s), the Joker was a funny, less violent prankster; like a Bugs Bunny who loves robbing banks. It was a result of the government pressure to make comics tamer.

Maula Jatt in London is not where the Jatt multiplicity stops | M. Ali Kapadia
Maula Jatt in London is not where the Jatt multiplicity stops | M. Ali Kapadia

In the Bronze Age (the ’70s-’00s), the Joker is dramatically darker; a violent psychopath obsessed with the Batman. He doesn’t socialise, avoids guns, loves blades and is out just to make a point.

Obviously, it would be lazy for DC to assert that these three Jokers are the same character. Such were the discrepancies that prevailed across DC’s other characters. They even had superheroes from the Golden Age making sexist and racist remarks that their modern versions would never dare.

DC devised a clever explanation. They proclaimed that the seemingly same characters through the different ages are in fact different characters living in parallel universes. So there’s one universe where the Golden Age Batman and Joker are busy fighting, another where the Silver Age ones are busy pranking, and so on. DC added that there are not just three but infinite universes, each incrementally varied than the last.

This made for an exciting opportunity to create even more variations of their beloved characters. For example, they revealed a new universe where the Justice League are the bad guys. And another where Superman lives in the Soviet Union!

In this 1975 prequel, the heroine falls in love with Jatt just because he slashes a bunch of villagers | Guddu Film Archive
In this 1975 prequel, the heroine falls in love with Jatt just because he slashes a bunch of villagers | Guddu Film Archive

Now I know what you’re thinking … “but Ali, Maula Jatt has nothing to do with this sci-fi multiplicity stuff!”

Actually … it does. On top of superhero tendencies, the Maula Jatt lore as we know it today already has strong built-in multiverse tendencies. For this, we don’t have to look further than Maula Jatt’s own sequel. Here, instead of Superman in the Soviet Union, we have Maula Jatt in London!

Released in 1981, Maula Jatt in London has its own variation of Noori, called Dara — also played by Mustafa Qureshi. In fact, just as Noori perfectly lines up with the Bronze Age psychopathic Joker, Dara perfectly lines up with the Golden Age Joker. He’s a socialite crime boss who operates from a lair full of goons, drives a fancy Rolls Royce and uses a gun, unlike Noori. Dara even has a girlfriend!

Like Wehshi Jatt, this film also has a variation of Roshan named Charaghdeen, played by Afzaal Ahmed, who also played Roshan in Wehshi Jatt. Charaghdeen keeps steering Jatt away from violence only to fail at it every time — just like Roshan. The only difference is that Charaghdeen is a rich London businessman while Roshan is a common Punjabi villager.

We can even have a universe where Jatt is the villain and Natt is the hero | Guddu Film Archive
We can even have a universe where Jatt is the villain and Natt is the hero | Guddu Film Archive

The reason I call such multiplicities just tendencies for parallel universes is because the filmmakers do attempt to rationalise them sequentially, only with terrible explanations. For example, Charaghdeen is explained to be Roshan’s lost identical father. The explanation for Jatt being in London is that after being convicted of murdering dozens of villagers in the previous film, the Pakistani courts deem him too dangerous for our nation and send him to Great Britain as punishment. So basically, if anyone’s having trouble getting a UK visa, try killing some villagers!

Personally, I believe the filmmakers were having a hard time explaining the Jatt lore’s innate tendencies for multiplicity, just like they had a hard time accepting Jatt as a superhero. Due to such reservations, the Jatt franchise has always been plagued with ridicule, unlike other superhero movies where the world’s extraordinary nature is wholeheartedly exploited.

Maula Jatt in London is not where the Jatt multiplicity stops. It is only the beginning. Since Maula Jatt’s release till Sultan Rahi’s death in 1996, it is impossible to overlook the Jatt-Natt combo in almost every other character Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi played. No matter their roles, their names remained synonymous with Jatt and Natt because they continued to play some incremental variation of Jatt and Natt.

This is in line with a multiverse where each universe is incrementally varied than the last. For all we know, we can even have a universe where Jatt is the villain and Natt is the hero. The universes revealed so far have already been pretty wild. There was one film where Rahi has the superpower to control animals and another where Qureshi is Adolf Hitler’s Punjabi son. It just gets wilder and wilder.

Hence, I theorise that the decades of gandasa culture that plagued and subsequently destroyed Pakistan’s film industry was in fact a gandasa multiverse. Such ‘gandasaverse’ films often begin with an ominous monologue on the universal battle between good and evil. They’re an excellent opportunity to weave in the concept of other universes.

With a multiverse framework in place, the writers will be able to create a new, parallel Maula Jatt instead of revising the old one. Choosing which traits to inherit, they’ll have the creative freedom to model him after anything from Thor to Maulana Diesel, and the old Maula Jatt and its baggage would exist isolated and unaffected like any other ’80s ‘gandasaverse’ film. Heck, we can have even more Maula Jatts in the future; one like The Hulk, one like The Terminator, even one in a space suit slashing Martian villagers! (Jatt Lightyear?)

This, in my opinion, will be the most scalable path to rebuild this franchise. Giving opinions is easy, making films is hard. I haven’t spoken with the filmmakers; I don’t know what they’re creating. What I do know is that they’re talented and hardworking. What I can’t know are their everyday challenges. I hope that amongst those challenges they’ll use their great power to address their great responsibility. If they must reboot this franchise, they must justify an alternate Maula rational enough to bury the old one. Because “Maulay nu Maula na maray, tay Maula naee marda.” Maula won’t die unless Maula Himself kills Maula.

The writer is a filmmaker, pop culture analyst and a product management and design veteran. He tweets @alikapadia

Wasiq Haris is the creator of RAAT comic which can be seen at raatcomic.com

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 8th, 2017