Mollie Ellis. 77, on her visit to her mother’s grave in Kohat British Cemetery in 1983
Mollie Ellis. 77, on her visit to her mother’s grave in Kohat British Cemetery in 1983

Uprisings against the British Empire have often been a favourite topic for movies produced in this region. While the bashing of farangis in films sold like hot cakes, the rebels were glorified as anti-colonial heroes.

Both India and Pakistan have churned out such movies in abundance, yet most of them have ended with the sacrifice of the protagonist. Based on real life heroes, movies on Tipu Sultan, Shaheed Titu Mir and Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah could obviously never have had a happy ending, while characters such as the Rani of Jhansi, Bhagat Singh and Mangal Pandey also ended up dying on screen too.

Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) could not defy history either, despite connecting the freedom fighters with the present-day scenario.

However, 60 years ago, a movie on the life of the legendary Ajab Khan of Darra Adam Khel, the best known hero to hail from the present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan — formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province — broke the norms. It was the first of its kind movie on the outlaw who brought the British Empire to its knees, and lived to witness the day when they had to leave for good.

Three films, including two Pashto ones, have so far been made on the life of the Pakhtun rebel who became a thorn in the side of the British colonialists and lived to see them driven out. But the first was an influential Urdu film celebrating its 60th anniversary this year…

Ajab Khan died in Mazar Sharif, Afghanistan, in his 90s, only in 1959. His death prompted renowned writer Rahim Gul to bring his character to the screen. With PTV still years away from being established and a documentary film out of the question, the Kohat-born Gul joined hands with a fellow Pakhtun, Sudhir — the most bankable film actor of those days — and wrote a powerful script for a full-length feature film on Ajab Khan.

The statue of Ajab Khan Afridi erected in 2018 in his hometown of Darra Adam Khel
The statue of Ajab Khan Afridi erected in 2018 in his hometown of Darra Adam Khel

Gul, who also co-produced the movie, was well aware of the character, the tribal laws, the people, the sites and the Ajab Khan-Miss Mollie Ellis episode on which the film is based. Directed by Khalil Kaiser, the movie was shot in the mountainous region of Kohat and Abbottabad.

Ajab Khan rose to power in times when the Non Cooperation Movement — the first civil disobedience movement in colonial India — had come to an end. Memories of the horrifying Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Punjab were still fresh in people’s minds and hatred against the British was rising. Pakhtuns felt no differently and Ajab Khan was a constant threat to the British ‘rulers’. In real life, Ajab Khan along with his men, was involved in numerous skirmishes with the British.

The movie begins with Ajab Khan framed for stealing a rifle while serving in the British Army. During the search of his village, Bosti Khel, members of the British Army misbehave with the local women, an act that enrages Ajab Khan, who is away at that time.

To avenge the humiliation, on April 14, 1923, Ajab Khan barges into the Kohat cantonment and abducts Miss Mollie Ellis, daughter of Major Ellis, from their residence. Ajab’s brother kills the wife of the major, as she tries to alert the guards. The news creates headlines worldwide and a search for the young girl ensues.

Ajab Khan takes Miss Mollie to the tribal areas — it is said that he took very good care of her. The British offer to pay a huge bounty for Ajab Khan, but fail miserably in capturing him. After a jirga of the elders and political administration is held a week later, Miss Mollie is handed over to the DC Kohat and Major Ellis. The DC Kohat had to give in to all the demands of Ajab Khan, which included the return of captives and ammunition.

Released on February 3, 1961, Ajab Khan was directed by the visionary Khalil Kaiser. The title character was depicted marvelously by Sudhir, who had earlier also portrayed a poet, a Mughal prince, a rebel and a dejected lover on screen. Born as Shah Zaman Khan Afridi, Lala Sudhir — as he was known in film circles — had, in fact, been labeled an action star in movies such as Baaghi (1956) and Aakhri Nishaan (1958).

A poster of director Khalil Kaiser’s Ajab Khan -Photos by the writer
A poster of director Khalil Kaiser’s Ajab Khan -Photos by the writer

The role of Noor Jamal, the love interest of Ajab Khan, was played by actress Husna. It was a big breakthrough for the then 19-year-old, who had earlier played the daughter of Sudhir in Society (1959). Agha Talish played the role of Miss Ellis’s fictitious fiancé and a captain in the British Army, while Rehan was superb in the short but powerful role of the DC Kohat.

Kaiser introduced a local girl, Margaret, as the 17-year-old Mollie Ellis, while character actors Nasira and Nazar were there to provide comic relief. The music, composed by G.A. Chishti, was a letdown, however, as the veteran musician could not manage the magnitude of the situation.

Khalil Kaiser was trying to make a team for the future, and the failure by Baba Chishti made him opt for Rasheed Attre in his future projects. Together with legendary writer Riaz Shahid, Kaiser and Attre went on to produce hits such as Shaheed (1962) and Farangi (1964). Kaiser’s murder in September 1966, happened at a time when he was busy making Hukumat, also starring Sudhir.

Famous for his Urdu novels Tuntara and Jannat ki Talash, Rahim Gul decided to direct the Pashto film Ajab Khan Afridi in 1971. It was the second movie on the character, and the first of the two made in Pashto. The movie had the same storyline as its predecessor and made Asif Khan an overnight star.

“Rahim Gul was the one who wanted to introduce me as a lead in Musa Khan Gul Makai [released in October, 1971],” recalls actor Asif Khan from Peshawar. “But due to financial constraints, he could not complete the movie on time. By the time Musa Khan Gul Makai was finished, I had already made my film debut with Darra Khyber [released in May, 1971]. Ajab Khan Afridi was my third film.”

Shot in the Pir Baba mountains of KP, Ajab Khan Afridi established the Pushto movie industry, which was in its infancy. Besides Asif Khan playing the title role, Yasmin Khan was cast in the role played by Husna in the Urdu film, while the role of the captain played by Talish was replayed by Humayun Qureshi. A surprise addition was the casting of Saleem Nasir as Ajab Khan’s brother.

Born as Syed Sher Khan in a Pakhtun family, Saleem achieved wide recognition as Mamu in the PTV serial Ankahi (1982) and then as Akbar in Aangan Terrha (1984). “People don’t know that Saleem Nasir was Pashto-speaking,” says Asif Khan. “He was well-known for his roles on TV, and I had a wonderful time with him during the making of Ajab Khan Afridi.”

The Pashto movie was produced by veteran songwriter Qateel Shifai, who himself was born in Haripur. Qateel Shifai was quite popular in Bollywood and had close relations with Dilip Kumar and the Kapoor clan. When the youngest brother of Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, produced Junoon (1979), the similarities with the character of Ajab Khan didn’t go unnoticed.

Set around the Indian rebellion of 1857, the story of Junoon is about Javed Khan (Shahshi Kapoor), a freedom fighter who falls in love with Ruth (Nafisa Ali), a British girl, who is abducted by Javed.

Javed Khan eventually dies fighting the British towards the end of the film and Ruth, reciprocating his love, never marries. Something similar actually happened in the real-life Ajab Khan-Miss Mollie Ellis case, as the latter remained single all her life.

In 1983, the 77-year-old Mollie came to Pakistan with official protocol, visiting her mother’s grave, as well as the places where she had stayed during her captivity. In her later interviews, Ms Mollie Ellis revealed that Ajab Khan never looked her straight in the eye during her days of captivity.

People still remember Ajab Khan as a warrior who was a thorn in the side of the British occupying forces. As a tribute, a statue of Ajab Khan Afridi was erected in 2018 in his hometown, Darra Adam Khel.

The story of Ajab Khan has all the elements of an epic love story and, in the current situation, with Pakistan’s film industry back in a struggling phase, a remake based on the life and times of Ajab Khan may well work miracles.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 28th, 2021

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