The good guy-bad guy concept in films stems from our surroundings in everyday life. Many-a-time, what an actor performs on screen has already been executed in real life by others.

One of Pakistan’s biggest hits, Maula Jatt (1979), was the filmmaker Yunus Malik’s way of showing a mirror to the rulers at the time. The title character, played by Sultan Rahi, is driven by anger and a sense of justice to fight with over a dozen hooligans in the film who have done him wrong. But, in real life, Rahi was a completely different man, peaceful and law-abiding.

Rahi, who holds the record for appearing in the highest number of films in a single year, was a pious Muslim, and his real life was far from such trouble and strife. Loved by all in the film industry, Rahi was a godfather to many aspiring directors and he went out of his way to help the low-income production staff, and also financially supported many out-of-work colleagues. There were many instances where a producer was saved from bankruptcy in typical Rahi style — he would do his film free-of-cost just to make sure that the show went on.

Starting off as an extra in the film Baaghi (1956), Rahi struggled for 10 years in roles in which he had only a few lines to deliver. Later, he graduated to supporting and, then, to title roles. In the movies of those days, good-looking actors such as Kamal, Sudhir, Muhammad Ali and Waheed Murad used to play lead roles, while Rahi, with his ordinary looks, was chosen for forgettable roles. But his dedication and hard work paid off and, in no time, the actor soon overshadowed the good-looking heroes.

Ever seen real life imitate reel life? This was the case with Sultan Rahi, who called upon his screen avatar to settle a dispute

Rahi’s style of acting roughly depicted the common rural dweller of the Punjab. It was 50 years ago, in June 1971, that Babul was released, which had senior actor Naeem Hashmi in the title role. It was the first major film that had Rahi in a substantial role. He was not the hero, but he overshadowed the entire cast with his powerful performance. The success of Babul opened the doors of success for him and, in the ’70s, he appeared in films such as Bashira (1971), Wehshi Jatt (1975) and eventually Maula Jatt (1979), which cemented his reputation.

Sultan Rahi, the man who dodged bullets and single-handedly fought entire clans of mercenaries, added a new dimension to heroism. His presence was a sure-shot success for films at the box office. In the meantime, some of his colleagues from the bygone days of his struggles were still appearing in miniscule and unimportant roles. To provide them financial relief, Rahi stepped into production, with a film named Taqdeer Kahaan Le Aayi (TKLA) in 1974.

During the shoot of TKLA, the cast literally had multiple brushes with the law: the female lead was sorting out her affairs with her ex in court, Rahi manhandled a magazine editor for publishing fake news and the authorities nabbed the dance director of TKLA for tax evasion.

The writer of the film, famous lyricist and writer Aqeel Ahmed Ruby, suggested changing the name of the film, but soon he himself was hit by the cinematographer’s car and ended up fracturing a leg. Fed up with all the bad luck, Rahi took Ruby, whose leg was encased in plaster, and left for his hometown Rawalpindi and then on to Murree for some respite.

Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive
Photos courtesy Guddu Film Archive

As both were about to leave Murree for Rawalpindi, a person on foot came simply out of nowhere and hit Rahi’s Fiat car. The impact landed him at some distance. Unlike in the movies, Rahi went into shock and the person he had hit with the car had lost all consciousness, it seemed. Rahi had had enough of his share of police and court proceedings. The most fearless man on screen was left terrified by the accident, and it seemed to him the curse of TKLA had again come into effect.

Soon, ‘relatives’ of the injured man had also started gathering at the scene. Rahi and Ruby took the injured man to the Civil Hospital in Murree and negotiations between the two parties began for damages. Rahi offered to pay 2,000 rupees upfront for treatment, the equal of over 50,000 rupees these days.

While the settlement was still being negotiated, the ‘unconscious’ victim ‘miraculously’ gained consciousness — he was pretending to be injured and unconscious — and surreptitiously asked about Rahi’s offer. He wanted 5,000 rupees and urged his ‘relatives’ to increase their demand. Ruby saw all this from the corner of his eye and, realising what was really going on, called Rahi’s attention to the person on the stretcher, who had conveniently returned to his ‘unconscious’ state. It was a situation straight out of the movies.

Rahi, too, then got into character. Adjusting his tie, he made his way to the person lying on the stretcher, who was unaware that both Ruby and Rahi were now familiar with his act. The superstar got hold of the ‘injured’ man and the stretcher and lifted both high up in the air. It all happened so quickly that no one had an idea of what was going on. Rahi shook the stretcher angrily with the man still on it, and soon the victim was standing on his own two feet. Sultan Rahi then put his hand inside his pocket, took out 200 rupees and handed it to the ‘victim’, and then left the hospital.

Rahi’s and Ruby’s short vacation was by now ruined and, instead of going back to Rawalpindi, Rahi returned to the ill-fated TKLA set. The film was eventually released in December 1976 and bombed at the box office. But, by then, Rahi had already made a killing at the box office with Wehshi Jatt, Andata and Sharif Badmash. The failure of Taqdeer Kahaan Le Aayi meant little or nothing to him.

Sultan Rahi’s undisputed rule as the king of Lollywood began in the early ’70s and continued right until his untimely death by gunshot on G.T. Road in January 1996.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 28th, 2021

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