Kamal's Joker poster
Kamal's Joker poster

In the 70 years of active filmmaking in Pakistan, there have been quite a number of average films produced that somehow went on to become hits, while many good films fell short of being dubbed as classics. The late Syed Kamal’s Joker, a film based on his personal experiences, falls under the latter category.

It was in 1957 when Kamal, along with fellow actors Ejaz Durrani and Ratan Kumar, used to appear as a leading man in Pakistani films. Ejaz was cast against veteran actress Meena Shorey in Bara Aadmi, Ratan starred in Baydari (a remake of the Indian film Jaagriti) and Kamal was paired with Musarrat Nazir in Thandi Sarak.

For someone who started out as a Raj Kapoor clone due to his striking resemblance to the great Indian showman, both in looks and acting, Kamal quickly made a name of his own. Within a few years, he went on to become a producer and then a director.

By 1964, Kamal was part of big banners, teaming up with all the leading ladies and enjoying success. He had acted in thrillers (Nehle Pe Dehla, Zamana Kya Kahe Ga), social films (Aashiana, Apna Paraya) and comedies (Aisa Bhi Hota Hai, Aik Dil Do Deewane).

Syed Kamal’s Joker was an ambitious semi-autobiographical film that predated Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker but never caught the audience’s fancy. Perhaps it was simply a film made way ahead of its time

Before coming to Pakistan, Kamal had had an unsuccessful acting stint in Bollywood. Born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, in 1937, Kamal’s forgettable career in India included a short role in Raj Kapoor’s Jaagtay Raho (1956). As producer, fate again brought him face-to-face with the great RK.

It was in October 1961 when Kamal, along with producer/director S.M. Yousuf represented Pakistan in the 2nd International Indian Film Festival. S.M. Yousuf’s Saheli had been selected for the festival. Yousuf had moved to Pakistan in 1959, after a successful innings in India. RK was busy with Sangam and news was rife about RK’s plan to make a film on his own life, featuring a tramp who would feature as a circus joker.

Kamal, who was also planning a movie, met RK at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi and narrated the story of his dream project during his short stay in India. RK gave him his aashirvaad [blessing] for the film and pre-production work began in late 1961.

In both films, the circus joker would be the lead. So Kamal replaced the showbiz world in his version of the film with that of a circus and wrote a climax where his character eventually perseveres.

In the story, the hero (Kamal) is engaged to a girl of his family’s choice, Seemi. One day, Kamal’s joker visits a circus and is mesmerised by the circus girl Maria’s beauty, who is taught by her lecherous father (played by Talish) to rope in rich men for sponsorship. As per her father’s advice, ‘Dunya mein rehnay ke liye pathar ka dil aur lohay ka dimaagh chahiye hota hai’ [To survive in this world, one must have a heart of stone and a mind of steel].

Kamal’s character abandons his wealthy lifestyle for the sake of Maria and joins the circus group of nomads. But Maria dumps the now penniless rich boy and our hero eventually returns to his family.

In 1962 Kamal signed on Neelo and Shamim Ara to play Maria and Seemi, respectively. Kamal and Shamim Ara were interested in getting married but Shamim Ara’s grandmother wanted him to pay 150,000 rupees as dowry and Kamal, who was considered a pinchpenny, not only refused but also said no to working in future with the starlet.

By that time, Zeba had entered films with Fazal Karim Fazli’s Chiragh Jalta Raha (1962) and, during the mahurat shot of Aisa Bhi Hota Hai (Fazli’s next film with Kamal playing the lead), Zeba was offered Shamim Ara’s role. Also, a very busy Neelo had little time for Kamal’s experimental project and was replaced by Rani to play Maria.

The Pakistan film industry was passing through its golden period and both Zeba and Rani were signed on for a mere 5,000 rupees each. For the hero’s stern father’s role, Kamal signed on veteran actor Azad and for the role of the wealthy arch-nemesis Kunwar sahib, Kamal selected veteran actor Rehan, famous for his roles in Aaina (1977) and Zinda Laash (1967).

Seasoned music director Muslehuddin was roped in for the soundtrack of Kamal’s Joker, while journalist-turned-film writer Ali Sufyan Afaqi wrote the dialogue. Iqbal Yousuf, was asked to direct. Iqbal, son of the veteran director/producer S.M. Yousuf had earlier directed Kamal in Zamana Kya Kahega (1961), Daal Mein Kaala (1962) and would also later direct him in Nehle Pe Dehla (1964).

For the shooting of Joker, an elaborate set was required where the characters of Kamal and his father clash. A circus set was also needed for the shoot. Lyricist and producer Nakhshab had erected a huge set for one of his movies and no one was allowed to even peek at the set.

Nakhshab had been a successful lyricist in Bollywood before coming over to Pakistan in 1959. Zeenat (1945), Mahal (1949) and Zindagi Ya Toofan (1958) were some of the famous movies Nakhshab had penned songs for. Kamal, who had family ties with Nakhshab, used his influence to allow the use of his huge unused set and Kamal was also signed on as the lead in Nakhshab’s next film. While Nakhshab never went on to make his film, Kamal’s problem was solved.

Karachi was also a happening city in those days. There was a circus being held near the under-construction Mazar-i-Quaid and Kamal, along with director Iqbal Yusuf, met the owner and got permission for the shoot. At the circus, Kamal got lucky and spotted a performer called Babra whose build was quite similar to Rani’s. Rani was called in from Lahore and the shooting commenced in 1963.

Kamal used many incidents from his own life to add to the story of Joker. For example, during the making of Zahoor Raja’s Gulfarosh (1961), Kamal had suffered a fracture, which had led to several producers replacing him with other actors in their films. In Joker, when Kamal’s character breaks his leg, he is also considered useless by the circus administration and is laughed at.

The excellent soundtrack by Muslehuddin featured Fayyaz Hashmi’s Pyaar me hum ne khaayi hai thokar and Habib Jalib’s Aaj iss sheher mein. Kamal’s character renders the Habib Jalib song when Maria asks him to sing for Kunwar sahib after the interval break.

The film that began on paper in late 1961 finally hit the screen in early 1966. Until its release, every year in April, on Kamal’s birthday, the progress of Joker was discussed and promises of an early release were solemnised.

There was also news that Rani and Kamal got quite close during Joker’s production, but Kamal eventually married another chosen by his family. Rani went on to star in Dewar Bhabhi (1967) and her life changed after marrying legendary director Hassan Tariq.

Joker’s short run was marred by Pakistan’s first Platinum Jubilee film Armaan, Waheed Murad’s second production, where he also played the lead. Uncannily both starred Zeba though her role was quite short in Joker due to her marriage with fellow actor Sudhir. Sudhir, a Pakhtun, did not allow Zeba to work in movies and a solo song meant for Zeba’s character in Joker could never be filmed due to a disturbed marriage that lasted just over a year.

Kamal’s next film Shehnai (1968) had almost the same faces as Joker but Ali Sufyan Afaqi and Muslehuddin were replaced by Iqbal Rizvi and Sohail Rana (both associated with Armaan).

In those days, romantic comedies ruled the Pakistani box office, suspense thrillers were coming of age and tragedies fading away. No wonder then that Kamal’s semi-autobiographical Joker failed to work its magic at the box office. It may be the reason why he opted for the formulaic Shehnai next, famous for Ahmed Rushdi’s song Tujhe apne dil se mein kaise bhula doon.

Maybe the audience was not ready for change or the industry was incapable of handling a delicate subject such as the one in Kamal’s Joker. When one watches it today, the realisation dawns that it was made way ahead of its time and could have been a classic — just like RK’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) which is revered as a cult classic, despite being a commercial failure.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 9th, 2022

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