Pakistan Ki Urdu Filmi Sanat
By Dr Aqeel Abbas Jafri
Compiled by renowned researcher, poet and author Dr Aqeel Abbas Jafri, Pakistan Ki Urdu Filmi Sanat [Pakistan’s Urdu Film Industry] is a one-stop reference for aficionados of Urdu language films and answers all queries regarding films made in our part of the world.
Jafri’s name is synonymous with several extensively researched publications and he received wide acclaim for his earlier book, Pakistan Chronicle, published in 2011. As the title suggests, it gives a chronological account of all that has happened in Pakistan since the country’s creation in 1947.
For his doctoral thesis, the author chose Urdu films as his subject of research — an area on which existing reference data is insufficient. Pakistan Ki Urdu Filmi Sanat transports readers to the early days of filmmaking towards the end of the 19th century, around the same time that British author H.G. Wells published his famous science fiction novel The Time Machine. Befittingly, the moment one opens Jafri’s book, one is transported to another time.
How many silent films were made before filmmakers learned to incorporate sound? Who were Auguste and Louis Lumiere? Who imported the first motion picture camera to the Subcontinent? When did the first cinema become operational in Karachi? The opening chapter of Jafri’s book answers a number of such queries regarding the origins and development of filmmaking in general and clarifies several notions about the initial films made in the Subcontinent.
Over 14 chapters, the book records motion picture history from the very first frame shot in the Subcontinent, to all the full-length feature films screened in Pakistan until 2020. Four of these 14 chapters are dedicated to the pre-Partition era.
Each chapter mentions those heroes of filmmaking who have now, sadly, vanished from public memory. Jafri makes note of the portfolios of trailblazers such as Dadasaheb Phalke and Ardeshir Irani and gives detailed space to the torchbearers of every consecutive decade, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed.
It is enlightening to learn of the Hindu community’s role in establishing Lahore as a film centre, of the efforts put in by the Parsi populace and also of the contributions of the Muslims. The author also highlights Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s role in the fledgling industry because without his legal acumen, undivided India’s pioneering ‘talkie’ — the fantasy-drama Alam Ara, translated as ‘Ornament of the World — might never have seen the light of day.
After seeing the 1929 Hollywood film Show Boat, Ardeshir Irani set out to make a film with sound in India. His choice of male lead was Marathi actor Master Vithal, then the highest paid star in Indian cinema. However, Vithal was indentured to another studio and working in Irani’s film constituted a breach of contract. Jinnah, as Vithal’s lawyer, won the case and, in 1931, the Subcontinent’s first ever film with sound took cinema houses by storm.
Sadly, Jinnah’s close aide and the new country’s minister of information, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, considered filmmaking ‘anti-Islamic’. In 1949, a delegation of Pakistani directors and distributors met the minister to demand a ban on Indian films for at least five years, to give the local industry a chance to find its feet. Nishtar’s reply was epically ironic: as he considered filmmaking to be against Islamic values, Muslims were to refrain from the activity and it should be allowed only to non-Muslims.
The Jaal agitation of the early 1950s gets a mention here, when prominent film personalities of Pakistan, including studio owners W.Z. Ahmed and Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, directors Sibtain Fazli and Saifuddin Saif, and topmost actor Santosh Kumar were jailed for protesting the screening of the Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer Jaal [The Trap], again, to prevent India’s more advanced industry from overshadowing Pakistan’s.
The second chapter is a detailed exposition on silent films and, in the third chapter, the author revisits Alam Ara. The film’s enormous success persuaded producer Hakim Ram Prasad and director A.R. Kardar to make Heer Ranjha in 1932. This was the first ‘talkie’ to be produced entirely in Lahore and, despite popular misconception, it was not a Punjabi language film; its songs were certainly in the regional language, but the dialogues were entirely in pure Urdu.
Jafri then follows up with an elaborate account of where Lahore’s nascent film industry stood at the time of Partition. There is extensive information on the studios operational in the city, as well as about the damage caused to them in the riots. Film studios owned by Hindus were set ablaze. Producers fleeing Pakistan took negatives of underproduction films with them to release in India. Veteran Bollywood actor Pran, whose career began in Lahore, bid his favourite city farewell with tears in his eyes.
After recapping the 72-year history of filmmaking in the land of the pure, the author dedicates a chapter to Urdu language films produced in what was then East Pakistan. He writes that the 1959 production Jaago Hua Savera did not fare well at the local box office but, after being released internationally as The Day Shall Dawn, it was chosen as Pakistan’s official entry to the 1960 Oscar awards. In 2002, it featured in the British Film Institute’s critics’ poll of ‘Top 10 Pakistani Films of All Times’.
Over the next decade, the number of Urdu language films produced in Dhaka dwindled and, in 1971, only two were released. One was Jaltay Sooraj Ke Neechay [Under the Burning Sun], starring popular leading man Nadeem in a triple role — a first in Pakistan’s filmmaking history. The film was screened on Dec 10, a mere six days before East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
The author has clearly put immense amounts of research into his book. He digs deep into the archives to refresh readers’ memories of films that once ruled the box office, but are now forgotten. There are classifications of art films as well as ‘double-versions’, which constitute films released in Urdu as well as a regional language — usually Punjabi — to reach a larger audience. A section is dedicated to attempts made to formulate film policies, there is a listing of industry awards and Jafri incorporates dozens of pictures that include rare posters of films from long ago.
In the final chapter, Jafri summarises his research, shares his observations on the downfall of the industry, offers suggestions on how it can be revived and addresses the people in charge.
The almost 85-page long catalogue towards the end — listing all the films produced in the Pakistani half of the Subcontinent from 1926 to 2002 and making note of their producers, directors, music directors, actors and release dates — makes Jafri’s book a very worthwhile resource. The information on production houses of the past and the present, profiles of hundreds of influential personalities and details of controversies is illuminating.
For taking readers on a journey stretching back to the 1890s, for revisiting good days that make one smile and bad days that make the heart bleed, for enlightening new readers and allowing older fans to fall in love with quality Pakistani films all over again, Pakistan Ki Urdu Filmi Sanat can, without a doubt, be called a true collector’s item.
The reviewer writes on Pakistani films, music and sports. He tweets @suhabyalavi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 28th, 2023