Pre-Partition Punjab’s Contribution to Indian Cinema
By Ishtiaq Ahmed
Much before the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, cinema had already taken roots in India. It had a meteoric rise after the screening of the first talkie film, Alam Ara in 1931. Although Hollywood was the centre of film production in the world, Bombay’s (now Mumbai) contribution was no less in terms of entertaining the masses of the Indian public, who came from diverse cultures and spoke a variety of languages.
Films were also produced in Lahore, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai), but Bombay’s film industry — later dubbed Bollywood — always had an edge over the rest.
Meanwhile, the prosperity of the people in Punjab increased in the beginning of the 20th century and it became known as the granary of the Subcontinent. People living in the Doaba [land between two rivers] region particularly used this prosperity to explore new fields and garnered attention due to their immense interest in education, sports, art, culture and various other activities of life.
The Doaba, also known as the Jalandhar Doab, is the region of Indian Punjab that lies between the Beas and Sutlej rivers. It is one of the most fertile regions of the world, because of its cotton farming and wheat output.
A book looks at the contributions of pre-Partition Punjab to Indian cinema
Starting with the great and inimitable singer and actor Kundan Lal Saigal from Jalandhar, the Doaba contributed many talented men and women to Bollywood and continues to do so. However, as researched by the author of the book Pre-Partition Punjab’s Contribution to Indian Cinema, Prof Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, contributions of similar people from the rest of Punjab, are no less.
Prof Ishtiaq was born in Lahore in 1947 and left for Sweden in 1973, where he settled in Stockholm. However, his love for Lahore’s culture and his interest in Urdu/Hindi movies, besides those who contributed towards their making — especially the songs — was unrelenting.
Indian films continued to be exhibited in Pakistan and their songs were played from Radio Pakistan till 1965. As a student, Prof Ishtiaq claims he saw Raj Kapoor’s super hit musical movie Awara 24 times.
Prof Ishtiaq carried this immense love for movies to Stockholm, where he not only watched them on the video cassette player, but would also try to find out about the background of the artists who made them enlightening and entertaining. In this endeavour, he developed friendships with many people living in India, who would provide him with background information relating to Mumbai-based film personalities.
Some would arrange Prof Ishtiaq’s meetings with renowned top actors and others, whenever he visited Mumbai. He would explore more about those who had their roots in Punjab during the pre-Partition period.
His stupendous efforts were rewarded with the amazing discovery that most of the talented actors and others who had brought laurels to Mumbai’s film industry either belonged to Lahore or some other town in its vicinity, such as Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Gujranwala, Sialkot, Amritsar (in India) or some other cities of Punjab, such as Rawalpindi, Chakwal, Jalalpur Jattan or Dina (near Jhelum), etc.
These highly talented artists from the pre-Partition era continued to dominate Bollywood for three to four decades after Partition. Incidentally, that was also the golden era of film songs, to which the singers, lyricists and melody-makers discussed in the book had contributed.
This fact had prompted Prof Ishtiaq to contribute articles narrating the stories of those acclaimed film stars who were either born or had roots in Punjab before Partition, and later mesmerised the Indian film industry. The book under review comprises his articles published between April 2004 and September 2016, in the Friday Times and Daily Times, Lahore, while some additional material was added to it recently. He was helped by Prof T.C. Ghai of Delhi University.
There is a long list of towering film personalities from Punjab, which includes actors, directors, producers, story-writers, scriptwriters, songwriters, music directors, singers, and technicians. However, only the prominent among them have been discussed, on account of brevity.
The great thespian Dilip Kumar was born as Mohammad Yusuf in a Hindko speaking family in Peshawar in December 1922. Hindko is a language which is spoken in the vicinity of Rawalpindi, which is in Punjab. I have personally heard Dilip Sahab talking with Madam Noor Jahan in fluent Punjabi and when Prof Ishtiaq had met him in Bombay, Dilip Kumar spoke in Hindko throughout. Dilip Kumar’s father was a fruit trader, who later moved to Bombay. India awarded Dilip Kumar the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994 for lifelong contribution to cinema. As Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif had conferred the Nishan-i-Imtiaz on Dilip Kumar, on a visit to Pakistan.
The family of Raj Kapoor, the greatest showman of the Bombay film industry, hailed originally from Peshawar but his great-grandfather had retired as tehsildar from Samundri (near Faisalabad) and settled there. His illustrious father, the character actor Prithviraj Kapoor, shifted to Peshawar. The Kapoors spoke Punjabi at home.
The handsome matinee idol Dev Anand was born in his ancestral village of district Gurdaspur in East Punjab, in September 1923. He studied at Government College, Lahore, and remained proud of this alma mater throughout his life.
The legendary playback singer of Indian movies Mohammad Rafi was born in a village near Amritsar in East Punjab in December 1924. The family moved to Lahore’s Bhati Gate, from where Rafi went to Bombay and achieved enviable success as a singer.
Madam Noor Jahan was born in Kasur in 1926. Her spectacular career as a singer and actress began as a child artist. She rose to instant fame after acting with leading heroes such as Dilip Kumar, Pran and Surrinder, before she moved to Lahore.
Pran, the famous villain of Bollywood movies, started his career from a Punjabi film Yamla Jatt (1940) and went on to act in another 23 movies in Lahore before moving to Bombay. Superhero Manoj Kumar was born in Abbottabad in July 1937 and spent his early childhood in Model Town, Lahore, before his family moved to India at Partition.
Actor Rajendar Kumar was born in a village in Narowal Tehsil, Sialkot, in July 1927. The handsome actor Dharmendra was born in Nasrali, East Punjab, in December 1935.
The following are some other top-ranking Bollywood actors, singers and directors from pre-Partition Punjab: Amrish Puri, villainous character actor (Nawanshahr); Rajesh Khanna, first superstar of Bollywood (Amritsar); Jeetendra, hero and dancer (Amritsar); Vinod Mehra, hero (Amritsar); I.S. Johar, actor (Talagang); Shyam, actor (Sialkot); Balraj Sahni, actor (Rawalpindi); Sunil Dutt, hero (Chakwal); Prem Chopra, villain (Lahore); Om Prakash, character actor (Lahore); Raj Babbar, actor (Jalalpur Jattan); A.R. Kardar, producer and director (Lahore); Subhash Ghai, producer and director (Jhelum); Suraiya, singer and actress (Lahore); Shamshad Begum, singer (Lahore); Kamini Kaushal, heroine (Lahore); and Shyama, heroine (Lahore).
Some of the great music directors from Punjab include O. P. Nayyar (Lahore) and Madan Mohan (West Punjab), while some of the great lyricists include Sahir Ludhianvi (Karimpura, Ludhiana), Gulzar (Dina near Jhelum, also screenwriter and director), Raja Mehdi Ali Khan (Karmabad, district Gujranwala), and Rajinder Krishan (Jalalpur Jattan, also screenwriter).
Reading the book takes you back to a period when seeing a movie was the most pleasant and delightful experience. However, the quality of pictures in the book needs to be improved.
The reviewer is a consultant in human resources at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2023