It was the year 1979. A single-screen cinema of Lahore was screening Maula Jatt. In the scene right after the opening credits, Maaka Natt reaffirms with his opponent whether he is the legendary Maula Jatt. Actor Sultan Rahi, saddled on a horse, shouts back: “Wehshi Jatt bhi main tha, oye! [I was also Wehshi Jatt!]”
It was most likely ad-libbing and sly meta-referencing from actor Rahi. Part of the reason people were thronging to cinema houses to watch the bashing of the bad guys in Maula Jatt was because of the rise of the cinematic ‘Jatt’ — a local hero born four years prior to the movie.
The man behind the lungi-clad, gandasa-wielding saviour was none other than the visionary director Hassan Askari, who had visualised eminent writer Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s Maula character to perfection in the trendsetting Wehshi Jatt (1975), which became a kind of template for Maula Jatt.
In the days when creativity took a backseat, Hassan Askari had himself emerged as a saviour for local films, just like Jatt. Agha Hassan Askari was born in 1945, and carved a niche for himself in films. With the passage of time, he ventured into semi-arthouse, political, action and ideological films.
Hassan Askari, who passed away in Lahore on October 30, was a creative genius who directed over 50 films,produced 10, and scripted a few more, having devoted 55 years of his life to Pakistan’s film industry
Fond of writing since his college days, he served as the editor of the leftist National Students Federation (NSF) magazine Faran. As a student activist of the progressive NSF, he was inspired by Marxist thoughts about the capitalist strangulation of the economy, and the consequent proletariat struggle. This resonated with his own struggles as a member of the lower middle class. It was against this ideological backdrop that Askari began directing films.
His debut film, Khoon Paseena (1972) reflected his political thoughts. Starring Sudhir, Firdous and Sultan Rahi, the film portrayed the miserable conditions peasants were subjected to by an oppressive feudal class, and their struggles against it.
Askari made a few more Punjabi films, such as Toofan and Qanoon with Rahi before he got a chance to direct an Urdu film. An M.A. in English Literature, Askari selected Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as the theme to the Muhammad Ali-Babra Sharif starrer Salakhain (1977).
The gamble paid off with the success of the movie, eventually followed by Jeenay Ki Sazaa (1979), Aag (1980) and Kinara (1982), with each film tackling a different subject. Only Askari had the courage to write and direct on as bold a subject as Kinara’s in the days of dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq, when the censor board was quite strict with its policies.
Rani’s performance as a smoking, pan-chewing resident of the red light area overshadowed Muhammad Ali’s character of a helpless tonga-wala who happens to be her long-lost father.
Askari also worked and excelled with energetic young and new actors such as Ayaz Naik (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1982) and Faisal Rehman (Dooriyaan, 1984 and Beyqaraar, 1986).
In days when local filmmakers relied heavily on making cheap Bollywood copies, Askari’s films were themselves copied across the border. Salakhain (1977) became Beygunaah (1991), where Rajesh Khanna played the role enacted by Muhammad Ali. The 1984 Muhammad Ali-Shabnam-Faisal-starrer Dooriyaan became Aandhiyaan (1990), which was one of the earlier attempts at serious cinema by up-and-coming director David Dhawan.
Shabnam’s role of a journalist was portrayed by the Indian actress Mumtaz, who was then eyeing a return to films. The bonding between the mother-son pair was completely missing in Bollywood, however, resulting in the failure of the project, which also became the reason for Mumtaz’s ‘dooriyaan’ (distancing) from films. Khamosh actor Shatrughan Sinha tried hard to fit into Muhammad Ali’s shoes as a chief minister who keeps his marriage a secret from the public domain, for reasons better known to him.
Similarly, Faisal and Babra’s 1986 Beyqaraar became Aamir Khan and Madhuri Dixit’s Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin (DMSN, 1990). Just like Salakhain and Dooriyaan, DMSN was a carbon copy of Hassan Askari’s work.
‘Meri wafa mere waaday pe’ by singer Anwar Rafi became ‘Main sehra baandh ke aaoon ga’ by Udit Narayan, while the title song of DMSN lacked A. Nayyar’s energy from ‘Yaar ki galiyon mein kyunkar.’
Despite the deteriorating conditions of the film industry, Askari continued to spin magic with ingenious ideas. He went on to direct Talaash (1986), a joint venture by Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where Turkish actress Nazan Saachi played the lead with Nadeem. He also roped in Egyptian actress Faiza Kamal for Sonay Ki Talaash (1987) to play the romantic lead with Ismail Shah. The experiment was a breath of fresh air.
Askari also directed Salma Agha in her first leading role in Hum Aur Tum (1985) after her short stint in Bollywood as an actress. The film’s failure had nothing to do with Hassan Askari, but the discredit goes to the lack of cooperation by Salma Agha, whose voice had to be dubbed due to her non-availability.
Askari also experimented with the Punjabi jatti Anjuman, casting her in the role of a village belle — and that too sans any make-up — in Mela (1986). Sultan Rahi remained a constant with Hassan Askari, and he starred in more than half of his films in various roles. With Sultan Rahi’s death in 1996, Anjuman took a sabbatical, and it was Askari who brought her back with the titular role in Chaudhrani (1999).
The last hit from Hassan Askari was the Shaan-Zara Sheikh starrer Tere Pyar Mein (TPM, 2000). A Pakistani lad goes to India to meet his lady love and, as a result, all hell breaks loose. The concept was later used in the Shah Rukh Khan-Priety Zinta-starrer Veer-Zara (2004), where the genders of the characters were switched.
Ironically, Zara’s character was enacted by Priety Zinta, while in TPM, Zara Sheikh played an Indian girl by the name of Preity. SRK’s character, Veer, was captured in the Yash Chopra film, while Shaan as Ali in TPM manages to get away with the girl.
A two-time National Award winner, Askari associated himself with a private TV channel in the early 2000s, but was always prepared to get back to his first love, films. But the conditions had changed forever. He was nominated for the long-awaited Pride of Performance award in August 2023, and was supposed to receive it in March 2024, but misfortune struck. Soon after receiving the nomination, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
A creative genius who directed over 50 films, produced 10, and scripted a few more, Hassan Askari quietly passed away in Lahore on October 30, at the age of 78, after devoting 55 years of his life to Pakistan’s film industry.
Published in Dawn, ICON, November 19th, 2023