I finally managed to get my hands on the DVD versions of three Pakistani films that I had once seen on the big screen many years ago, and was looking to do the same again, but this time in the privacy of my TV lounge.
I went looking for them to investigate a possibility of finding the cultural roots of what grew into religious and ideological extremism and myopia in Pakistan.
One can pin-point almost all of Ziaul Haq’s Machiavellian farce in the name of Islam as containing the main roots of the social and political extremism that now plagues the nation.
But I believe it is in the cultural legacy of such reactionary travesty in the 1990s where one can clearly locate the derivatives of the Zia era’s Islamist charade; off-shoots of a destructive legacy that eventually mutated into the kind of fanaticism that has become a troubling mainstay of Pakistani society ever since 9/11.
I will not go into the academic and scholarly details of this observation, but rather discuss the issue by reviewing the three films that I rediscovered. Two were made and released in the 1990s and one in 1980. They are interesting examples of the kind of mindset that many common Pakistanis started to develop at the conclusion of the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ in the late 1980s.
But the first one arrived in 1980, or at the start of the so-called Afghan Jihad and during a period when the Ziul Haq dictatorship (1977-88) had begun to roll out his draconian policies (explained as being ‘Islamic’) in earnest. Starring famous Pakistan film actor, Muhammad Ali, it was called Sangram.
The film takes place in a land where there seems to be nothing but mud brick villages separated by miles and miles of rolling sand. One is not quite sure exactly what year, or for that matter, what century the story is taking shape because even though there are no electoral appliances to be seen, there are plenty of pistols and a rickety Jeep driven by an evil Hindu police officer. There is no shortage of camels, though.
Ali is Sangram, a Hindu in a village with a Hindu majority most of whose men prefer wearing tight leather pants and shirts made from what seems to be jute.
Ali’s character is a robber who also has a petite girlfriend (actress Mumtaz) who, however, turns significantly voluptuous while dancing around Sangram during the songs.
One day Sangram bumps into a Muslim holy man who looks like a cross between an ancient Byzantine priest and a 20th century Tableeghi Jamat evangelist.
The holy man succeeds in converting Sangram to Islam and renames him Muhammad Ali – a scene marked by a flash of lightening striking across the night sky on a perfectly sunny afternoon.
From then onwards, somehow, whichever scene Ali appears in, palm trees can be seen and his girlfriend’s voluptuous moves become radically understated but the songs keep rolling.
Of course, like all good converts, Ali makes it his duty to convert his contemporaries whether they like it or not. He gives up his life as a thief, a Hindu thief, mind you, discards his leather pants, takes to wearing the Arab thawb and spending rest of the film on the back of a camel.
After first converting his gang and then the whole village (with the help of a few emotional speeches and a couple of punches thrown at one of his doubting partners), he decides to lead an army of committed converts (on camels) on a mission to convert the Hindus of all the villages of this unnamed, surreal land populated by bumbling Hindus and a sprinkling of Muslim clerics who seem to emerge from behind sand dunes and then melt back into the sand.
After he is able to convert village after village, and after palm tree after palm tree begins to dot the scenes, a time comes when Hindu holy men begin to worry.
They conspire with the area’s police to eliminate Ali. This pushes him into becoming a guerrilla leader. He cuts down the Hindu priests until he is cornered and killed by the cops. But, of course, by then it’s too late.
By the way, it is only at the end of the film one finds out that the film took place just before the creation of Pakistan because as Ali lies on the sand dying from his wounds he looks up to see a Pakistan flag on a fortress.
Yes, the symbolism is unmistakable ‘Pakistan is the fortress of Islam’ (albeit created by jihadists and not by cigar-smoking, English-speaking lawyers).
As Ali’s character rolls to his death over the sand dunes, Jinnah must’ve rolled in his grave.
The second film is 1990’s ‘International Gorillay’ (Gorillay in Urdu means guerrillas, but also gorillas!).
The film is a remarkable celebration of a post-Afghan-jihad resurgence of Pakistan’s convoluted belief of being a ‘fortress of Islam.’ It was a huge hit when it was released in mid-1990 and has become a cult classic amongst oddball Lollywood aficionados.
Directed by eccentric Pakistani film director, Jan Muhammad – who then went on to direct the delicious Lollywood rom-com ‘Kuriyoon koh dalay dana’ (direct translation: Feeding women seed) – the farce was also one of the first Pakistani films to be banned (on video) in Britain.
International Gorillay takes on author Salman Rushdie as the film’s main villain, but the ban on the video was lifted when Rushdie himself stepped in and asked the British censor board to allow its release.
Since the film is a masterpiece of tacky demagogic cinema, one can understand why Rushdie didn’t feel threatened or offended by the content.
Through his direction, Jan Muhammad was simply cashing in on the (largely delusional) high Pakistan as a country was experiencing at the retreat of the battered Soviet forces in Afghanistan and the (CIA aided) ‘victory of jihad.’
But according to some Lollywood insiders, Jan’s original plot of the film was a lot wider, revolving around a group of Pakistani mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan. But the story suddenly took a sharp turn when Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy erupted in 1989, and Jan decided to make Rushdie the film’s main villain.
Thus, instead of seeing mujahids returning from fighting a successful ‘jihad’ against atheists, the film kicks off by presenting Pakistan and the Muslim world gripped by a grave crisis and being swallowed by the evil schemes of a sinister lobby of diabolic men.
This lobby includes Salman Rushdie (played by veteran TV and film actor, Afzal Ahmed), who has inexplicably started leading a menacing social and political onslaught on Pakistan through a gang of anti-Pakistan agents.
With Rushdie are some very South Asian looking men in curly blonde wigs whom we are told are Zionists working for a secret Israeli agency.
And, oh, they all speak fluent Punjabi.
Since Pakistan is the leading defender of Islam, the film suggests that if Pakistan falls to Rushdie’s menacing schemes, so shall the rest of the Islamic world.
Interestingly, Rushdie’s assault on Islam includes the unfathomable opening of a chain of casinos and discotheques in Pakistan! The fool could have made more money by opening madrassahs and TV news channels instead.
Alas, there is a heroic reaction to such conspiratorial debauchery. In a jarring scene involving some terrible acting and rhetorical dialogue, veteran Punjabi film actor, Mustafa Qureshi, playing an ex-cop, decides to create a ‘mujahid fauj’ (the proto-Taliban?) whose sole aim is to destroy Rushdie and ‘save Islam and Pakistan’ from Jewish conspiracies and, of course, from obscenity too.
The latter is a vital plot tool, giving the director the opportunity to show some lecherous disco and dance scenes without the danger of himself (and the audience) being labelled as soft-porn fans.
Apart from being an Israeli agent and an advocate of gambling, alcohol and free sex, Rushdie is also a master torturer. He torments captive Muslims by making them listen to the blasphemous sections of his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’!
The ex-cop has two younger brothers who are both unemployed (maybe because there are now only casinos, pubs and night clubs to work in?).
To counter Rushdie, he inducts two of his younger brothers in his ‘mujahid force.’
After getting combat training, the three-man ‘jihadi’ army decides to infiltrate Rushdie’s baleful gang by going undercover. And no, they don’t adorn blonde wigs, but slip into Batman costumes instead!
Obviously, who would notice three middle-aged men in 1960s Batman costumes, right?
Two of the brothers, played by known film actors, Javed Shaikh and Ghulam Mohiuddin, were well in their forties at the time, a fact underlined by the wobbling bellies protruding forward from their Batman costumes. Qureshi was in his late fiffties.
After making their way into the conspiring gang of anti-Islam thugs, the three brothers, with the help of zany reactionary one-liners, karate chops, expert gun slinging and a few American SAM missiles, make a meal out of Rushdie and Co. and save Pakistan (and thus Islam).
What’s more they even manage to convert Salman Rushdie’s equally evil mistress called Dolly (played by the lovely Barbara Sharif).
Voluptuous, wicked, scheming, drunk (and blue-eyed), Dolly finally sees the light after watching the wrath of God (attired in Batman suits) obliterate Rushdie.
Dolly’s conversion is quite a scene. Lights flicker, clouds thunder, the room whirls round and round, and the music reaches a crescendo as she weeps, sweats and shakes – it’s as if she’d just consumed a highly potent concoction of liquid LSD, magic mushrooms and bhang! Certainly my favourite scene in the film. And, oh, there’s also a shot of a huge palm tree at this visionary moment.
International Gorrilay is a stroke of genius when it comes to campy demagogic cinema, and only an idiot can take it seriously as anything beyond being a highly enjoyable cinematic farce with lots of unintentional laughs.
But then, since extremists are usually idiots, I was wondering if, due to its bombastic, chauvinist antics, whether it actually ended up inspiring any future suicide bombers? The film was such a big hit that a sequel of sorts arrived in Pakistani cinemas sometime in 1996.
It was called ‘Alamy Ghuday’ (International Scoundrels). Though directed and plotted by a different director and having different set of performers (except Ghulam Mohiuddin), the film more than alludes to the happenings of its predecessor, ‘International Gorrilay‘.
Many years after Pakistan (and thus Islam) were saved from Rushdie and his gang of obscene blonde-wigged Zionist thugs, yet another anti-Pakistan (and thus anti-Islam) villain has risen (played by the malevolent Shafqat Cheema).
His mission too is to harm Pakistan (and thus Islam) with the help of diabolical schemes and voluptuous disco dancing and binge drinking.
A group of passionate ‘young men’ (in their mid- and late-forties) and a damsel in distress take on the evil Cheema but are arrested by the cops along with the damsel’s weakling old father. Yes, the government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has sold out to the greedy ways of the villain’s sinister empire, and the frail father is dragged to the Supreme Court.
Here begins a terrific court scene. In it the damsel – in a red dress that is a freaky cross between a Wonder Woman costume and a Bedouin desert tent – is seen fervently arguing with a lawyer who wants the old man to be hanged.
She shouts away, condemning the spread of obscenity in a country made in the name of Islam, and passionately lamenting the practice of dishing out the law according to ‘ghair mulki’ (non-Pakistani and thus non-Islamic) law books.
Incidentally a pile of such infidel books lies neatly stacked in front of the bewildered judge (played by the great Munawar Saeed).
The damsel then runs forward, picks up the books and flings them high into the air (in slow-motion), pleading that the prisoner’s case should be heard according to ‘Islami qanoon‘ (Islamic law). Well, the sort of qanoon she was pleading for would have first and foremost booked her for her delicious sense of dressing, but that’s beside the point.
We never see the books coming down as they defy gravity and all laws of physics by completely disappearing into thin air.
The judge suddenly sees the light and he flings away whatever books left sitting on his desk (these do manage to hit the floor). He decides to hear the case according to Islamic law. Yes, just like that.
After a lot of shouting and more flinging, the old man is released, and the group is given the green signal by the suddenly reformed state of Pakistan to go forth and demolish the wicked whisky drinking villain.
The scene is a classic example of a populist medium glorifying exactly the kind of self-righteous, isolationist and convoluted mindset we so seriously have to move away from. But I was more interested in my popcorn.
Even though I didn’t take this piece of cinematic nonsense seriously, I did wonder whether some people actually decided to act upon the message that the film was delivering, which, in a nutshell, was that everyone or everything that is not according to a squarely narrow, literalist understanding of the faith is up for spontaneous destruction, never mind the lavish Wonder Woman costume, mate!
Well, the mujahids – this time in Robin Hood costumes – blow the evil man’s empire to smithereens and once again save Pakistan (and thus Islam) from the evils of Zionism and, of course, alcohol and disco dancing.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.