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Filmhistory: Armaan of a nation

March 14, 2010

Armaan was released on Friday, March 18, 1966, at a time when the country was echoing with protests against the Tashkent Agreement signed by President Ayub Khan and the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.

It was said that a war 'won' on the front had been 'lost' on the table. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the dissident foreign minister who was generally identified with a hard line stance against India, had just received an overwhelming ovation at the Lahore Railway Station from a multitude of his admirers.

Then, as the film opened in Naz Cinema, Karachi, and across West and East Pakistan, it captured the imagination of the entire society. Did the masses recognise, unconsciously, their deepest ideals in the fantasy about an educated and principle-centered aristocrat stepping down from his ranks for courting an orphaned girl of humble background and himself getting transformed in the process?

At least that was the gist of the hero's journey from the festive Ko Ko Korina to the mature Jab pyar mein do dil miltay hain; and from the light-hearted rendition of Akele na jana by Ahmad Rushdi to the symphonic and cataclysmic orchestra accompanying the voice of Mala, at the end. In retrospect, one may say that this was not very unlike the expectations that people were beginning to develop from Bhutto around the same time — regardless of whether or not the politician lived up to the ideals given by poets.

The film was the first Pakistani release to become a “Platinum Jubilee” (running for 75 cumulative weeks). The middle class, usually reluctant to go to the cinema, got attracted in large numbers (in some ways this shift had already started with Saheli four years earlier and Naela the last year but it reached its climax with Armaan). The hairstyle of the writer, producer and actor Waheed Murad became the default for that generation. Conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, educated and the illiterate, were equally mesmerised.

The legends spawned by Armaan spread wide and were going to prove lasting. Fellow film-maker Nazrul Islam, in his greatest film Aaina (1977) eleven year later, named the heroine Najma (played by Shabnam) after the role played by Zeba in Armaan. In a subsequent film, Nahin abhi Nahin (1980), Nazrul not only named the main character Armaan, but even persuaded the lead actor Faisal Rehman to use this as a real name (recently, Faisal has directed a television sequel to Nahin abhi Nahin where the protagonist Armaan, now grown up and teaching in a college, confronts the spirit of Allama Iqbal and seeks answers to questions about the existence and destiny of Pakistan).

If Armaan is one of the pegs around which threads of our collective consciousness are tied then it very well deserves that prestige. It was an offering from well-educated and imaginative youth who respected their culture and wanted to bring a healthy change through the unity of imagination. Waheed had an M.A. degree in English from Karachi University and his obsessions included James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Henry James (one of his dreams was to make a stream of consciousness films and he arguably achieved it three year later in one of his productions).

In developing the story of Armaan, he drew upon Cinderella, She Stoops to Conquer, The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but he used his sources ingenuously for creating a brevity that effectively conveyed the messages ingrained in the greatest cultural movements of recent history (attachment to Iqbal ran in Waheed's family, since his grandfather Manzur Ilahi Murad was an acquaintance of the poet-philosopher in Sialkot).

Director Pervez Malik, who also wrote the screenplay, had a master's degree in film-making from California. Camera work, imagery and symbolism were on a par with some of the best masterpieces of that time one could identify allusions to La Dolce Vita and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Later, Pervez was going to win a Pride of Performance Award for his patriotic films, including a trilogy about the awakening of the masses through the power of love Anmol (1972), Dushman (1974) and Pehchan (1975). The second of these is also significant because a year before India discovered “the angry young man” in Deewar (1975), Pervez Malik had created the icon here and articulated its social context with much more clarity and boldness than elsewhere.

Masroor Anwar, who wrote the dialogues and lyrics, had received a fresh impetus from his work in the 1965 war. A fascinating aspect of the lyrics of Armaan is that each song from this film, although so moving as an expression of ordinary love, can also be interpreted as a national song.

Consider, for instance, Akele na jana. The Ahmad Rushdi version is probably what every Pakistani may like to say to Pakistan “Diya hosla jis nay jeenay ka hum ko....” (you are a beautiful feeling that gave us the courage to live; you are the certainty that never leaves the heart; you the hope that lasts). It should surprise no one that the same Masroor Anwar later gave such national songs like Sohni dharti and Wattan ki mitti gawah rehna.

Sohail Rana, who gave music to Armaan, came from a literary family. His father, Rana Akbarabadi, was a renowned poet and had approved of his son's passion only on the condition that the talent should be used for perpetuating noble values. Sohail not only composed music for memorable national songs, including Apni jaan nazr karoon, Sohni dharti and Jeevay Pakistan but was also destined to set music to Hum Mustafavi Hain by Jamiluddin Aali, which was adopted as the national anthem of the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974 (it retains that status and is played wherever the summit is held).

In the 1970s and the '80s, Sohail was best known to the youth in Pakistan through his popular television programme in which he taught music and good manners. Armaan, in a way, had started with him. One night in 1963 or 1964 he heard a melody in his dream. He woke up and wrote it down. The words that were given to it eventually were, Akele na jana...

The rest is film history, though sadly unwritten for the most part.