Lollywood Flashback

Sound of Lollywood: To Palestine, with love from the great Pakistani star Neelo

In a new series, we examine landmark tunes from Pakistani film soundtracks. We kick off with ‘Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai’ from ‘Zarqa’.

In the early 1970s, Pakistan was the fourth largest producer of feature films in the world. Yet because of war, politics and tit-for-tat embargoes by Pakistan and India, Pakistani cinema and its stars, music directors and singers remain a mystery to most movie lovers beyond the borders of the Land of the Pure. Our new weekly series is your opportunity to get a glimpse behind the cultural purdah. Each week we look at one film through a song from its soundtrack and share with you the glorious voices and melodies, the personalities and scandals that delighted millions of movie fans just across the border.

In the 1960s, Pakistan’s filmmakers often found inspiration in the national struggle of the Palestinian people and audiences generally responded well to such films. Shaheed was a massive box office draw in 1962, and it seems to have inspired the making of Zarqa in 1969.

Zarqa tells the story of an Arab woman who is able to become a fighter within the Palestinian liberation movement and through daring, courage and self-sacrifice wreaks massive destruction on the Israeli occupying military.

The film is violent, ideological, but in places quite moving. Talish, a fine character actor, plays Major David, a sadistic Israeli officer charged with capturing the Palestinian underground leader Shabaan Lutfi (Allaudin). Ejaz, the biggest male star of the ’60s, is given a relatively minor role as a ukulele-strumming Fatah fighter torn between love of his woman, Zarqa, and his motherland. But Neelo in the title role is the true star of the film.

And indeed, though the film was massively popular, running for over 100 weeks and thereby earning the status of Pakistan’s first Diamond Jubilee film, the dramatic, actual life back story is far more interesting than what turns out to be a predictable politically correct (anti-Imperialist, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestine) potboiler.

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Zarqa (1969).

The film’s director, Riaz Shahid, was a prominent member of the leftist clique of Pakistani artists and intellectuals that hovered around poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Shahid began his career as a journalist, working with Faiz’s weekly Lail-o-Nihar, and moved to screen writing by the late ’50s. In 1964, Shahid’s collaboration with Communist poet Habib Jalib on the film Khamosh Raho, a hard-hitting story about the kidnapping of rural women for the sexual pleasure of elite Pakistani society, announced his arrival as a serious filmmaker.

Jalib and Shahid hit it off and developed a partnership over several years and titles including Zarqa. Jalib’s populist, simple but powerful anti-authoritarian poems had gained him many stints behind bars as well as deep respect among peers and the public. Indeed, many of the film songs by which he is remembered were popular first as political poems and mushaira stoppers.

Neelo, the cute dancer-actor, got her start in cinema with a bit part in the Hollywood mega production Bhowani Junction, filmed in Lahore in 1954. Born into a Christian family and christened Cynthia Alexander Fernandes, Neelo caught audience attention with her role in Saat Lakh (1956). From that point on she became one of Pakistan’s most bankable headliners and racked up a number of major hits as well as three Nigar Awards including Best Actress for Zarqa.

In 1965, the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Pakistan and was hosted by the Nawab of Kalabagh, the Governor of West Pakistan. Neelo, who was at the height of her popularity was instructed to appear before the Shah to dance. She refused. An agitated Nawab dispatched the police to seize her and bring her forcibly to the Governor’s House. But no sooner did she take to the floor then she collapsed. Some say she fainted from the shame her dancing would bring upon her paramour Riaz Shahid. Others suggest she tried to commit suicide.

In any case, Neelo was rushed to the hospital and the incident became an instant cause célèbre.

Jalib penned a poem in the actress’ honour in which the opening lines trumpeted:

“Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-shahenshahi hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of Imperialism!)

Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!

(You can also dance in chains!)

Aaj qatil ki yeh marzi hai ki sirkash ladki

(Today the ruler wishes of you, you stubborn girl)

Sir-e-qatil tujhay koroon se nachaya jay

(That you be made to dance by whipping)

Maut ka raqs zamanay ko dikhaya jay

(This deadly dance is for the world to see)

Is tarahan zulm ko nazarana diya jata hai

(This is a spectacle of the power of darkness)

Raqs zanjeer pahin kar bhee kiya jata hai

(For dances can also be performed wearing chains)”

When it came time to cast Zarqa, Shahid chose Neelo, who was by now his wife. Jalib’s poem was included almost word for word with only ‘Imperialism’ being substituted by ‘slavery’ in the opening line.

“Too ke nawaqif-i-aadab-i-ghulami hai abhi

(You are unaware of the tenets of slavery!

Raqs zanjeer pehen kar bhee kiya jata hai!

(You can also dance in chains!)”

So sings Mehdi Hassan as a fettered Zarqa moves and groans in pain with each stab of Major David’s cigarette against her exposed skin.

The music was composed by Rashid and Wajahat Attre, a father-and-son team with a strong predilection for raga-based music. Originally from Pune, Rashid passed away during the film’s production, leaving Wajahat to complete the score, a task he didn’t feel completely up to. The film’s other songs, though not bad, suffer when stacked up against the gut-wrenching spectacle of Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jata Hai, surely one of the great instances of art imitating life in South Asian film.

A version of this story appeared on the blog https://dailylollyblog.wordpress.com/ and has been reproduced here with permission.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.