In 1965, Pakistan fought and lost a war with its neighbour India. Tensions between the two countries were high and recent events clearly influenced the 1967 movie Lakhon Mein Aik.
The film, a Pakistani classic, is distinguished by its liberal (or at least ambivalent) attitude to the thorny issue of cross-border relations. While some critics have found its depiction of Indians and Hindus stereotyped, others, including myself, consider the story to be an honest telling of an extreme and traumatic event.
The film is set in Kashmir in 1948. Mob violence is building along the border and Ahmed (Talish) urges his Hindu friend Hardayal to escape to India until the situation returns to normal. Protesting that he has no ties to India and cannot tolerate the idea of leaving his homeland, Hardayal reluctantly agrees. While he is gone, Ahmed vows to take care of Hardayal’s daughter Shakuntala (Shamim Ara) as his own, while his own young boy Mahmood (Ejaz) is lost in the chaos.
Twenty years pass. Shakuntala is a gorgeous young woman and Mahmood has been adopted by a Pathan truck driver (Saqi) and rechristened Dildar Khan. The two fall in love but are ultimately foiled by their fathers and a busybody astrologer named Ramzani. Hardayal eventually returns to the village to claim Shakuntala who, with a broken heart, embraces fate, leaves Dildar/Mahmood behind and moves to India.
Life in India is as unwelcoming as Shakuntala had imagined. The local Hindu community, egged on by Brahmin priests, rejects her as “unclean” for having lived so long among the Muslims. Hardayal receives an offer of marriage from the handsome but cold-hearted forest officer Madhu (Mustafa Qureishi). It is not a happy marriage. Shakuntala professes her undying love for Mahmood, which enrages Madhu and leads to a dramatic finish along the border with Pakistan.
The script was written by Zia Sarhady, a self-proclaimed Marxist who had developed a well respected CV as director (Footpath, Hum Log) and writer (Baiju Bawra, Elaan) in Bombay. The conflicted feelings about homeland and the rough realities of Partition expressed by Shakuntala were evident in Sarhady’s own life. Born in Peshawar into a wealthy family, he came to Bombay in the 1930s where he worked closely with iconic director Mehboob (Andaz, Mother India) with whom he shared a progressive, liberal political ideology.
Sarhady migrated to Pakistan in 1958 and directed Rahguzar (Passerby) in 1960. He turned away from directing when the film fell foul of Ayub Khan’s censors. He left the country for good after Zia ul Haq tossed him into solitary confinement for his “inclination to Marxism” and supposed seditious activities.
Sarhady remained a committed leftist until his death in London in 2002. When asked if he had ever felt confused about his identity he replied, “No. I was fully satisfied about my future, even politically. I couldn’t decide what to do [after living in Pakistan for a while] and where to live. So I went to England. Later I made some documentaries in Pakistan but returned to India, the country I still love and admire. I have deep faith in the nobility of mankind. All the rest is political gimmickry of the leaders and it is there in every religion.”
Another migrant from Bombay, Nisar Bazmi, composed an outstanding score for Lakhon Mein Aik. Every song is a winner, full of pathos and ripe with emotion making the soundtrack one of the most beloved in Lollywood history.
Man Mandir ke Devta (God of my mind’s temple) is a dream sequence after Shakuntala arrives in India. Stuck as she is between a cruel man from her own community whom she detests and her true love who lives across the border, Shakuntala is in mental agony. In her dream she prays and dances before her god in the local temple.
Noor Jehan gives a masterful performance. The Queen of Melody captures Shakuntala’s feeling of grief, anxiety and need for resolution with restraint and subtle emotion.
“Jag ka rishta/jhoota rishta (this world’s ties are false ties)
Preet ka bandhan/ aaisa bandhan (the ties of the beloved are so strong)
Mar keb hi/nahi toote (even death cannot sever them)
Dono rishte/kaise nibhaun (how can I stay true to both?)”
These lines capture not just the troubled heart of a woman separated from her lover but encapsulate perfectly what so many of those involved in this film (Noor Jehan, Bazmi, Sarhady, Talish, Afzal Hussain) and indeed, the entire Partition Generation must have wrestled with half a century ago.
Nate Rabe’s novel, The Shah of Chicago, is out now from Speaking Tiger.
A version of this story appeared on the blog https://dailylollyblog.wordpress.com/ and has been reproduced here with permission.