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Why Maula Jat is a classic

'Vernacular Punjabi cinema has been responding to the changing social reality in its aesthetically garish but direct and vigorous negotiations with ideology.' Samina Choonara looks beyond the obvious in her analysis of the popular Punjabi cinema of the '70s and '80s.

The decade of the '70s was experienced "nationally" as a period of populist democracy with a greater emphasis on improving the quality of life of the poor. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won two consecutive elections with a wide margin to form the government in the centre and, if not in practice then in theory, he was perceived as a liberator of the oppressed, nationalizing privately owned large industry and opening up the public sector which gave him the image of a modern-day Robin Hood.

The slogans of "awami raj" or popular rule were rampant and there was much exuberant street passion for the rights of labour. Those were heady times, and popular cinema reflected this in the rise of the new kind of hero who was no longer the pasty-looking romantic hero singing songs and pining away for his beloved. The new hero was working class, rugged, and despite being violent and aggressive, ultimately socially conscious.

Sultan Rahi played this character effectively for over two decades and completed over 600 films, making it to the Guinness Book of Records with his screen persona being compared to that of John Wayne.

Rahi began his career in 1956 as a film extra for the many fight scenes in Punjabi and Urdu films. After spending ten years working as a body double, his break came with Bashira in 1972 where he played a small-time muscle man on the payroll of the local landlord whose work includes extorting money and providing young women to his master till, one day, he abducts his own sister by mistake. This rakes up his moral stakes and he turns around to recognize the landlord as an exploiter of the weak to undertake a fight with him and all the henchmen unto his death.

In his early films, Rahi is unarmed, except for his gundasa or wooden staff. In this, he resembles the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong movies where rural workers and the urban lumpen develop techniques to fight their oppressive masters with bare hands. Sometimes, Rahi is assisted in this righteous vendetta by a male friend who is no more than the humourous sidekick, but mostly he goes it alone.

Perhaps more than even Rahi, the most interesting character of these films is the villain, played in 300 films against Rahi by the actor Mustafa Qureshi who is Rahi's mirror image, an opposite reflection. He always represents authority, either as the landlord's son or as an officer of the police force who is educated and articulate, witty and well dressed, except that Mustafa Qureshi's character is an adversary so intelligent that he comes round to understanding and admiring his defenseless but honourable opponent and becomes an ally of the oppressed and their lonely leader symbolized by Rahi. The repartee between the two characters is legend, with Mustafa Qureshi's witticisms being parroted in the streets to this day.

The women in these films are no cowering, diminutive creatures but tall, full-bodied, and articulate creatures, willing participants in verbal assaults and even in the action scenes when the lone hero is outnumbered by his adversaries.

Although an action hero, Rahi's character is completely controlled by the mother, an archetypal figure who exercises complete control over the will of her son. She either rouses him to a fight in the name of honour or commands him to retreat in the name of communal peace, but always maintains a life-threatening hold over the hero. And she is not the only woman with such powers.

The heroine, the jatti, is equally loud and sexually aggressive, coming on strong to woo the distracted hero. A series of actresses made their careers starring opposite Rahi in this role, namely Aasia, Anjuman, and then Saima, although Anjuman surpassed them all for her larger-than-life physique and the garishness of her costumes that contributed greatly to setting the mood for this theatre of the grotesque. Anjuman played the female lead with Rahi for over twelve years in which they made about two hundred films together.

It has been argued that this physical typecast of the female lead takes after Heer, the heroine of the epic poem by Waris Shah. An equal case may be made for the fact that the actresses, without exception, come from the Red Light District of Lahore and are sex workers, vocal and visible outsiders to the system who often represent themselves in these films as the kind-hearted courtesan who is a victim of circumstance. But, in all cases, the symbolic and the real here are conjoined and not oppositional.

This genre of films reached its climax with the release of Maula Jat in 1979, the year when the popular political "hero", Z.A. Bhutto was hanged after a two-year public trial before a kangaroo court.

Maula Jat very roughly translates into "God's Peasant", where Jat is a caste in the Punjab. This is the story of an ordinary man and how circumstances force him into taking up an extraordinary social role. Maula beats up the landlord's son who is chasing a young woman through the village who runs barefoot and bare headed in search of someone who will save her from the man's lust.

The girl feels disgraced in the public eye and even after Maula has bloodied the nose of the landlord's son, a physical sign of being humiliated, she breaks into a frenzied dance of protest, the dhammal, and dances herself to death. A spate of killings follows this incident and the matter escalates and envelops the entire village community. In all of this, the police force, as the representative of the State, is made into a police farce since they are helpless to control the escalating violence.

'The story of Maula Jat is set in a society or country where the police, the courts, the rulers, and the officials are indifferent to the plight of the common men and women.' writes the film critic Mushtaq Gazdar.

It is only in the final scene that the political subtext becomes evident when the protagonists face each other in a final battle after the entire village has been laid waste. The dialogue that is then exchanged is about the futility of violence, and how one act of justice could have spared the lives of many people, because social justice is the antithesis of retributive justice. Rahi stands over his vanquished enemy and raises his arms to the heavens and cries because, he says, insaaf (justice) would have been so much better than intiqam (revenge).

This is perhaps the only scene where the judicial murder of Bhutto is alluded to, but the emotionally charged audiences understood the subtleties of the script writer. The film ran for five years in the theatres, even though the military ruler banned its screening.

According to director Sarwar Bhatti, the villain played by Mustafa Qureshi carried several overtones of the military dictator Ziaul Haq. 'Nuri Nath is made of different stuff; he is not engaged in robbery, looting or assaulting women. His obsession is to subjugate everyone.' The villain is also soft spoken and very polite, addressing his adversaries as "sohnia" or "hey, handsome". In this, too, he resembled the soft-spoken General.

The official censor board banned the film for its violence, although the General was not averse to public hangings and flagellations where a microphone was fixed close to the mouth of the screaming victim.

Writes Gazdar, 'It may be of interest to social scientists thatMaula Jat was a super hit in the Punjab and in rural Sindh, the areas where Bhutto and his party enjoyed tremendous popularity, whereas in metropolitan centers like Karachi and in other areas with fewer Bhutto supporters, the film got a lukewarm reception.'

Because of its success, Maula Jat has had several reincarnations in sequels and send-ups and till very recently this type of film was copied. The scriptwriter of this smash hit, Nasir Adeeb, a self styled organic intellectual, thinks no one has been able to copy Maula Jat because they have not understood its critical subtext which was anti-violence and anti-machismo. New film-makers have followed the action film formula without understanding the critical edge of the film and the reasons for its resonance in the audiences of that time.

After Maula Jat, Sultan Rahi became a one-man film industry starring in as many as 35 films at a time. He worked as the male lead in as many as 650 films, that's five films a day. Perhaps no actor in Pakistan has achieved the kind of popular following as did Sultan Rahi where the actor merged so completely with the character and enjoyed such a following.

After forty years in the film industry, Rahi was brutally murdered on the roadside by an alleged bandit when he stopped to change a flat tyre enroute to Gujranwala. His murderers remain unaccounted for to date, a fate that Rahi's character in the films never accepted.

In search of a methodological device for a critical inquiry into "third world" films, cultural historians like Ashish Nandy, Ziauddin Sardar et al have argued how "popular" is a natural antithesis of the dominant culture, but it is important to differentiate here between popular and "mass" culture.

In contradistinction to the dominant or "mass" cinema culture comprising Hollywood advertisements for armed combat or Indian cinema's middle class song-and-dance romances, both of which serve the purpose of reification, vernacular cinema has been involved in responding to the changing social reality in its aesthetically garish but direct and vigourous negotiations with ideology.

In a strict sense, these films are not even entertaining although they are engaging because they reflect the unstable and violent social conditions and are remembered by their musical scores composed by well known musicians and sung by Noor Jehan.

The emphasis here is not on formal aspects of technical brilliance and aesthetic wizardry but on subject matter, providing a framework of agreement between the film-maker and the public that is more ideological than a novel storyline based on plot and character.

As other film reviewers have argued, the storyline is perhaps the least important aspect of these films where what happens is already known but each film is different for how it unfolds. The stories are circular often with a repetition of images, the time links being less important than the stress on ideological continuity.

In these Punjabi films under review, cinematic excess is not edited out: long takes, repetition of images, slow pace, wide angle shots of landscape, and very few close-ups convey a sense of the spatial and not the temporal. The Punjabi landscape has as much a role to play as the actors, emphasizing the phenomenal reality that integrates people with the general drama of existence.

The hero may be killed ruthlessly because wish fulfillment through identification is not the primary objective. Rather, it is the importance of collective engagement and action that counts. 'The individual hero in the third world context does not make history but only serves historical necessity,' remarks Gabriel.

The western model of filmic representation is essentially based on literary or written conception of the scenario which implies a linear, cause-effect conception of narrative action. In third world films, the narrative follows the oral traditional culture where memory is a set of formal strategies specific to repeated, oral, face-to-face encounters.

With so much cutting edge and critical cinema coming from neighbouring countries like India and Iran, it is surprising that Punjabi cinema of the '70s has not been recognized for its ideological potential where all forms of authority are challenged and ridiculed.

Although rough parallels may be drawn with Indian cinema of the same period starring Amitabh Bachhan, (Don, Deewar, Shahinshah, Coolie) where Bachhan portrays a leader of the lumpen representing the urban proletariat in consonance with Indian social reality where the intensive industrialization according to the Nehruvian model of development led to massive migration from the rural heartland into the city.This also meant the ghettoization of the poor into hovels and the rise of illegal shanty towns from where the Bachhan character rose to combat the "evil" industrialist. This was a reality not shared by Pakistan, at least not on that scale. Punjabi cinema is largely rural and the rise of different working class heroes in Hindi and Punjabi cinema correlates directly to the different ways in which the two neighbours directed their economies.

Even more than their critical subtext, this genre of films addresses the larger issues of transitional societies where modernization is uneven and insufficiently negotiated. Vernacular films often reflect this in the construction of the confrontationalist double: the crude peasant versus the civilized landowner, the criminal underclass versus the police State, the western educated and the indigenously wise, the rural and the urbane.

The encounter in Punjabi genre films between the Rahi and the Qureshi character emphasizes all these dichotomies and works towards a reconciliation to establish their common origins. Neither is the old entirely retrogressive nor is the new totally immoral; their conflicts are interrelated and cumulative, as in Maula Jat and in numerous other films, and no escape is possible because this is a reality supported by social forces.

However crude, melodramatic, and maudlin these films appear on the surface, we choose to ignore their critical positioning at the risk of increasing our own ignorance and cultural impoverishment.

Dharmaan Khan
jee o shera

very good article
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