VIEW: The Lahore film industry’s cultural roots —Ishtiaq Ahmed - Sunday, March 18, 2012

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As the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, Lahore continued to be a city known for its large numbers of courtesans and musicians, and there was much conviviality and entertainment prevalent at his court

Recently, a long article, “The Lahore Film Industry” was published in a major scholarly undertaking edited by Professor Anjali Gera Roy and Chua Beng Huat, Travels of Bollywood Cinema: From Bombay to LA (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012). The book is a mine of information on the ubiquitous Bombay cinema’s connections in all directions in the Indian subcontinent and now to all the nooks and corners of the world. 

The pristine Lahore film industry was a major victim of the 1947 partition riots. I tell the story of all those who left Lahore and those who came from Bombay to Lahore — because they had a name that made them a target for religious fanatics. I launch with this article a series of articles on this theme, interspersed with current affairs and related topics.

My magnum opus, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012), published only last week, contains some interviews with stars Sunil Dutt and Raj Babbar; filmmakers and directors B. R. Chopra and Ramanand Sagar; song and script writers Naqsh Lyallpuri, Prem Dhawan and Hamid Akhtar, and television story and script writers A. Hameed, Bhisham Sahni and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. So the two research undertakings are interlinked.

It is important to note that historical Punjab had a very rich and varied cultural heritage in which the performing arts were very much a part of life. That heritage paved the way for the evolution of the Lahore film industry. Much before the British conquered Punjab, a vibrant tradition of story-telling and melodic rendering of heroic and romantic epics was prevalent in Punjab. Epics such as Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Sassi Punnu, Puran Bhagat and other such tales were recited in the baithaks [private sittings] in towns and cities, and in the village square under a tall and big tree. Story-tellers would wander around narrating tales from the Mahabharata, the Ramayan, Guru ki Baani, the Tragedy of Karbala as well as the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and many other such stories. On the occasion of Ram Lila and the annual gatherings at sufi shrines, wandering actors would perform to eager audiences. The mirasi or bard was an essential component of the social order. In that traditional hierarchical order, he alone could take liberties with the landowning castes and biradaris (kinship lineages).

Lahore, the traditional capital of Punjab, always had a large number of non-conformists. Shah Hussain, a rebel sufi, drank wine and danced ecstatically in the streets of Lahore. His idiosyncratic behaviour and defiant lifestyle earned him the ire of the conservative sections of society, who approached Emperor Akbar to chastise him. Akbar was in Lahore at that time. He ignored their protests. Shah Hussain’s close friendship with Madho, a beautiful Brahmin boy from Shahdara on the other side of the Ravi, raised many eyebrows. Both are buried in the same tomb and an annual festival attracts a large number of people to their tomb.

Later, Bulleh Shah, another rebel sufi and poet par excellence, migrated from nearby Kasur and lived in Lahore for a long time. His guide and master, Shah Inayat Qadri, initiated him into the unorthodox Shattari branch of the Qadri Sufi Order that sought a synthesis between Hindu and Islamic mysticism. Bulleh Shah, in his own right, gathered a large following of non-conformists. As the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, Lahore continued to be a city known for its large numbers of courtesans and musicians, and there was much conviviality and entertainment prevalent at his court. 

There can be no denying that the Punjab in general and Lahore in particular benefited the most from colonial modernisation and development policies. The British decided to recruit a major portion of its army from Punjab and Urdu was promoted as the medium of instruction in schools. The Urdu Board was not established in Delhi or Lucknow, the centres of the Urdu-speaking heartland in northern India, but in Lahore. As a result educated Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were literate in Urdu. This was to prove a great asset when Punjabis went to the Bombay film industry in search of work.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Lahore had turned into the cultural and educational capital of north-western India, Kolkata being the centre at the other end, in the north-east, whereas Delhi was reduced in 1911 to the administrative capital of British India. Although the majority of the Lahore population was Muslim, 40 per cent were Hindus and Sikhs. There were Europeans and Anglo-Indians, indigenous Punjabi Christians, Parsees and many other smaller groups including Buddhists, Jews and Armenians as well. A colony of Bengali educationists was also settled in Lahore. 

A friend of mine, Waleed Meer, told me that the famous Swiss chateau-type building on Montgomery Road was built by an Armenian. Another friend, Advocate Liaqat Ali, told me that before cinema theatres were built, two Lahori Muslims had roaming theatre companies: a Syed company and an Arain company (both castes). Iqbal specialist Professor Riffat Hassan told me that her maternal grandfather, a Pathan, also owned a theatre company in Lahore. Lahore Hindus and Sikhs were also deeply involved in cultural activism; not to forget that Lahore Christians were also a prominent element in the theatre and entertainment business.

I grew up in Mozang in post-partition Lahore. I remember Sain Khutais could mesmerise audiences by rendering Heer Waris Shah in the most haunting voice. My father and his friends would attend qawwaali sessions in the evenings. Muppet shows and street theatres and magicians were still around. 

Then there was Ustad Bhawaan, a chat vendor, who had gone into a trance ever since he saw the film Baiju Bawra (1952). He started believing that one could melt stones by singing the appropriate raga. People would buck him up to sing, and once he started a semi-classic melody, his aloo-chholae (potatoes and chickpeas) chaat was pilfered by the rascals around. However, as a true artiste he would not interrupt his singing, which the crowd exploited with a wicked sense of humour. It was a Lahore that was just recovering from the looting, burning and killing that had taken place a few years earlier. The innocence of ordinary folks in 1947 had received severe jolts, but it still pervaded their lives.

The writer has a PHD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Sceience, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at 

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