Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza Mirza

Misrepresentation of Culture in Pakistani Cinema – I

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The beginning of the cinema in pre-partition Indian Sub Continent

In the following series of articles I set out to investigate the kind of cinema that has been provided to the audience in Pakistan to facilitate the birth and reinforcement of an alien Islamic (religious) identify. I utilize three different forms of cinema style (First, Second and Third Cinema) to explain whose political, social and cultural interests Pakistani cinema serves.

The advent of the cinematograph, in the late 1890s, designed by Louis Lumiere, was a remarkable achievement. With little adjustments it could turn into a projector.  Lumiere started to send his representatives to countries all over the world to demonstrate and introduce the new magic box. “Within six months the cinematograph was launched by Lumiere organisation in England, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Russia, Sweden, the United States – and soon thereafter in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, India, Australia, Indochina, Japan, Mexico.”[1]

In India it was one of Lumiere’s representatives who began cinema shows at the Watson Hotel in Bombay (Mumbai). The premiere was shown “on 7th July 1896.”[2] Soon after that regular screenings began at the Novelty Theatre in Bombay. This was the beginning of motion picture era in the sub continent. The normal ticket price was four anna and went up to two rupees. Raja Harish Chandra was the first film made in India. The year was 1913 and the director was Dhundiraj Govind. In next to no time films began to be financed by the wealthy Indians in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. “The majority of pictures (were) versions of well-known tales of Hindu mythology and religion clumsily put together with many long-winded titles in several languages.”[3]

In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution took place in Russia. The British colonialists now became concerned about the spread of radical ideology into India. They saw film as a powerful new medium of mass communication. In 1918 the Indian Cinematograph Act, the first code of censorship was imposed on films. By 1920 film censor boards had sprung up in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon. Censorship was to act as a tool of the British colonialists to prevent the growth of Avant-garde cinema in India and later in other British colonies including Pakistan.

The first film to be made in the city of Lahore, which was later to become the capital of Pakistani Punjab, was called The Daughter of Today. It was made in the Punjabi language in 1935 by G. A. Mehta. He had brought a movie camera from abroad. By then, the city already had nine cinema houses that were showing productions from Bombay, Calcutta, Hollywood and London. At the same time, a group of enthusiastic young filmmakers got together in Lahore; among them were Nazir, Heera Lal, Mohammed Ismail, Lala Yaqub, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Gul Hamid, Master Ghulam Haider and Abdul Rashid Kardar.

They became popularly known as the Bhaatti Gate Group, named after one of the twelve gates that led into the historic city. Amongst the Bhaatti Gate Group were to become the pioneers of Pakistani cinema that emerged after the partition of the sub-continent in August 1947.

In his book Pakistan Cinema, Mushtaq Gazdar, the documentary filmmaker from Pakistan, informs the reader that film production in Lahore did not generate profits and failed to attract investors. Hence it became a training ground for newcomers, with artists and technicians moving to Bombay after some initial training. Therefore Bombay became the centre of film production. This is one of the major reasons why the first talkie was produced in Bombay. On 14th March 1931 the first talkie Alam Ara (The Light of the World) was screened at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay. It was the first full-length feature film to be made in India. The songs in the film were recorded during filming, as optical sound and other equipment were not available. The inclusion of song is considered to be a result of the influence of the “Hollywood’s first musical, The Jazz Singer.[4]

Kartar Singh (1959) was the first film to be produced in Pakistan on the issue of partition of the Indian sub-continent. It was set in the province of Punjab in Pakistan. Kartar Singh was written, produced and directed by Saif Uddin Saif. The story takes place in a village where a soldier Omar (a Muslim) is returning after the end of the Second World War. As he enters the village he spots a Sikh, Kartar Singh, kidnap Kuldip, the daughter of another Sikh, Jernail Singh. Omer interferes and rescues the young woman. Kartar Singh seeks forgiveness. Omer promises not to report the incident to the village panchayat (committee). Friction between Kartar Singh and Omer increases, as time goes by. Omer has a sister who is ready to get married. The village doctor Prem Nath, a Hindu, has daughter of the same age as Omer’s sister. They are best friends. Prem Nath announces that both girls will be married on the same day as he considers Omer’s sister as his own daughter.

One day Omer goes to the town to get his employment papers. While Omer is away, Kartar Singh’s brother gets killed during a communal fight. This ignites the communal violence in the area. Kartar Singh attacks Omer. He survives the attack but now the Sikhs and the Muslims become suspicious of each other. Omer in an act of self-defence shoots and kills Kartar Singh’s other brother. The situation becomes unbearable for the Muslims and a group of Muslim villagers head for Pakistan. Omer provides the convoy with security. Kartar Singh forms his own group and is responsible for numerous atrocities against the Muslims. During one such incident Kartar Singh attacks the convoy. As Omer is busy fighting them off, Kartar Singh manages to kidnap Omer’s sister. The convoy arrives in Pakistan safely and Omer becomes an officer in the border security.

Back in the village, Jernail Singh rescues Omer’s sister from Kartar Singh. Jernal Singh brings Omer’s sister to the border where an exchange of kidnapped women is taking place. Omer is very happy but he misses his beloved back in the village in India.

One day Omer is patrolling the border when he spots some troublemakers. Omer opens fire. One of the injured is Kartar Singh. Omer looks after him and sends him back to India. The incident results in Kartar Singh’s change of heart. He repents on what he has been doing. In a final scene Kartar Singh brings Omer’s beloved safely from the India. But as he approaches the border Omer opens fire and Kartar Singh is fatally wounded. Before he dies he embraces Omer and asks for forgiveness. Omer says: ‘you have washed away your sins with your blood’.

The film Kartar Singh was a melodrama about the partition of the Indian sub-continent that obscures the history of partition. It also completely ignores the massacres of Hindus and Sikhs, and the violence that occurred in the Northern parts of India where the Muslims were in majority. Kartar Singh portrays Sikhs as rowdies and ruins any chance of future cooperation between Punjabi masses living on both sides of the border i.e. western Punjab in Pakistan and eastern Punjab in India. It blames the Hindus and Sikhs for the atrocities committed against the Muslims of India and argues the case for the new rulers in Pakistan to persuade the ‘Pakistanis’ to begin to hate the ‘Indians’. A negative patriotism is promoted through the film. (To be concluded)

The writer is from Mirpur. He is the Chairman of Tehreek e Itefaq e Rai (Movement for Consensus) and can be reached at [email protected]


[1] Barnouw, Erik. A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York 1974. pp11

2 Gazdar, Mushtaq. Inema Before Partition. Pakistan Cinema. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Uk.1997.pp2

3 Rotha, Paul. Griffith, Richard. Films From Other Countries. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema. Spring Books.London1930.pp325

4 Gazdar, Mushtaq. Inema Before Partition. Pakistan Cinema. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Uk.1997.pp10

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