Misrepresentation of Culture in Pakistani Cinema (Part IV)
1980s: The Return of the Men in Khaki
During the 1980s Punjabi films dominated Pakistani cinema. The Muhajirs had lost the dominant position that they enjoyed during the early days of Pakistan’s creation. There has been a rapid rise in the power of Punjabi establishment since 1977, when the (Punjabi ) Chief of Pakistan army, a Wahhabi and salafist General Zia Ul Haq staged a coup against the socialist demagogue (Sindhi) Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto. On 4th of April 1979 the first ever-elected prime minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in Rawalpindi Central Jail. He was accused of plotting the murder of a right wing political opponent. The hanging of Bhutto, despite clemency appeals from all around the world that included several heads of states, United Nation and human right representative, became a national trauma both on a psychological and a political level. This incident became the turning point in the history of Pakistani cinema.
Sarwar Bhatti produced a film called Maulla Jut. According to him it is a story about good and evil. Jut (Sultan Rahi) is a just man who does not inflict insult or injury on any one. In a neighbouring village an evil character by the name of Noori Nath (Mustafa Kureshi) is creating havoc as he seeks revenge for the insult inflicted upon him when Jut punishes him by beating him after Nath tries to rape a young woman from who comes from Maulla’s village.
Maulla Jut is full of sharp dialogues that take place between Jut and Nath. For two and a half years hundreds and thousands of peoples thronged through the doors of cinemas in Pakistan to watch the film repeatedly. The mannerism of the evil Noori Nath was very similar to the soft but vicious tone of the military dictator General Haq and the loud challenging dialogues delivered by the justice seeker Jut had a lot in common with the style of the executed Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto.
The film was an allegory of how the country had come under the spell of evil forces and only uncompromising struggle against the system could guarantee a victory. Haq tried to ban the film but its producer, Bhatti, managed to get a stay order. Finally after two and a half years the date of the certificate of exhibition expired. The military government denied a new certificate on the basis that the film carried graphic scenes of violence.
For eleven years the pair of Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Kureshi stared in hundreds of films that depicted violence and a means for the traumatised masses to relive the real life trauma of living under a brutal military regime. Punjabi films dominated the film scene. The Muhajirs who were already being pushed out of senior jobs and being replaced by the Sindhi and Punjabi elite, reacted by forming the Muhajir Qaumi (National) Movement or commonly known as MQM.
The lead characters in Punjabi films during the 80s were rural bandits or outlaws who had set themselves the task of punishing a bad law enforcer or a brutal Landlord. But “it is the people and not a few outstanding individuals who make history.” With hundreds of thousands of political activists in prisons across the country and a brutal military regime in power, individual terrorism in the form of terrorist organisation Al-Zulfikar formed by late Bhutto’s son, the political future of the country seemed doomed. Then in an anonymous act of terrorism General Haq along with several of his top generals and the American ambassador to Pakistan, were killed when their C-130 aircraft crashed near Bahawalpur in southern Punjab on the 18th August 1988.
After several general elections and dissolutions of the parliament on numerous occasions by the President, the army finally usurped power again in October 1998 and the Kargil adventurist General Musharraf became the new ruler.
Khamosh Pani (Silent Water) a film directed by Sabiha Sumar, managed to win four awards at the 56th Locarno International Film Festival in 2003. It might seem as an encouraging step in the direction of film production that chooses to address tabooed social issues. Set in 1979, the year when the first elected prime minister of Pakistan was hanged; Silent Waters is a story about the plight of women in a patriarchy (Muslim) society where she suffers from domestic and social violence. Ayesha’s husband is dead and she manages to earn a living and support herself and her 18-year-old son by giving Quran lessons in the village.
On the outskirts of the village is the Sikh holy site of Punja-sahib. A pilgrimage from India has been authorised for the first time in years. A group of Sikh pilgrims board a special train and travel to Pakistan to visit the shrine. Jaswant, a Sikh pilgrim, is accompanying the group. He tries to find his sister who at the time of partition was abducted by the Muslims. When he finds her, it is revealed that it is Ayesha. She refuses to accompany her brother back to India and commits suicide by jumping in a well. Her son who becomes a fundamentalist Islamic radical steer up enough unrest and religious hate between the villagers and the pilgrims so that the pilgrims have to leave before the schedule.
Silent Waters was a third attempt to make a film about the issue of partition and for a third time Pakistani filmmakers have failed to bring to the screen an intellectual dialogue on the subject. One of the reasons for this is that the filmmakers belong to the established school of a narrative that is based upon an establishment sponsored cultural (religious) ideology and do not seem to be prepared to look into the dialectics of the struggle against the British Raj in India. The role of the Muslims of United Provinces of India in building up the fear, that once the British are gone the Muslims will become a minority and be lost for ever if the did not have a separate home land, is never mentioned. Nothing is even mentioned about the effects of Second World War on the politics of the British Empire.
(to be continued…)
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]
 Wayne, Mike. Dialectics of First and Third Cinema . Political Film: the Dialectics of Third Cinema. Pluto Press. London. 2001. pp75