Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza Mirza

Misrepresentation of Culture in Pakistan Cinema-Part V

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In search of an alternate cultural narrative in Pakistani cinema

Riaz Shahid and Khalil Kaiser were among those politically sensitive Pakistani intellectuals who resorted to the medium of film in order to reflect the rage of the masses. In 1962 Riaz Shahid made Shaheed (Martyr). The film is an allegory of the historical visit of Lawrence of Arabia to the Arab lands. A foreigner called Lawrence (Talish) visits an Arab tribe in 1920. He requests an audience with the chief of the tribe. During his meeting with the chief of the tribe he mentions his desire to write about the culture of Arabs. At the time the deputy chief of the tribe is also present. They both welcome him and offer him generous Arab hospitality. But an Arab youth, Harris, becomes suspicious about the real motive of the foreigner. Lawrence is a western mercenary who has come to explore for oil. A piece of barren land lies just outside the village that he wants to acquire. The foreigner tells the chief of the tribe that the purpose of obtaining the land is to drill for oil and make the tribe rich. The chief is enraged and rejects the foreigner’s logic by saying that wealth brings war. Lawrence then turns towards the deputy and makes a secret deal; Lawrence will help him become the chief of the tribe if he promises to grant the barren piece of land to him. Lawrence then makes use of the infamous cabaret dancer, Leila, to defame the chief who is then sent in exile by the village council. At this moment the famous verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz are sung in the background.[1]

I vow to thee, my country, my loyalties and devotion.

But a custom is on the start; You must not raise your head,

if and when you want to walk

Lawrence manages to invite some western engineers to visit the Arab tribal land who then set up a drilling rig. The drilling begins. Harris meets the former chief in exile. Following his instructions Harris then organises a revolt against the oil company and the chief of the tribe. A mercenary army that has been supplied with weapons by Lawrence puts down the popular revolt.

The old chief and Harris are very heartbroken and their faith from collective struggle seems to fade away. At this stage the cabaret dancer, Leila, comes to see Lawrence and accuses him of robbing her people of their resources. She then pours oil over herself, sets herself alight and runs out of the office and towards the oil rig. Lawrence shouts at the guards to shoot her before she can reach the oil well. The guards aim at her and fire nervously missing their target as Leila, ablaze, falls over an oil well. The rig is destroyed and Lawrence rushes towards the old chief’s tent. The old chief in an extraordinary gesture of emotional melodrama lets Lawrence escape through the rear of his tent. The old chief is then informed that it was the defamed cabaret dancer who had helped to destroy the rig and therefore the company. In an emotional speech delivered outside his tent the chief declares that Leila is not a sinner but a martyr.

The tension that prevailed at the time between the military government of President Ayub Khan and the Americans had made the information ministry in Pakistan lenient towards radical films and Riaz Shahid’s film was used to promote a rebellious image of the President. This is one of the reasons that “the censor board for exhibition cleared Shaheed. Exposure of imperialist designs in any form was encouraged by the regime and willingly cleared by the censor board.”[2]

During the 60’s the Arab world was being radicalised by the Palestinian conflict. Zarqa was the second film written, produced and directed by Riaz Shahid. Filmed in colour, it was released in Pakistan on 17th October 1969. Zarqa highlighted the plight of the people of Palestine whose land was now been occupied by the Zionist Jews. The film works on both the emotional and intellectual level. It begins with an old man telling a story to a group of young Palestinians in 1969. The film is shot in flash back. There is a brief history of the problems when the film mentions motives behind the mass migration of the Jews to Palestine after the Second World War. The leader of the underground resistance, Lutfi (Allaudin), explains to some young recruits the purpose of the struggle and complains about the split in Arab unity as the reason for being unable to defeat the plans to create a Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world.

Riaz Shahid’s highly charged anti-colonial eloquence for the rights of the people to their soil sounded logical and relevant to the over-all situation in the region.”[3] The film is shot both in studio and on location. The graphic scenes of torture seemed very realistic at the time. In one of the scenes Zarqa (Neelo) is seen immersed in water with her head upside down. On another occasion Zarqa is forced to dance while she is in chains in front of her inmates. This scene was an allegory of a true incidence when President Khan is said to have forced Neelo, who was also Riaz Shahid’s wife, to dance and entertain the Shah of Iran while he was on a state visit to Pakistan. The matter was widely reported in the press.[4]

The political differences over the national question had cost the establishment half the country. It was then that Riaz Shahid made Ye Aman (Peace). The film depicted Indian atrocities in Valley of Kashmir. It promoted the idea of an independent Kashmiri nation state. This film was banned. It was only after certain scenes and dialogues that were edited out of the film that it was permitted to be exhibited in cinemas across the country as a film that supported the political and geographical unity of Kashmir with Pakistan. Heartbroken, Riaz Shahid died at a young age.

In his essay ‘Realism in the Balance’, Georg Lukacs insists that “if we are ever going to be able to understand the way in which reactionary ideas infiltrate our minds, and if we are ever going to achieve a critical distance from such prejudices, (such as the ones generated by the distorted view of partition of the sub-continent which is presented through the medium of literature and films), this can only be accomplished by hard work, by abandoning and transcending the limits of immediacy, by scrutinizing all subjective experiences and measuring them against social reality. In short it can only be achieved by a deeper probing of the real world.”[5]

The creation of the state of Bangladesh in December 1971 was a great setback for the Pakistani military-feudal-mullah alliance otherwise known as the establishment who like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the country, sought to build a country on the principle of “one nation (read Muslim), one culture (read Islam), and one language (read Urdu).”[6]

However, today the Pakistani cinema remains dominated by a fake Islamic/Punjabi chauvinist Arab (read Saudi) and Islamic (read Wahhabi) cultural narrative that glorifies the very forces that have subjugated the people of Pakistan for the past seventy years. No lessons seemed to have been learned.


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] I vow to thee, my country, my loyalties and devotion. But a custom is on the start, You must not raise your head, if and when you want to walk. Faiz.

2 Gazdar, Mushtaq. Cinema Before Partition. Pakistan Cinema. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Uk.1997.pp23

3 Ibid .pp113

4 Interview with film critic Mr Sajid Iqbal at the BBC world service, Bush House in London.

5 Lukacs, Georg. Realism in the Balance.Aesthetics and Politics Verso. London. 1977.pp37

6 Amin, T. Ethno-national Movements of Pakistan: Domestic and International Factors. Institute of Political Studies. Islamabad. 1993, p.73



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