The Punjabi contribution to cinema - X

In the tenth part of his series, Ishtiaq Ahmed tells the stories of stars that shone brightly in Bollywood, but were born in Chakwal district

The Punjabi contribution to cinema - X
As we proceed further in exploring the contribution of Punjabis to cinema, my friend and prominent historian Dr. Iftikhar Malik wondered if I intended to go even further north, to Peshawar. The idea had crossed my mind as well, but I fear Peshawar must wait. I have already written about Prithviraj Kapoor, but Peshawar’s contribution is simply too staggering and overwhelming. Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Prem Nath are among those who emerged on the Bombay horizon in the 1940s. If we widen our net to include the next generations, then we have the Kapoor khandan (family) of Prithviraj; Vinod Khanna; producer and director Surinder Kapoor, his very talented son Anil Kapoor and his daughter Sonam Kapoor; as well as superstar Shahrukh Khan and many other people from that part of Pakistan. At this stage we are interested only in the generations which shone bright before the 1947 Partition and in the early decades after it. Therefore, Peshawar must wait for now.

Moreover, this series of articles goes beyond gossip about beautiful men and women. We are interested in putting into perspective the impact of the most powerful form of popular entertainment that the twentieth century invented - cinema. If we include radio and television as its extensions, then we are talking of a medium of audio-visual communication,  a source of entertainment and the ultimate disseminator of values and aesthetics. We are particularly interested in putting on record in this series the humanistic and creative labour of Punjabi men and women who contributed to the creation of a mass culture which almost invariably challenged dogma and concomitant rigidity of attitudes and behaviour.

Chakwal-born director J.K. Nanda's 1947 film 'Parwana' featured some unforgettable tunes from legendary music director Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, sung by Suraiya (pictured)
Chakwal-born director J.K. Nanda's 1947 film 'Parwana' featured some unforgettable tunes from legendary music director Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, sung by Suraiya (pictured)

I.S. Johar was generally avoided by the film industry establishment for his outspoken criticism of people in power

This is especially true of the period from 1930s to the 1980s, roughly. Especially after independence in India, the Nehruvian state project furnished considerable scope for critical cinema questioning the status quo and exposing caste and class exploitation. In Pakistan too, until General Zia-ul-Haq removed the ambiguities in the national ideology and began to build a reactionary environment, cinema was a relatively enlightened source of entertainment. The rise of neoliberal values in the 1990s took a heavy toll on the socially-conscious Indian cinema where individualistic freedom, indulgence and a crass celebration of Mammon became widespread, while in Pakistan the fundamentalist onslaught virtually destroyed the aesthetics of cinema and instead distorted it into a bastion of violence-prone men representing the izzat or honour of the main agricultural biradaries (tribes) of the Punjab - particularly the Jats and Gujjars, but others as well.

If we now return to Rawalpindi and then turn towards Lahore and gradually move in that direction, we first face the rocky hills of the Salt Range. To me, that area is extremely romantic in its ruggedness. My friends Gurpreet Singh Anand and Dr. Iftikhar Malik pointed out in their feedback on my previous article that I have omitted mentioning Balraj Sahni’s younger brother Bhisham Sahni, whose television serial Tamas was a very successful account of many incidents which took place in 1947. I should perhaps also mention that Indian superstar Juhi Chawla’s ancestors also had a link to Bhera and the areas around it. This article I dedicate to Gurpeet Singh Anand and Dr. Iftikhar Malik, whose families are from that beautiful region of Punjab.

Bollywood film director and writer O. P. Dutta, born in Chakwal district, was at pains to explain that his later films were not jingoistic or bigoted
Bollywood film director and writer O. P. Dutta, born in Chakwal district, was at pains to explain that his later films were not jingoistic or bigoted

We start from Dr. Malik’s hometown, Talagang - once a tehsil of the Attock district but now a tehsil of the Chakwal district, which itself was previously a part of the Jhelum district. At any rate, Talagang has the privilege of producing one of the most colourful personalities of Bombay’s film industry, I. S. Johar (16 February 1920 - 10 March 1984). His complete name was Inder Sen Johar. Now Johar was a totally irreverent person, when it came to conformity to religious or ideological dogmas. Iftikhar Malik tells me that Joharaan di Marri (or the Mansion of the Johars) still stands proudly in Talagang and is known by that name. Hindu and Sikh Khatris of northern Punjab were often well-to-do traders and businessmen (including moneylenders) and some were big landowners too. Their standard of living was much higher than the Muslim majority around them.  I and other researchers have noted that organized rioting in Punjab in 1947 in March was especially gruesome in the villages of Rawalpindi, Campbellpur (now Attock) and Jhelum districts. Its main targets were Sikhs and Hindus.

In any event, I.S. Johar studied at the second most famous Lahore college (and my alma mater), the Forman Christian College, better known simply as F. C. College. He did his M.A. in Economics and then his LLB from Law College Lahore. He acted in some films in Lahore and was planning to produce a film in collaboration with B. R. Chopra. However, in the summer of 1947, he had gone to Patiala to attend a wedding, when Lahore started burning because of communal violence. He could not return and instead first went to Delhi and then Bombay.

I. S. Johar chose not to return to Lahore after Partition, and instead moved to Bombay (now Mumbai)
I. S. Johar chose not to return to Lahore after Partition, and instead moved to Bombay (now Mumbai)

In Bombay, I S Johar got some breaks in acting but his presence was noted most when he directed and produced Nastik (Atheist) in 1954. It was a powerful critique of the inhumanity and the dance of death played out at the time of Partition. The plot revolves around the hero played by Ajit (Hamid Ali Khan of Hyderabad Deccan), who is traumatised by the utter debasement of human relations during the Partition. Consequently, he loses faith in God. This reminded me of the evidence given by Ripudamman Singh of Amritsar, who left Sikhism and became a Communist and joined the Communist Party when he saw the excesses committed by the Sikhs against the Muslims. His story appears in my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed.

In the same film, Johar also took up another ugly feature of society: the practice of untouchability among Hindus. He himself played the role of a comedian in it. Comedy became a hallmark of his films. However, his humorous roles were actually sharp critiques of widespread hypocrisy in society. He even had the temerity to produce a film Nasbandi (Vasectomy), severely criticising Indira Gandhi’s policy of forced sterilisation. As a result, he was generally avoided by the Bombay film industry establishment, but he did not relent with his outspoken criticism of malpractices and dictatorial tendencies in politics. He produced, directed and acted in several films with comedian Mahmood. In 1971 he won the Filmfare Best Comedian Award for Johnny Mera Naam, produced by Lahore-born Gulshan Rai. It featured Dev Anand and Pran. The director was Dev Anand’s younger brother, Vijay Anand.

Johar acted in several international films as well as a US television series Maya (1967). Among the films, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was the most famous. He also appeared in Punjabi films, including Chaddian Di Doli (1966), Yamla Jatt (1967) and Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai (1969). I am told he came to Lahore after Partition, along with other Indian artistes including Qadian-born Suresh (Nasim Ahmad) and Lahore-born Shyama (Khurshid Akhtar) to play a friendly cricket match. I myself do not recall if and when it happened.

Another great Bollywood film personality with roots in the current Chakwal district was song-writer, music-director and dance director Prem Dhawan (13 June 1923 - 7 May 2001). Although he was born in Ambala, where his father was posted as superintendent of the jail, he told me when I interviewed him in Mumbai in 1999 that his family originally hailed from Chakwal district, from near Choa Saidan Shah. He, too, studied at F. C. College. His interview appears in my book too. This is what he told me about his F. C. College days:

“My father was posted in Lahore when some Communists were imprisoned in the Lahore jail. I used to go and talk to them. They influenced me profoundly and I was converted to Communism. The atmosphere in F.C. college was cosmopolitan. The students came from all the communities. Most of us got along very well. Things were the same in most other parts of Lahore. It was indeed a city of tolerance and light. I left for Bombay in 1943. That four years later, Hindus and Sikhs would have to leave Lahore forever never occurred to me. It could never have occurred, could it?”

Sardar Shaukat Ali, who was General-Secretary of the Communist Party in Punjab, told me in 2001 that Prem Dhawan was his class fellow and he belonged to the Communist group in college along with him. He then started crying as he remembered those days.
O. P. Dutta insisted his films Border (1997), Refugee (2000) and LoC Kargil (2003) were not anti-Muslim

Prem Dhawan left Lahore for Bombay in 1943, where he joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association. There he learnt music from Ravi Shankar as well as dance from his brother Gopi Shankar. He wrote lyrics for several films and also composed music for some and dance choreographies for a few others. His music for Manoj Kumar’s Shaheed became very popular, especially the songs Aye Watan Aye Watan and Mera Rang de Basanti Chola sung by Amritsar-born Mahendra Kapoor.

The list of people from northern Punjab - which extends from Rawalpindi to Gujrat district - who contributed to cinema is not only a long but includes some names which deserve detailed presentation. Among them are superstar Sunil Dutt, ghazal maestro Madan Mohan and equally outstanding Roshan (most information about him gives Gujranwala as his place of birth but I have more reliable information that he was also from Jalalpur Jattan in Gujrat district), and legendary song writers Rajendra Krishan (born Jalalpur Jattan) and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan (born in Jhelum according to one source but could be from Qarmabad in Wazirabad as he was a nephew of firebrand Islamist Maulana Zafar Ali Khan) and Gulzar (Dina).  Filmmaker and director Subhash Ghai (Jhelum) and prominent actor Raj Babbar (family from Jalalpur Jattan) are also from that area.

Melody queen Suraiya
Melody queen Suraiya

Here, I want to acknowledge the contribution of filmmaker and director O. P. Dutta, who was also from Chakwal. His interview also appears in my book. This is what he had to say about Chakwal:

“It is said that social laws are not enacted - they evolve themselves. The society of Chakwal in early thirties (1930s) proved it. It all started with an attempted suicide by the grown-up daughter of a schoolteacher named Ramsarandas. The daughter was driven to desperation, looking at the plight of her beloved father who couldn’t meet the dowry demands of the prospective husband. She decided to end her life to save any further embarrassment to her father. Ramsarandas with his meagre salary, could hardly provide his family with two meals a day. Where would a dowry come from?

The ‘Chakwal’ commune got together and under the guidance of the wise ones including Harbans Singh Seestani, Master Gyanchand, Trilokinath Advocate, Burhannudin Khoja, Amin Qureshi (he ran the only mutton shop in town), Qazi Omar and Master Budhram, the citizens of Chakwal passed a resolution unanimously to put a limit of Rs. 500 on dowry to be given to a bride, irrespective of the status of the father of the bride (that would avoid comparisons and keep the disparities under cover). Anyone violating the order would be excommunicated. A seemingly conservative society, steeped in traditional beliefs, was actually a progressive one.”

  1. P. Dutta’s Pyar ki Jeet (1948) became famous for its fabulous music score by Lahore-born brothers Husanlal and Bhagatram. The song Ikk dil ke tukrey hazaar huay, koi yahan gira koi wahan gira written by Qamar Jalalabadi (Om Prakash Bhandari of tehsil Taran Taran, district Amritsar) and sung by Mohammad Rafi became quite the rage. So did O duur janey wale wadaa na bhul jana, also written by Qamar Jalalabadi and sung by Suraiya; and Tere nanon ne chori kiya, mera chhotta sa jia, pardesia, written by Rajinder Krishan and sung by Suraiya. These songs are considered immortal melodies produced by Bollywood. Those who collaborated to produce such beauty were all Punjabis. Pyar ki Jeet had Suraiya and Lahore-born Rehman in the lead. Another Lahore-born actress, Manorma, played a side role in it and the famous comedian, Karachi-born Gope, was also in that film. Pyar ki Jeet was a great box-office hit.

Many years later, O. P. Dutta produced Border (1997), Refugee (2000) and LoC Kargil (2003). These films represented the increasingly charged atmosphere arising in the wake of India - Pakistan hostilities and wars. Dutta always maintained that his films were not meant to whip up war hysteria but to expose the raw nature of war and were not anti-Muslim.

Another noted filmmaker and director from Chakwal was J. K. Nanda (1904 - 1983) from Bhaun in the Chakwal district. Parwana (1947) was directed by him. It featured music by legendary music director Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, except for one song composed by Khemchand Prakash. K. L. Saigal and Suraiya were in the lead. Its songs were noted for their finesse and sophistication. The songs were written by D. N. Madhok. Suraiya’s ‘Jabb tum hi nahin apne, duniya hi begaani hai’; Paapi Papiha rey, Pi pi na bol beri’; ‘Mere munderay na bol kaga, kaga ja’; K. L. Saigal’s ‘Mohabat mein kabhi aisi bhi halat payee jaati hai’ and ‘Ae phul hans ke bhaag mein kaliyan khilaye ja’ are unforgettable compositions from Khawaja sahib.

We must give credit to the creative genius of people from Punjab for these songs, screen performances and instances of fine directing.

Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore, and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: