The Punjabi contribution to cinema - VIII

Ishtiaq Ahmed on the role played in the Indian film industry by three directors produced by Lahore

The Punjabi contribution to cinema - VIII
We resume the series on the Punjabi contribution to cinema with the presentation of directors and filmmakers from Punjab, especially Lahore, who made a big name for themselves in the Bombay film industry. The contributions  of A. R. Kardar and Kidar Sharma to the Calcutta and Bombay film industries have already been discussed in earlier articles. Another generation of directors and filmmakers arrived in Bombay at the time of the 1947 Partition of India or just before it. Among them were Chetan Anand, B. R. Chopra, Ramanand Sagar and  Gulshan Rai from Lahore and I. S. Johar (from Talagang, northern Punjab), O. P. Datta (from Chakwal) and several others. There was a movement from Bombay to Lahore as well. Among them was Nazir Ahmed Khan who was an actor, director and producer. His cousin (some say nephew others brother-in-law) K. Asif stayed on and gained great fame as the director of Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

The famous trio Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were first and foremost leading stars but they also directed and produced films. We will discuss their contributions when we take up the discussion on Punjabi actors and actresses. In this article we look at the contributions of three famous directors and filmmakers who were educated and groomed in Lahore: Chetan Anand, B. R. Chopra and Ramanand Sagar.

B. R. Chopra
B. R. Chopra

Had the underlying logic of Partition, religious identity, supplanted the progressive commitments of these filmmamkers?

Chetan Anand (born 3 January 1921, died 6 July 1997) was the eldest of three brothers who made their mark in the Bombay film industry. The family was originally from Gurdaspur though some reports suggest they belonged to a village in Shakargarh tehsil of Gurdaspur district. Chetan Anand was an English honours graduate of Government College Lahore (now university). As luck would have it, he went to Bombay with a film script on legendary king Asoka but was cast as a hero in Rajkumar in 1944. Those were days when nationalism and Marxism fired the imagination of many young men. Anand joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).  His first directorial venture Neecha Nagar highlighted class differences between rich and poor. It won the Best Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Lahore-born Kamini Kaushal played the heroine while another Lahoria Rafi Peerzada - who is considered the pioneer of theatre in Pakistan - played a major role in it. In 1950, Chetan set up Navketan Productions in partnership with his brother Dev Anand. Their first film produced under the Navketan banner was Afsar (1950) starring Dev Anand and Suraiya (Gujranwala born). Dev and Suraiya fell in love but more about it later when I write about Dev Anand separately. Navketan’s Taxi Driver (1954) cast Kalpana Kartik with Dev Anand. Kalpana Kartik’s original name was Mona Singha. She belonged to a prominent Punjabi Christian family. She was the cousin of Diwan S. P. Singha, speaker of the last elected Punjab Legislative Assembly. SP Singha supported the Muslim League’s case before the Punjab Boundary Commission in July 1947. Taxi Driver was a thundering box-office musical extravaganza. Its music was scored by S.D. Burman and lyrics were by Sahir Ludhianvi. Talat Mahmood’s ‘Jaayen to jaayen kahaN, Samjhe ga kaun yahaan’ became all the rage. Composed in Raga Jaunpuri, hardly any young man smitten by love did not try to sing it.

Later, Chetan Anand launched his own banner, Himalaya Films, and gave some outstanding films including Haqaqeet (1964) which won the National Film Award for Best Film and Heer Ranjha (1970) which had excellent music by Chakwal-born Madan Mohan. He wrote the story and directed Qudrat (1981). Chetan Anand won the Filmfare Award for Best Story for Qudrat in 1982.

Ramanand Sagar
Ramanand Sagar

On 3 January 1997, I met B. R. Chopra (born 22 April 1914, died 5 November 2008) in his office in Mumbai. He did his MA in English from Government College Lahore and started a career in film journalism. He was about to launch a film in Lahore in partnership with I.S.  Johar, Lakshmi Chowk, when the riots of 1947 forced him to leave. Later, he produced Chandni Chowk from Bombay instead - changing a famous Lahore road crossing with a famous one of old Delhi.

Chopra Sahib was in a very talkative mood and spoke at great length about his Lahore days. This is what he told me:

“We lived on Chamberlain Road in Gowalmandi, not far from Shahalmi Gate.  Later we moved to Victoria Park behind the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Meeting you brings back so many memories. I remember Lahore all the time. Even after shifting to India I kept in touch with some of my friends. Sheikh Abdul Rasheed was one of them. He died some years ago but his children have remained in touch me.

At that time the Royal Park at Lakshmi Chowk was the focal point for the film fraternity of Lahore to congregate. I spent much of my professional life as a film journalist in that area. I have been invited to visit Lahore many times and have even considered doing it but my wife who belongs to Shahalmi Gate is traumatized by the fires which were set to it in the summer of 1947. Even though she herself had escaped unhurt, many of her relatives perished in that fire. She refuses to visit Lahore and therefore I have never undertaken that journey. The 1947 rioting was quite unexpected but when it broke out no place was left for Hindus and Sikhs to remain in Lahore.

I have been in favour of cooperation with Pakistani film industry and even cast Salma Agha in Nikah (1982) but someone politics from both sides always subverts such overtures.” 

A still from Chopra's 1957 film 'Naya Daur', with lead actors Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala
A still from Chopra's 1957 film 'Naya Daur', with lead actors Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala

The Nehruvian state model - secular, democratic and progressive - was always a message in his films conveyed and the lyrics of his films were written by Sahir Ludhianvi. His Golden Jubilee hit, Nya Daur (1957), starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjantimala was a telling critique of the exploitation of construction workers by the village tyrant - played by none other than Jeevan. A Gandhian comment on the machine age threatening the simpler ways of life was also added to the film. In Nya Daur, Punjabi folk tunes and tempo were used extensively by Lahore-born O. P. Nayyar in some fantastic dance sequences. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote the famous chorus sung by Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle, ‘Saathi haath barahna saathi rey, Aik akaila thakk jaayega mil ke bojh uthana’. Although it was never shown in any Pakistani film theatre, I know it was shown privately in Lahore at either the Law College or Oriental College.

In Dhool ka Phool (1959) a Muslim Abdul Rasheed (the name of BR Chopra’s Lahore friend mentioned in his interview above?), adopts an ‘illegitimate’ Hindu child and brings him up. Sahir Ludhianvi captured that sentiment in the song, ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, Insaan ki aulaad hai, Insaan banega ‘. Character actor Lahore-born (Beadon Road) Manmohan Krishna won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor as Abdul Rasheed. In Qanun (1960) Chopra dealt with the subject of capital punishment showing how court room evidence can be unsafe and a victim once executed cannot be rehabilitated and compensated. Two of Chopra’s productions probed the subject of Partition. While Waqt (1960) probed the uprooting of families during that cataclysmal upheaval, Dharmputra (1961) laid bare religious bigotry, fanaticism and communalism which pervaded society in 1947.

Chopra won the Filmfare Best Director Award for Qanum. He was awarded the most prestigious Dadabhai Phalke Award in 1998 for meritorious services to the film industry.

Dr. Ramanand Sagar (born 29 December 1917, died 12 December 2005) was a gold medalist in Sanskrit and Persian from the University of the Panjab in 1942. He was also editor of the newspaper, the daily Milap. He wrote many short stories, novels, poems and plays. I talked to him in Delhi on 25 October 1999 and again in Mumbai on 18 October 2001. He said:

“I was born on 29 December 1917 in a small village on the outskirts of Lahore, but I grew up with my grandparents who lived in Cha Pichwara, Lytton Road, Mozang, Lahore (some 500 metres from where I was born in 1947 on Temple Road, Mozang). In those times, children from all communities played together. As a youngster, I would sometimes go to the mosque along with my Muslim friends and join them in their prayers. I can’t recall any tension between the different families in our locality.

Later we moved to a house on Nisbet Road. I studied in the DAV High School, Lahore (now Islamia College Civil Lines). After the Muslim League gave the call for a separate Muslim state in its Lahore session of March 1940, some communal tension could be sensed, but at that time nobody could imagine that we Hindus will have to abandon it. We had to flee Lahore in the end of July when things went from bad to worse. We travelled to Sialkot and from there to Jammu and continued on to Srinagar. The great Urdu Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was a close friend of mine, visited Gulmarg in Kashmir in August and narrated to us the events which had taken place in Lahore after we left.

I worked for a while in Delhi but then came to Bombay. I have been in that city for some 52 years now. I have achieved outstanding success in the film industry, but still feel like a refugee. The feeling of being a refugee never let’s go of you. It is a constant part of one’s existence. Lahore is always in my heart, but I don’t think I will ever visit it. I am told that it has changed considerably. I want to preserve the memory of the pre-partition Lahore. It was indeed a city of love and harmony. I have written down my version of partition in my novel, Aur Insaan Mar Gaya (And Humanity Died).”

Although Sagar started his foray in films as a clapper-boy in Lahore in 1932 and later wrote stories for W. Z. Ahmed at Pune, it was after the Partition when he shifted to Bombay from Delhi that he attained fame. He wrote the story of Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949). He produced and directed many successful films. He won the 1960 Best Dialogue Award for Paigham and in 1968 the Filmfare Best Director Award for Ankhen.

In the 1980s, both BR Chopra and Ramanand Sagar turned their attention to television. While Chopra launched the Mahabharata epic Sagar Ramayan - both themes deeply rooted in Hindu belief and mythology. Had the underlying logic of Partition, religious identity, supplanted their progressive commitments? I asked Ramanand Sagar this question. He told me that the struggle between Good and Bad was eternal. He now used Hindu themes to transmit that same message, which he considered to be consistent with humanism.

Anyhow, when I met his family in Mumbai, Mrs. Sagar, a simple lady from the walled city of Lahore said to me: “Mulk tey saadha Lahore hee hai. Etthey te assi pardesi hee aaN” (Our homeland is Lahore after all. Here, we are just strangers).

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: