Monday, November 9, 2009

Remembering Pakistani Actor Kamal 1937-2009

Guest Post by Ras Siddiqui

Syed Kamal’s recent death (October 1, 2009) marks the near-closing of an era during which four male actors ruled Pakistan’s Urdu film industry. Waheed Murad died much too early and Mohammad Ali just a few years ago and now Kamal Sahib is gone too leaving Nadeem as the sole survivor. Kamal Sahib’s family and fans will continue to mourn his loss and news of his death reignited some long dormant brain cells here too from which this writing emerges.

A time of curiosity, hope and pride before the fateful year of 1971 still lives embedded in many memories. One remembers a time when being Pakistani was all about a new nation which started off like a ship in choppy waters that finally found some stability during the 1960’s, even though we learnt later that appearances can be deceiving, Pakistan’s nascent film industry did make its mark during that time and Syed Kamal was an important part of it.

I vaguely remember that the year was either 1964 or 1965. At the young age of 9 or 10, I had the opportunity of seeing my first Pakistani film in Rawalpindi with my family. The film was called “Aisa Bhi Hota Hai” starring Syed Kamal and the stunning Zeba plus not to forget comedian Lehri. Yes, it was a time for optimism in Pakistan, and somehow Syed Kamal in his usually happy go lucky character portrayals reflected just that very optimism. He was unlike Mohammad Ali who chose to play more serious roles. I remember seeing the movie “Kaneez” with Zeba, Waheed Murad and Mohammad Ali the same year, the sadness of which almost made one give up on Pakistani movies altogether. So for us kids at St. Marys School on Murree Road in Rawalpindi, copying Syed Kamal became a hobby. A comic hero was much easier to admire and follow at the time.

They say that Kamal Sahib had an easy entry into Pakistan’s film industry due to his uncanny resemblance to Indian acting hero Raj Kapoor. Since we did not know who Raj Kapoor was (but our parents did) it still does seem interesting today that Meerut (India) born Syed Kamal became an acting legend in Pakistan and Peshawar born Raj Kapoor became a legend in the Indian film industry. It appears that partition had exchanged its legends too.

Syed Kamal made many contributions to the Pakistani film industry, but being its first comic hero has to remain at the forefront. He acted in some very strange movies that made us cry a little but laugh a lot (and some were plain silly but extremely entertaining). Not many of his films were profitable and a few were complete flops. But his experimentation continued. Thandi Sarak (1956) was his first film in Pakistan.

Starting with Tauba and Ashiana in 1964, Joker in 1966, Behan Bhai and Khilona in 1968 and his super hit Nayi Laila Naya Majnoon in 1969, Kamal Sahib’s work carried on. His films Honeymoon and Love in Europe not to forget Road To Swat in 1970 also made quite an impact as did Roop Behroop and Night Club in 1971. That was also the year that devastated Pakistan’s film industry with the creation of Bangladesh. Some will say that Pakistan’s movie industry never really recovered after that year.

Kamal Sahib’s last major Urdu film which he also directed was Insaan Aur Gadha with the legendary Rangeela creating a great deal of controversy including (rumor has it) earning the ire of Z. A. Bhutto. But seriously Nayi Laila Neya Majnoon (1969) was his most successful film in which he teamed up with then East Pakistan’s Naseema Khan, who incidentally also later made Road To Swat more appealing in many ways.

1969 was a very big year for Pakistani Urdu cinema as Shamim Ara & Waheed Murad’s Salgirah; Shabnam in Andaleeb and Neelo’s legendary performance in Riaz Shahid’s Zarqa dominated the viewer ship. But even then the much lighter (in comparison) Nayi Laila Neya Majnoon was able to hold its ground. 1970 was another story. The late Mohammad Ali in Insaan Aur Aadmi along with Rani in Anjuman and the film Baazi (introducing Habib Wali Mohammad’s super hits) ruled the screens along with the Punjabi Super Hit Heer Ranjha. Syed Kamal’s films like Love in Europe just didn’t stand a chance that year with its focus on light entertainment.

Now as the years take their toll on the memory banks, let us get some much needed help here from Mazhar Iqbal in Denmark and Anis Shakur in New York who have both been carrying the torch of Pakistani film history on the internet for many years. Thanks to their efforts many people including this writer have been able to revive their own memories of the Pakistani entertainment industry. I want to acknowledge here that I am using their archives in this writing.

Most south-Asian films became memorable because of their songs which their viewers continue to remember for the longest time. Credit here must go back to the singers of those hits and in the case of Syed Kamal, singer S.B. John’s “Tu Jo Nahin Hai to Kuch Bhi Nahin Hai” from the film Savera in 1959 launched his career in every viewing household along with Mehdi Hasan’s “Hamain Koi Gham Nahin Tha Gham-e-Ashiqui Sey Pehlay” from the movie Shab Bakhair (1967). And not to forget the late Ahmad Rushdi whose songs launched just about every Pakistani hero in the 1960’s including Syed Kamal with catchy songs like “Hello Hello Mr. Abdul Ghani” (Behan Bhai 1968).

Part comic, part Charlie Chaplin, part romantic hero and part serious actor made up the whole of Syed Kamal that we as fans came to know and will not forget easily. We gloss over many things in Pakistan but there are some reminders that we have even come to regret lately. As I write this tribute to a memorable entertainer, Kamal Sahib’s film Road To Swat’s (1970) song “Chalain Hain Dil Wale Road To Swat, Piyaar Kay Bahaney Liye Apnay Saath..” (Masood Rana & Mala) resonates in the background. Some may consider it a mediocre film, but looking at the Swat valley of today and then back in time, even a “silly” film somehow becomes precious (as lives change to Aisa Bhi Hota Tha). Our cultural Kashkol today appears emptier than it once was due to the loss of Syed Kamal Sahib and one cannot leave this writing without appreciating those days of tears, smiles and many laughs for which we remain indebted to him.

Ras Siddiqui is a popular Pakistani-American writer from Sacramento, CA. He contributes to Pakistan Link, Dawn, and a variety of other publications.

Here is TV coverage in memory of Actor Kamal:

Here are two video clips of Kamal's films:

Related Links:

Syed Kamal's Biographical Information

Kamal's Films

Mazhar Iqbal on Pakistani Films

Anis Shakur on Pakistani Movies


Riaz Haq said...

Here's Aaakar Patel on Punjabis and Urdu-speakers of Bollywood:

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation's biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.

Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.

The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India's television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood's Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi's culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus - Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.

Riaz Haq said...

Brief history and prospects of Pakistani cinema published in Dawn newspaper

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an Al Jazeera story on Pakistani film industry:

The Islamabad premiere of the much anticipated film Waar was a rare night of celerity and glamour in the Pakistani capital.

The red carpet was littered with big-name stars, well-known politicians and fashionable socialites.

Waar – which means "to strike" in Urdu - is the country's first big-budget action film.

It's based on the real-life events following a 2009 attack on a top police academy by the Taliban.

The multi-million-dollar film is one of at least 21 feature-length film releases this year and is widely seen as part of a revival of Pakistan's struggling film-making industry.

Pakistani cinema, known as Lollywood, after the eastern city of Lahore where it was historically based, has steadily declined since the late 1970s.

It was during that time the then military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, launched an Islamisation agenda that introduced a rigid censorship code, all but ending what has been described as the "golden era" of the industry.

Back then more than 200 Pakistani films were made annually, today it is less than one-fifth of that.

Adding to the challenges, from a peak of 700 cinemas operating across the country, that number is now just under 200.

Shaan Shahid, lead actor of Waar, says the film has the potential to dramatically change the industry which has struggled for decades.

"I really feel that with the release of Waar, the Pakistani film industry has arrived. We've received a lot of support making this movie and I think it will inspire young filmmakers to come out and make their own movies," he said.

Waar is one of around two dozen Pakistani film releases this year - including Zinda Bhaag - the country's first entry to the Academy Awards' foreign-language category in 50 years.

Many see this as an encouraging sign that the industry has turned a corner. But one of the main challenges facing Pakistani film-makers is being able to raise enough money to fund their projects.

Film-making is expensive, and with audiences mainly limited to a handful of major cities, it is not always easy to turn a profit.

Iram Praveen Bilal, a Pakistani film-maker, believes it will take at least four to five years before the film industry becomes lucrative to investors.

"In India, if you are investing, you can recoup the money on opening weekend for certain budgets. You can't say that about Pakistan cinema. You need a certain film of a certain budget of a genre that you know that the public will watch."

It is a gamble the makers of Waar are no doubt hoping will pay off with record box-office receipts.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a NY Times Op Ed by Bina Shah on Pakistan film industry revival:

With more than 20 films released in 2013, production is rising. One of last year’s releases, “Main Hoon Shahid Afridi” (“I Am Shahid Afridi”), about a small-time cricket league in the northeastern city of Sialkot, sends a powerful message of religious tolerance. “Josh” (“Against the Grain”), in which an upper-class woman investigates the kidnapping of her maid, imagines a world where social justice isn’t beyond the reach of the poor. In the deceptively quiet “Lamha” (“Seedlings”), the son of a wealthy couple is accidentally killed by a rickshaw driver. The film looks evenhandedly and with compassion at the different griefs suffered by the couple and the driver.

“Zinda Bhaag,” the country’s 2014 Oscar entry, pays loving tribute to Lahore and 1970s Lollywood. The directors, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, enlisted real Lahoris in the depiction of the grim realities faced by Pakistanis who attempt to escape economic hardship through illegal emigration. Equally unconventional were decisions to cast the Bollywood legend Naseeruddin Shah in a lead role, and to take postproduction to India instead of Malaysia or Thailand. These fresh approaches augur well for greater Indo-Pakistani cooperation, and have jump-started an industry declared all but dead a few years ago.

Last year, Lollywood, too, stepped up its game. In “Waar” (“Strike”), an English-language thriller inspired by the 2009 Taliban attack on a police training center near Lahore, Pakistan is rived by the pressures of the “war on terror.” The film’s unabashed patriotism attracted huge audiences nationwide. “Waar,” which was Pakistan’s first big-budget film, earned some $1.9 million in just over one month, making it also the country’s highest-grossing film to date. Its success signals the eagerness of Pakistanis to discuss terrorism on their own terms. “We want to have the right to represent and choose our own narrative,” Ms. Obaid-Chinoy says, “rather than a narrative that is imposed on us.”

Gloria Steinem has said that “every social justice movement that I know of” started with people “telling their life stories.” By this formulation, Pakistani cinema’s new wave hints at a country on the cusp of a major shift. Each film is at once a window into a dynamic country going through difficult times, and a blueprint for how its people might find their way to better days ahead.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Wall Street Journal story on multi-screen theaters construction boom in Pakistan:

KARACHI, Pakistan—At the brand-new Nue Multiplex here, chauffeured cars drop families at the door. Excited squeals of children reverberate from the games arcade. Hollywood and Bollywood movies play on five screens.

"We wanted to have something of international standard," said Tariq Baig, executive director of the $100 million multiplex that opened in August, replete with a Canadian sound system, Danish carpeting, and chairs and screens imported from the U.K. "We didn't go for anything local."

Nue is part of a wave of Western-style cinemas that are opening across Pakistan, aiming to serve the entertainment-starved middle classes in a country where movie houses were traditionally dilapidated, seedy, and shunned by families.

The blossoming of Western cinema in Pakistan is something of a phenomenon, taking place even as Islamist militants—who view all cinema as sinful— increasingly target the country's moviegoers.

There are just 104 movie screens in all of Pakistan, a country of 180 million people. Still, that is a jump from 20 screens in 2005, according to various distributors and cinema owners. There are another 100 screens under construction, they say.

Pakistan's cinema renaissance began in 2006, when the then military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, loosened a law dating back to the 1965 war between India and Pakistan that banned the import of Bollywood films. Though imports of Indian movies are still restricted, Mr. Musharraf's ruling allowed them to be granted a "No Objection Certificate" by the government in special cases. The ordinance also created a loophole in the law that allowed Indian films to be imported via another country.

"Everyone wants to go to the cinema," says Nadia Jamil, a popular TV and film actress based in Lahore. "It's the Indian films that have created the market that everyone wants to rush to."
Cinema construction has been on a tear over the past few years in a number of developing countries where growing middle classes are flocking to theaters. China last year added 5,077 new film screens, boosting its total to 18,200, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Peshawar's cinemas are a far cry from the multiplexes of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. The only defense against the intense summer heat are ancient fans. In the winter patrons come with their own blankets. The audiences are exclusively male, and many of the theaters show porn, crudely dubbed into Pashto, the local language. Audiences are small and profits are slim. Tickets cost around 50 rupees (50 cents), depending on how popular the film is.

Habib ur Rehman, the manager of the Picture House cinema, the first theater to be attacked by the Taliban, said in conservative Peshawar being in the cinema business isn't something you boast about. He said the modern multiplexes springing up in other parts of the country would never come to the city. "They will not succeed here. The people don't like Hindi and English films. They want Musarrat Shaheen, " he said, referring to a famous Pashto actress.

Despite the Taliban threats, Rehan Shah, who works at the Shama Cinema, the second Peshawar theater attacked, said people are eager for these cinemas to reopen.

"People are already asking, 'Why are you not open? We want entertainment,' " he said.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Wall Street Journal story about the heyday of Lollywood:

Sadar Iqbal once worked 18 hours a day producing hand drawn posters for Pakistan’s booming film industry.

“At that time I would not have been able to talk to you,” he said sitting as his artist’s desk in his small studio in Lahore, “I was too busy.

Now Mr. Iqbal, 68, who is Pakistan’s last remaining hand-drawn film poster artist, has plenty of time to chat.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore had a booming film industry. Nicknamed “Lollywood”, the city produced hundreds of films a year and the road where Mr. Iqbal’s small studio sits was lined with more than 400 artist studios all churning out hand drawn posters for Pakistani-made films, says Mr. Iqbal.

The area is known as Royal Park and buttresses onto Abbott Road, a short stretch that used be home to 20 cinemas. Today, there are six.

After nearly 30 years of neglect thanks to repressive government policies and creeping Islamic fundamentalism in parts of the country, the art form has all but died. Mr. Iqbal now makes a living doing commissioned paintings from his studio, surrounded by the film posters of a nearly-forgotten era.

The neighboring studios in Royal Park have been replaced by rows of small printing shops.

Mr. Iqbal started working aged 17, in what was then his father’s studio. He says he would to come there every day after school, and learn the art form from his father. Mr. Iqbal uses pencil and watercolors, and when Lollywood was booming, he’d produce at least four posters a film.

It’s a subtle technique, he explains, “I am the crowd puller of the film. When someone sees the poster of the film, they want to come and see the film.”

Most of his posters are laden with visual metaphors: the film’s villain appears in monochrome next to the colored image of the beautiful heroine. A rose tangled around the film’s title weeps blood, symbolizing the pain of love.

Last year, Mr. Iqbal’s talents were called on once again. The directors of the Pakistani-made film, “Zinda Bhaag”, asked him to draw the poster for the movie.

The film is set in Lahore and co-director Meenu Gaur describes it as a stylistic tribute to the Lollywood films of the 1970s. It premiered in September and was Pakistan’s first entry for best foreign language film at the Oscars for 50 years.

“Zinda Bhaag” is part of a nascent revival in the domestic film industry, which has been partly supported by a recent boom of Western-style multiplex cinemas across the country. In the past seven years the number of screens has surged from just 20 to 104, according to distributors and cinema owners.

“People started talking about a revival in Pakistani cinema with the release of ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ (In the name of God),” said Ms. Gaur the co-director, referring to the 2007 film by Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor. The film received rave reviews in Pakistan and went on to gross $10 million worldwide. “But then it was a hope,” Ms. Gaur said.

Now, she says, the revival is actually happening. In 2013, seven Pakistani-made films were released, and there are currently 25 in production. But most film projects are funded through generous donations from altruistic backers and grants, rather than being driven by market forces. “Zinda Bhaag” received funding from Let’s Talk Men, a film initiative supported by various United Nations agencies.

The artist Mr. Iqbal isn’t very hopefully that a renaissance in Pakistani cinema will rekindle his art form though. He says the new multiplexes are just about money and have no appreciation of art.

“There is no aesthetic investor,” he said, referring to modern movie theaters. “The tragedy is that the investors have just brought property and built cinemas..