This article was originally published in The News International: You; Vol. 3; No. 11; 1993. It was my second article for a newspaper in English, and my first about cinema.
I have come across new data since then, so that I would not insist anymore that the movies discussed here are exclusively the products of male minds. I now believe that the Pakistani cinema, at least in the 1960s and the 1970s was much more collaborative than has been realized. Still I feel quite proud of several aspects of the analysis I presented in this early writing, especially my reading of the character of Najma, which I have retained and elaborated upon in my recent book, Waheed Murad: His Life and Our Times.
Women and cinema in Pakistan
Published in The News International: You; Vol. 3; No. 11; 1993
The cinema of woman has yet to be born in Pakistan. Our films, as they come, are fantasies created by men and those which attain popular acceptance (the box-office hits) could be considered as the fantasies of a people. To see how women appear in these collective daydreams can be very interesting. But let me add quickly how I see the value of cinema before you put down this article. I think, regardless of its artistic value a cinema by definition is a cultural document. The immense amount of cellutape produced over the forty-five years of history, if properly organized, can be used as a resource for the study of our collective psychology.
A study of Pakistani cinema through its history allows us to trace some patterns between the images of women appearing in it. It seems as if the heroines of Saat Lakh (1958), Armaan (1966), Aina (1977) and Kalay Chore (1990) present four basic models and the rest of the female characters appearing in thousands of movies during the forty-five years simply identify with one of them. These movies have been the most popular ones of their respective decades. They also tell us that the people of one decade accepted a model quite different from that of another for their fantasy.
Kausar, the heroine of Saat Lakh is an heiress to a large estate and not the type of girl who would take on the matrimonial mantle easily — apparently she is too aware of the snares of sex and the wicked ways of the world. But as her late father’s will deprives her of his assets unless she marries, she decides to hire a man who would simulate the role of her husband. However, the chemistry of sex begins to work soon after she finds a man who is willing to take on the role she has mapped out and she finds herself terribly attracted to the man whom she had coerced earlier into taking vows of celibacy. Complications develop from the mistakes made by the heroine and it takes the other half of the movie and the life of the side-heroine (an honest nautch girl) to resolve them. In the process we are made witness to her torment and remorse; to the melting of her indifference and apathy into submission and tender longings.
On the screen the role was enriched by the innocent playfulness and natural bewilderments of Sabiha Khanum. The conflict within the character was brought out in the now proverbial song:
Ghoonghat uthaloon keh ghoonghat nikaloon:
Sayyanji ka kehana mein manoon keh taloon?
As we compare Kausar with characters from other films of the period, we find several common features between them. Inexperience, to name one. Also naivete, playfulness and innocence, and the dependence of all these women on a man for their understanding of the outside world as well as their own personal feelings. With movies like Saheli (1960) started the evolution of another type of women.
This was a woman profound and prudent who would not owe her knowledge of the world to her man. The personal talents of Nayyar Sultana and Shamim Ara contributed to the development of this brand of women, but the image was never more perfect, more vivid and more widely accepted than as Najma the heroine of Armaan (played by Zeba).
Najma, an orphan, living in the home of her wealthy but less than kind relatives. Her status is reduced to that of a house-maid, but she does not care about her less than pleasant living conditions as long as she has a home to live in. Happily, she goes out to fetch vegetables and escort her rich cousins whenever they want to step out. When one of them gives birth to an illegitimate child. Najma skillfully takes charge of the matter, arranging for the baby to live without being discovered. Later, when she meets the ‘right’ man she accepts his proposal without much hassle. As their marriage is about to take place, the baby is discovered, thanks to the villainy of Najma’s jealous aunt. In order to save her cousin from disrepute, she acknowledges the baby as her own thus exposing herself to a horde of troubles including humiliation and rejection by her lover. Her miseries keep mounting until a fortunate stroke of luck resolves the plot and everyone comes to know what a nice girl she is. The hero is about to toss himself off a cliff as a storm rages when she reaches all the way up and saves him bringing him back to life.
What strikes the viewer here is the woman’s control over everything that is happening around her. While we see her being ridiculed and rejected by her people, we are also aware that it is of her own choice that she has accepted this position: to save her cousin. She is the one who could have changed the situation at any point in the movie.
Then why doesn’t she? Firstly, because she is too generous to do so. The nobility of her soul stops her from letting down the cousin whose family once gave her shelter in their home. Secondly, she is mature and prudent. Unlike the single-minded Kausar, she can see more than one aspect of reality – love, honour, gratitude, family, values, life, each of which is important in its own place. It is very carefully, perhaps with some calculations, that she gives one of these for the others. And she never breaks down. In the midst of her crisis she can tell the hero to “hold your tongue! I may not be fit to live among the nobles, but I am better than many of them.”
Naturally, such a woman could mean a lot to those around her – especially the hero. Our man here is Waheed Murad (playing the role Nasir in the film), the male Kausar. In Armaan it is he who is running away from the responsibilities of marriage in the beginning and who is destined to mature into a more thoughtful person towards the end. And the woman is the agent of this metamorphosis. Perhaps there is little exaggeration in his acknowledgement:
Diya hosla jis nay jeenay ka humkoe
Woh ik khoobsurat sa ehsas hoe turn
Jo mittey nahin dil say turn woh yaqin ho
Hamesha joe rehti hai woh aas ho tum
Akalilay na jana…
Although she brings so much to him, Nasir does not head the list of her priorities. It is the family, or the home, which must come before everything else. Her commitment to this institution cannot be questioned or sought to be explained: it is because it is. While her aunt turns a villain, scraping away each bit of happiness from the tables of her fortune, she still cannot let her down because the house once gave (her) shelter as (she) needed it. This is then, the dilemma of Najma and it is captured in the famous song at the end of the movie:
Her ik more per hain rivajone kay pehray
Magar log jeetey hain inn mushkilo mein
Hai jin ke nahin koi unn ka Khuda hai.
Yeh dukh yeh udasi, yen ansoo yeh aahein.
Chalay aao mill kay yeh gham baant lein gey…
Various traits of Najma are reflected in the other movies around the same period. Zeba, Shamim Ara and Shabnam in their stereotyped roles would play it well in films such as Doraha (1967) Andaleeb (1969) etc.
The 70’s saw a third type of woman being accepted by the public as their ideal fantasy; the bad girl who was fond of going out and did not care much about family matters. She had been present in our films for a long time — the vamp in the earlier movies like Dil Mera Dharkan Teri (1967)andAag(1967).A better understanding of this girl developed through movies like Mohabat Zindagi Hai (1975) until the legendary Aina (1977) transformed her into a heroine. Rita (played by Shabnam), the heroine of the ’70s is actually the bad girl of the 60’s. She speaks English, dresses up in western ensembles, shakes hands with men, drives about town alone late at night and when we are introduced to her for the first time, she is drunk. Then we are entertained to the insides of her bedroom and bathroom and the scene where she sleeps in the bathtub. Rita and her lover are not conventional in their love-talk either.
“Na baba. Mujhe shadi ki koi jaldi nahin hai” says the boy. “Lekin muihe to hai” says the girl.
When the rich father tries to be traditional with “yeh shadi nahin ho sakti” Rita finds its quite natural to leave his house and arrange the marriage herself. “Log kiya kahein gey” is not something that comes high on her agenda of worries. “What will they say, no more than that I eloped with you or that you took me away,” she explains to a scrupulous hero. Simple as that. No wonder she sings:
Mujhe dil say na bhulana
Chahay rokay yeh zamana
The trials of this woman arise from her personality clash with her husband. The scheming father, availing this opportunity to the hilt plans to get the two separated and succeeds for some time. He even takes away her child letting her believe that the baby is dead while all the time the child is under the care of its father. However, when Rita discovers the truth, she not only returns to her husband and child but also slaps her father in his face. (What would have Najma thought of her?!)
It is with the woman of the 70’s that we see the disruption of family as an institution. To her neither her parents nor her own home is a sanctuary. But motherhood is still important to her. She turns almost mad when her child is taken away and cannot be consoled until it is brought back to her. Let us not forget though, that she had conceived this child against the wish of her own parents.
As Rita was spawning off her clones in other movies, a fourth and completely different type of woman was emerging. Action films were gaining momentum and movies such as Parakh (1978) and Miss Hong Kong (1980) were in the making. The action oriented heroine grew in popularity with the advent of the violent eighties.
When perfected in Kalay Chore (1990) the most popular movie since Aina this heroine became a combination of an Amazon and Venus: a Mata Hari. She could fight and seduce the lecherous males at the same time. Neeli played the dual roles of Lachi and Honey, but they need not be seen as two roles: they are merely two reflections of the same image. Lachi-Honey portray that a woman can face sexual advances without feeling the least bit hassled, spew vulgar phrases and make obscene gestures without a qualm and she can also defend herself with firearms and karate when the need arises. Honey is formally trained to seduce the corrupt officials in order to secure important files from them. Lachi delivers dialogues which would make the prostitute of Saat Lakh blush, she can also dance with ease parallel to the uncensored footage from previous films. Both of them pair off with conscientious and ghariat mand jawans at the end, perhaps to live happily ever after.
Lachi-Honey woman, then, is a logical impossibility — a distorted fantasy. Let nobody confuse it with any notion of feminism; she is a male identified woman to her fingertips. Maybe, it befits the people who are inflicted with Hudood Ordinance and Nawabpur rapes. Whether it is the collective daydream of a nation faced with the dual reality of prohibition and drug trafficking is a question that can be answered best by social scientists.
Hence Kausar, Najma, Rita and Lachi-Honey, by representing the collective daydreams of our masses become four milestones in our collective psychology. The differences between them may also reflect upon differences between the social environments of each period.
Here I cannot but reinforce a point made at the beginning of the article: these fantasies for whatever they amount to are the product of male minds.
They represent women as our men think about them and not women as they are or as they see themselves. The cinema of the woman, in Pakistan, is yet to be born.