The hunt for success

This article was originally published in Dawn, Tuesday Review, November 21-27, 1995, with the highlight that “This article concludes the five-part series celebrating the hundred years of cinema.” Other four articles in the series were ‘The rise and fall of cult heroes‘, ‘The importance of being Eve‘, ‘Sold for a song’ and ‘The director’s cut‘.

Since then, I have further developed and partially modified the views expressed here, especially my understanding of the movie Armaan. For further details, see my book Waheed Murad: His Life and Our Times.

What kind of issues come to mind when someone mentions the Indo-Pakistani cinema? Perhaps, music, song, dance, vulgarity, and imperfection. Somewhere in between these mixed connotations lies the identity of the Indo-Pakisani cinema – lost, or at best, misunderstood.

I can only hope I will not be misunderstood if I say that plagiarism is an essentially Western concern. Even until the beginning of the eighteenth century literary ideas had been continuously borrowed without formal acknowledgement. Chaucer borrowed most of his tales from French authors. All the plays of Shakespeare were based on borrowed themes. This was so because in the medieval worldview values were constant. Rules governing good and evil, failure or success, were supposed to be universal. Therefore stories and characters were also allowed to remain the same. It was only with the rise of a mercantile society and the Age of Enlightenment that people experienced “discontinuous change.” Each revolution ushered in a specific economic, social or intellectual outcome that was so different from the past that “new” ideas could be distinguished from the “old” ones; original from traditional. It was only then, that people began to care about “originality” of ideas in addition to, or sometimes instead of, the richness of presentation. Journalistic writing and novel became the dominant art forms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But what about the subcontinent? Have the masses really transformed from the Agricultural Wave to the Industrial Wave? Do the laws of science, rather than the aphorisms of ages, really reflect their economic and social existence? It may be argued that in many respects we are still living with the medieval worldview. The universality of prototypes (or stereotypes!) is held unconsciously or consciously by many in their minds. Whether it is good or bad is a separate debate. But I feel that as long it remains so, we are quite far off from any popular protest against plagiarism.

This does not mean that trends never change in our cinema. But trends are reflected in content, not in the form. For instance, a movie from the eighties may have more gunshots in it than a movie of the fifties. Yet the “form,” which consists of the basic ingredients of the “formula” (songs, dances, fights, emotional conflict, comedy and a compromising ending) remain unchanged over decades. It is partially through the consistency of form that plagiarism becomes easy. Since all films have the same ingredients, it is possible to take a few ingredients from someone else’s production and put them into your own flask. People expect all films to have the same formula, therefore they are happy to forgive common ingredients. Just as listeners to old daastans in our medieval bazaars did not mind if the story-teller blended incidents from an old tale into his own, or even if he retold an old favourite in its entirety.

This takes us to the next important issue, the “formula film.” A formula film can be defined as one that compromises the integrity of plot in order to accommodate ingredients of a set formula. These ingredients have just been mentioned above. I also feel that there are possibilities of conveying the messages even within the scope of the formula film. Nor does a formula filmmaker have to necessarily give up the aesthetics of good art. Pyaasa (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1962), and, recently Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye (1990) are formula films which may also pass the test of good films. In Pakistan, Armaan (1966) would probably stand out as the best example although the message contained in it is merely esthetical unlike the above mentioned distinct political points of view.

One cannot close a discussion on formula film without exploring some of its chief elements: music, song and the typically emotionally Indo-Pakistan type of emotional conflict. The function of music has been explored in detail in a previous article of this series (November 7). Here I will only add one more point, the function of songs in our films is moderated by the interaction between the power of music and the exact dramatic moment where it occurs in that film. For instance, all drama (or film) essentially evokes a kind of fear, excitement or anxiety when it reaches the crisis, or sometimes, the climax. In an Indo-Pakistani film this feeling (which is the sum total of the experience of watching a drama) is likely to be heightened with the help of a song consisting appropriate notes and wording. This is unique about the Indo-Pakistani cinema. True, songs appear in other cinemas of the world too (in fact songs were often used to bring about crisis or resolution in the ancient Greek theatre as well), but where else do they cover the enormous range of situations as they do in the Indo-Pakistani cinema?

A striking note about our songs is that more mainstream poets have contributed their talents in this direction than, for instance, in Hollywood. In the western literary tradition we seldom hear great poets writing songs for musical films whereas in the Indo-Pakistani cinema most of the great names of literature since the 1940s have also appeared on film credits. Hence one is reminded of Majaz, Sahir, Shakeel, Faraz, Suroor Barabankvi, Qateel, Saifur Rehman Saif, Majrooh Sultanpuri and a horde more. Even that biggest giant among all moderns, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was hired into writing lyrics for films more than once. Songs from Jago Hua Savera (1959) and Qasam Us Waqt Ki (1968) still adorn his anthology, Sham-e-Shehr-e-Yaaran. Yet the list of such poets does not only include the moderns, but goes back to cover some of the figures who were dead long before the era of talking films dawned upon the subcontinent. Most prominent among such poets are Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal. I do not know whether the involvement of so many great poets with the Indo-Pakistani cinema was a historical coincidence or a real matter of art but I am convinced that our film poetry must not remain a mostly unexplored domain as it does at present.

In the end we are faced with the final question: if the Indo-Pakistan cinema is so distinct a variety of art then what kind of criteria should be adopted for evaluating it? So far, our critics have used only two yardsticks. The first is the box-office success. It helps the filmmaker to decide how many more pieces should they produce on the same storyline but (needless to say) it helps us little in evaluating the artistic value of a film. The other approach, which is commonly held by people who consider themselves serious, is to measure an Indo-Pakistan film against the standard formats of their favourite foreign films. This again, would not help because there are several problems with this approach. Any film which has fewer songs (or poor songs!) will emerge as better. Also, if we only consider art as it is conceived by people living in other climes then our discussions will be moving ever further away from the heart of our own masses: on whom the popular media of films will always be focussed on. At best this kind of criticism can be a pretence of seriousness. What we really need to discover is a tradition of appreciating art, based upon our own understanding of the world and of our lives. A tradition that should take into account the distinct features of our culture and the identity of our art forms.

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