A portrait of the artist as Waheed Murad

This article was originally published in the magazine, Nukta Art, December 2010. Since then, it has been shared on The Free Library by Farflex, where it is also referenced to the articles on Ibn Tufail and Fred Astair. It is also linked on the Waheed Murad website at Weebly. It can be downloaded as an ibook (for a fee, with which I have got nothing to do), from Apple iTunes.

I also shared it on my previous blog (not being updated anymore), The Republic of Rumi Blog. A long comment was left there very kindly by Javid Ali Khan, who has been mentioned in my article. Among other things, he wrote:

I can vouch for everything Khurrum Sahab says in his book about “stream of consciousness” and Waheed because he [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Waheed] and I (and sometimes Pervez and Sohail Rana too) used to sit for hours discussing James Joyce and his books (Wido’s favourite was Wings of the Dove which Pervez also later adapted for one of his productions) and Virginia Woolfe and their stream of consciousness method, so effectively displayed in Ulysses. So Khurram Sb. is quite right. But the film industry of Pakistan did not fully accept Waheed and his success as it was in the hands of uneducated, low-life, people of low background for whom the well educated, well dressed, smart and lofty thinking Waheed Murad was a maverick. His biggest contribution to the industry was that he brought a breath of fresh air, refinement and high thinking to it.

Saleena Karim, the author of Secular Jinnah and Pakistan, also shared this article on her mailing list on November 21, 2011. Since the mailing list is primarily focused on Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his vision of a state based on the principles of Islam, Karim included the following introduction for her readers:

… why, you may ask, am I mentioning Waheed Murad here? What has he to do with Jinnah, Iqbal, or the story of Pakistan? Perhaps more than you think. Iqbal Academy researcher Khurram Ali Shafique has been collecting material on the filmmaker for a number of years. He has found some interesting links between Murad and Iqbal (personal and intellectual) and has done some presentations exploring what Murad has to offer as an artist. The attached article written by Mr Shafique is sure to intrigue you, and is a good introduction for anyone who doesn’t know about Murad.

“And he sets his mind to unknown arts”. Ovid wrote it in Latin, James Joyce cited it as epigram of his famous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-16), and I am using the English translation for describing Waheed Murad (1938-1983).

Given the nature of its content, a good way of beginning the present article would be to remind the reader about Joyce’s novel and the stream of consciousness technique used there, and then to show how Waheed translated the literary technique to cinema, with a different purpose, in Ishara (1969), a movie written, produced and directed by him.


Hence I am now on the Wikipedia page about the novel. The link to Spark Notes gives me that handy definition which I needed for sharing with readers, “stream of consciousness, a stylistic form in which written prose seeks to represent the characters’ stream of inner thoughts and perceptions rather than render these characters from an objective, external perspective.” Precisely, but Waheed replaced “written prose” with movie and sought to represent a combined “stream of inner thoughts and perceptions” of two characters: he and the viewer. The film begins with the subjective camera moving into a street and a voiceover welcomes the viewer. Thus it gets established that what you see is what passes through the stream of your “inner thoughts and perceptions” while you watch the movie. This also makes you the main character in the story, which now becomes a story about your exploration of a new world, and the world is the movie you have entered.

A second character is introduced almost simultaneously. It is the welcoming voice, “Mera naam Amir hai…” (“My name is Amir…”). The voice tells you that it lives in that street, and soon you are taken to the room where Amir is painting pictures. The voice belongs to him, which is Waheed himself in the role of an aspiring painter who has a good taste but is also passionate about feedback from the uninitiated. Out of the three little children from the neighborhood who watch him making the picture, the first child likes it, the second doesn’t and the third dislikes. Now it may become clear that the street in the opening shot represented the world of cinema, the room is the mind of Waheed Murad and pictures are metaphor for movies (in Urdu, both were called “tasveer”). Three little children are the entire range of feedback you may offer about the “picture” (read “movie”) that is being made in front of you: like it, don’t like it or dislike it but your feedback is essentially immature right now because you are new to this world and are yet to understand its ways, just like those children (be any of them or all of them, they are your alter egos).


I would have liked to write here what happens in the story but Wikipedia has distracted me with the term bildungsroman. “The bildungsroman (German: “formation novel”) is a genre of the novel which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood,” says Wikipedia. “The birth of the bildungsroman is normally dated to the publication of Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister in 1795-96.” However, a famous earlier example is the Arabic romance Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, named by its 11th century writer Ibn Tufail after a Persian story by Bu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) of a century before. Ibn Sina’s story was about an old sage instructing the young reader about mysteries of the universe – active intellect informing the rational human soul. Ibn Tufail told a story about an abandoned child growing up to maturity through inquiry and reasoning.

Ishara is a coming of age story but it is the viewer who grows up: you enter the world of the artist as if newly born into another world, you see yourself as one (or all) of three little children and then you see the artist falling in love with Aliya, a college student. It is not impossible for the viewers to identify themselves with Aliya at this point: in real life, it was the name of the filmmaker’s infant daughter, born around this time. Iqbal used the name of his son, Javid, to represent posterity. Waheed used the name of his daughter as a metaphor for the next generation, as he instructed them about mysteries just like the old sage of Avicenna’s story, transforming them from the children of the first scene to the college student of the main story.

The instruction is offered, and the story told, through “stream of inner thoughts and perceptions” that typically passes through the imagination of a viewer while watching a movie of mainstream cinema, especially Indo-Pakistan. Destiny intervenes and the aspiring artist gets noticed by a woman who is young, rich and single. Reshma falls in love but Amir’s heart and soul belong to Aliya. Hence Reshma probably represents the artist’s contemporaries who help him gain recognition but the artist remains committed to generations that shall come later (“I am the Voice of the Poet of Tomorrow,” said Iqbal. “Turning away from my contemporaries, I have a word to share with the new generation”). The posterity shall return the artist’s love but may have its own issues to sort out first: Aliya is under obligation to marry Ishrat, the son of her aunt and guardian. Of course, destiny intervenes again in the end and things get sorted out as they should be – but what is that?


In presenting Ishara, Waheed relied exclusively on stock items of mainstream cinema but he managed to make some pertinent statements. Foremost among these was his theory of art. In A Portrait, Joyce’s protagonist had famously viewed family, nation and religion as constraints an artist must avoid for growing wings. Around the very same time, in 1915, Iqbal offered a different view of art in ‘Secrets of the Self’ (Asrar-i-Khudi), where family, nation and religion worked as catalysts for the artist. In Ishara, the artist belongs distinctively to this school of thought.

His first song is a hymn in praise of the Almighty, by Whose grace destiny has smiled on all who share the artist’s world. While singing and dancing (with abundant allusions to well-known moves of Waheed from his other movies), he pulls together the entire range of society from burqa-clad women to girls in teddy shalwars, and from the roadside worker to men in evening suites. Bringing them together in pairs from three successive generations of children, youth and seniors, he makes them dance in a circle around him while he revolves, not very unlike a whirling dervish, in the centre. Gradually he moves out but the circle keeps revolving even then (“Nations are born in the hearts of the poets,” says Iqbal. “They prosper and die in the hands of politicians”).

This is a portrait of the artist as a force that binds together diverse schools and classes in ecstasy and joy. The poetics of this artist is summarized in his advice to friend and neighbor Bezar, the penniless but proud maestro of classical music. “Times have moved on,” says Amir. “People shall keep running away from you unless you sing to the tune of Time. There is nothing wrong with your music but very few people can understand this type of music. In my humble opinion, keep pace with Time, and truly there is none like you in the whole world.”

Bezar happens to be an epitome of the Joyce-like artist who seeks isolation. Amir’s advice leads him into a fantasy where he sees himself on the stage of a night club, singing a pop song and performing like Fred Astair (and parodying Shammi Kapoor), while all the musicians of the orchestra are his own clones (played by the same actor). He feels irritated when they go on praising him senselessly (“Wah bhai wah wah, wah bhai wah wah…”) but gets upset again when they stop that. In the end we are shown that even the high-brow audience, including women, are Bezar himself in so many roles.

How different is the inner world of this artist from what we saw of the Waheed-Amir school of thought! In this comparison, differences between high and popular, classical or pop, or traditional and modern forms of art become secondary. The real criterion is how an artist connects with the people, and whether or not they have a place in the artist’s inner world (the elitist journal where Joyce’s novel was first published was called, quite appropriately, The Egoist).


Needless to say, names are symbolic. The name Amir comes from the same root as the Arabic words for culture and civilization, architecture and society. Moreover, it was the surname of Qais (the legendary lover better known as Majnun). Aliya literally means the Exalted, and as the real-life name of the filmmaker’s infant daughter it symbolizes the posterity. Bezar means “Fed Up”, Reshma has connotations of silk while Ishrat means luxury. In choosing Amir instead of Ishrat, destiny has preferred culture and civilization over luxury for Aliya but her guardian, despite being a well-wisher, is in conflict with the youth’s destiny.

A cliché in most other mainstream films, destiny becomes a powerful motif in Ishara and is dramatized in full bloom in the final fantasy of the artist. In the beginning we had entered a black and white movie but in the very last reel, when the artist realizes that he cannot be united with Aliya and goes into fantasy, the film turns into color: while the mind of the artist was presented in black and white, his imagination is shown in color – imagination is so much more colorful and possibly also more important. A troupe of mysterious dancers leads Amir into a park. Standing on a lower plane, he finds himself in the presence of Aliya who stands on a higher plane. A chorus of eight dancers accompanies each of them, bringing the total number of people on each sphere to nine, which is identical with the number of stairs between the two planes. “My love, do not be sad,” says Amir as he begins the song. “You stand on one side, I on the other and the insensitive Time between us.” Ascending the nine steps, he moves over to the other plane but the mysterious dancers drag Aliya away and out of the park. The gate closes on Amir, leaving him trapped inside.

After this grand vision of destiny, Amir returns from fantasy and back into his real world where things get sorted out miraculously: Ishrat has learnt the truth and now he dramatically unites the lovers, who fly off to Islamabad, never to be parted again. This is how things ought to be resolved where destiny itself is in the leading strings but there might be a catch. Although the artist has come out of his fantasy, the film never returns to black and white, and ends in color. So, is the happy ending occurring in real or is it part of the fantasy too? Can it be a current which, although unknown to us, is always flowing beneath our “stream of inner thoughts and perceptions”?


These questions draw diverse answers whenever I raise them in my workshops and presentations. Recently, I posted five clips from the movie on my blog, Khurramsdesk.blogspot.com, and the following comments may give the reader an idea about how viewers approach the unusual wind-up of this movie:

  • “The opening sequence was an artist’s vision for consensus which realizes in this closing sequence as here everyone seems to be helping the artist in realizing his dreams. Those who once were seen singing and dancing to their own tunes are now seen helping others. Consensus has taken place and the artist’s vision for a better tomorrow has dawned.”

  • “The film which started with black and white has ended with color. With the color of his soul, Amir – the artist – succeeded in painting his outer world in colors. No one is sad and everyone, including Ishrat and Reshma, supports Amir in achieving his desire as similar to the starting of the film. A society which makes its decision with consensus achieves its desire and its goal.”

  • “The symmetry – complete with rich colors and light, morning and night, and then the dramatic blacks – the moonlight whites and shadows – all provide a grand design. This backdrop provides a mirror sometimes and other times a frame for Amir’s reflective and pre-occupied moments. Against this design he moves alone and then back in touch (slowly) with others and the crowd. This design shows others’ movements away and toward him and his away and toward them.”


It may be a good idea to provide some relevant biographical information about Waheed Murad before ending this article. His grandfather was Zahoor Ilahi Murad, a lawyer from Sialkot and also an acquaintance of Iqbal according to the oral tradition in the Murad family. Zahoor’s son, Nisar Murad, was born in Sialkot in 1915, the same year when Joyce finished serializing A Portrait and Iqbal published ‘Secrets of the Self’. Nisar shifted to Karachi and was twenty-three when his only child was born on October 2, 1938. This was Waheed Murad.

Waheed started his schooling in the prestigious Lawrence College, Ghora Gali (Murree), where he lived in a hostel. His parents missed him too much, called him back after Grade 2 and got him admission in Mary Colasso School, one of the best in Karachi. He was only nine when Pakistan came into being, Karachi became the capital and Waheed saw his father celebrating the newfound independence by changing the name of his film distribution company to Pakistan Films. New friends arrived at school. One of them was Javid Ali Khan, a nephew once-removed of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Another was Pervez Malik, the son of an army officer. At the end of the schooling, Waheed and Pervez wanted to acquire a Masters in filmmaking from California but Waheed’s parents didn’t want to part with their only child for such a long period. They gave him the money but asked him to acquire the learning by producing his own films in Karachi rather than going abroad. Film Arts was the name the young man chose for his new production house, and the name could have told something about the idea behind it.

This hands-on experience had to be backed up with a Masters in English Literature from Karachi University, where Waheed also won a prize in some elocution competition that would have remained insignificant if the prize was not Ulysses, the sequel to A Portrait by James Joyce. The “stylistic form in which written prose seeks to represent the characters’ stream of inner thoughts and perceptions” fired his imagination and he tried to familiarize himself with as many masters of the stream of consciousness as he could – especially Henry James, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Soon, he started dreaming about making a mainstream Pakistani film utilizing the stream of consciousness technique. The idea must have sounded bizarre, absurd and practically impossible at first.


Ishara was released on February 14, 1969. It was written, produced and directed by Waheed Murad. Dialogue and lyrics were by Masroor Anwar (who later wrote the famous national song ‘Sohni Dharti’) and music by Sohail Rana. Playback singers were Mala, Mehdi Hassan, Naseem Begum, Ahmed Rushdi, Waheed Murad and Deeba (the last two were not credited). Actors included Waheed Murad (as Amir), Deeba (as Aliya), Rozina (as Reshma), Lehri (as Bezar) and Talat Hussain (in his debut role as Ishrat). The movie ran for a little over 25 cumulative weeks (Silver Jubilee), which was considered to be not very well-received in those days.


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