The Sohni Dharti school of thought

The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 25, 2012

“This is our misfortune: we are giving birth to a society where courage has come to be understood as being a bully, and the nobility of character is seen as cowardice. Today, a blood-dripping gandasa has become the icon of our culture and civilisation, instead of the reed pipe emanating the melodies of love. Please think, what have we made of this beautiful land (sohni dharti) of Heer and Ranjha?”

This question was raised thirty-two years ago by Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar — members of the same team that had given the country its immortal national song, “Sohni Dharti”.

The glorification of crime and the presence of outlaws in the world of literature and cinema may have started much earlier, but it reached unprecedented height when the character created by writer and poet Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi appeared on screen in Wahshi Jatt (1975) and Maula Jatt (1979). Hence the visionaries of the Sohni Dharti school of thought were compelled to raise a question, and they did that through the movie Rishta, released on September 5, 1980. The lines translated above are taken from a dialogue of the protagonist in that movie, and constitute the central idea of the film.

Of course, an obvious answer to the question could be that the blood-dripping gandasa is a legitimate icon of our culture and civilisation because it depicts our social reality more than the reed of Rumi and Ranjha. Qasmi, students of literature and the creators of ‘goonda’ movies would perhaps unanimously agree on this point in spite of any differences in their respective social backgrounds.

It is therefore important to remember those who dared to differ from this point of view. These visionaries believed that it was not sufficient to depict a problem but to also suggest the possible solutions. Through Rishta and a series of subsequent movies culminating in the blockbuster Ghareebon Ka Badshah (1988), Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar evolved and depicted a coherent social philosophy, addressing the relevant issues from a holistic point of view.

Rishta was a story about family vendetta but ended in a climax which incorporated motifs from the incident of Karbala. The heroine of the story was an old woman (played by Sabiha Khanum), whose husband had been assassinated by Shahbaz Khan (Mehboob Alam) due to a family feud. Shahbaz had also sworn to eliminate his enemy’s entire bloodline (just like Maula in Qasmi’s short story). This eventually leads to a head-on clash between the well-armed mercenaries of Shahbaz and the poorly equipped supporters of the old woman and her son, Rahat (played by Nadeem). The woman tries to stop the battle, and gets mortally wounded by Shahbaz. At this point, a few minutes before the ending, the audience learns the first name of this woman, who has been addressed throughout the movie by her title. Her name is Zainab.

Mortally wounded, Zainab announces forgiveness for her assassin. “Neither do I want retribution in the Hereafter,” she declares. “I forgive you in both worlds.” In a dying speech, she explains to Shahbaz that a better world cannot be created for future generations unless we are prepared to offer some sacrifice today. What she has sacrificed is her life and what she succeeds in eliciting from her enemy is the matching sacrifice of the enemy’s base instinct and false ego. Zainab’s son Rahat and Shahbaz’s daughter Saira (played by Shabnam), who love each other secretly, now receive the consent of Shahbaz to be united in marriage. This vindicates the belief of Zainab that forgiveness and sacrifice on part of one generation leads to happiness and prosperity for the next generation.

Qasmi had depicted the mother of Maula as the instigator of hatred and vendetta, who never stopped nagging her son to spill more blood and demanding that the entire bloodline of their enemy should be eliminated from the face of the earth (and this was the “literary” origin of the famous “mother” of Punjabi movies, whose shout is loud enough to be heard by her son miles away). Hence, the mother in Qasmi’s story becomes the proverbial “temptress” who causes man to commit the “original sin”. Perhaps as a conscious rebuttal of this theory, Rishta offers three motherly characters (played by Sabiha Khanum, Nayyar Sultana and Najma Mehboob), whose circumstances are very different from each other but they all define motherhood in terms of love, sacrifice and social responsibility.

The fundamental difference boils down to the fact that Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar depict the human being as capable of making choices based on principles. On the other hand, Qasmi and the creators of ‘goonda’ films agree, implicitly and explicitly, that the human being is the prisoner of instinct and social conditioning. In the short story Gandasa, Maula is a creature of instinct. In the climax of the story, he temporarily stops taking revenge but that is because his instinct for revenge has been overcome by some other instinct (and, once again, this new instinct is stirred in him by yet another woman, who has no other function in the story).

Divided by instinct and social conditioning, the educated and the unschooled live in two parallels worlds in the imagination of Qasmi. One of these is the world of the unschooled, to which Maula belongs together with his friends, family and enemies. The other is the world of public servants, of which we are given brief glimpses through the police and judiciary. The unschooled world of Maula seems to be alive with base instinct and various kinds of lust, and the distant world of the educated ones appears to be impotent and lacking in any purpose. Creatures from these two universes never unite and their interaction is based on apathy and mutual suspicion.

The world of Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar is fundamentally opposed to this conception of the human beings. Regardless of education, characters can rise above instinct. They can embrace principles, choose values, and by the virtue of these traits they may transcend the artificial divisions of social and educational backgrounds. Ultimately, they can become masters of destiny, and not only change hearts but also alter the course of the future through the conscious sacrifice of personal interest.

This, then, is the conception of human being famously incorporated into the second line of Sohni Dharti: “As long as the world is there, may we see you prosper” (Jab tak hai yeh duniya baaqi, hum dekhain aabad tujhay).

Whether we choose the philosophy of gandasa or the world of Sohni Dharti is up to us. However, the choice cannot be made until we have learnt about both. It seems that every one of us has happily, willingly and consciously adopted the national song ‘Sohni Dharti’ as our collective identity. Yet, we have never bothered to find out anything about the poet who wrote it, the stories he told, and the school of thought to which he belonged. This, perhaps, is the correct answer to the question which he asked in 1980: Why has a blood-dripping gandasa become the icon of our culture and civilisation, instead of the reed pipe emanating the melodies of love?

Note: The title given by the editor in the printed magazine was ‘Sohni dharti: From Heer Ranjha to the gandasa’ but I have reverted it to the original title of my submission.

1 thought on “The Sohni Dharti school of thought”

  1. Loved the comparison of two cultural symbols , and it can be summarised as the clash of ideologies : The preferred idea of motherhood, choice of the world view ( revenge or forgiveness) , relationships as an influence or manipulation. Yet the most important difference is a prevalent literary discussion : Character or Fate

    It is noteworthy that the progressive school of thought has always preferred human character, depicted through its ‘ Choices’ in life stronger than fate or instinct or circumstances or whatever slogan we wish to raise as a justification of our evil doings ! Those still will be our choices !

    BTW, I am a punjabi and Gandassa is NOT our culture. VANJALI is ….hence MASTANA MAHI has always been , will always be my prince charming ! Gandassa , on the other hand doesn’t resonate with the Punjab I have breathed and moved and lived. It might be a part of Punjab ….but never have been the heart of Punjab.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *