On January 6, 1968, the government of President Ayub Khan announced that a conspiracy had been uncovered between some personnel from East Pakistan and Indian politicians to overthrow the government in East Pakistan and establish an independent state of Bangladesh. Twelve days later, the popular Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was also implicated (he was already under arrest for almost two years, since he had suggested partial autonomy for East Pakistan in his Six Points given in March 1966).
“The young Bengalis were quieter than usual at the Dacca and Chittagong Clubs,” the American Consulate General in Dhaka wrote secretly to the US Department of State a little later. “Eid was quieter this year. Fear was in the air. Men were afraid to pass more than the barest of greetings. Once argumentative chaps endured the taunts of Punjabi and non-Bengali members.”
Against this backdrop, the film Samandar was released on March 10, 1968. It was produced by Waheed Murad, who also played the lead role and sang an unaccredited song. Shabnam, a successful talent from East Pakistan, appeared here in her first lead role in a West Pakistani production. Could the on-screen alliance between talents from the two wings be a thinly veiled parable about the federation?
There are no conclusive answers but there are some pointers. Director Rafiq Razvi was known to be a patriotic filmmaker: his best-known work was Bedari (1957), a film with explicitly patriotic agenda, whose songs are played as national songs even today (‘Ae Quaid-i-Azam tera ehsan hai ehsan’, to name just one).
The lyrics of Samandar were written by Sehba Akhtar, who would later write such national songs as ‘Mein bhi Pakistan hoon’, and become known as “the Poet of Pakistan”. The music was composed by Deebu Bhattacharya. Since the two wings of the country were connected by the sea, and not by the land, the title song becomes especially symbolic: ‘Saathi, tera mera saathi hai lehrata samandar’ (Friend, the sea is our common friend).
The story is set in a fishing colony, which could be treated as an analogy of Pakistan. Rajah (Waheed Murad) aspires for nothing except love, while his best friend Jeera (Hanif) aspires to become the next chief of the community but ends up playing into the hands of Jaggu Seth (Rashid), a foreign intruder who wants to monopolise the economy. Rajah is persuaded by the people to contest a boat race through which the next chief would be elected. Rajah wins the race, but hands over the power to his former friend after eliciting from him a promise that he would defend the community against the intruder.
If Jeera is taken as a symbolic representation of the politicians of East Pakistan, Rajah becomes a role model for their counterparts in the western wing of the country. Significantly, his love interest is Noori (Shabnam), the chief’s daughter, whom the custom requires to marry the next chief. Thus being associated with Jeera, she becomes a symbol for the land and culture of East Pakistan. In this capacity, she is balanced by Rajah’s sister Bali (Rozina), who is wooed by Jeera.
The paradox is that Rajah does not want to rule, and yet he wants the hand of Noori, who by custom should only marry the ruler. This is not unlike the challenge that the politicians of West Pakistan faced at that time, probably without grasping it: they were supposed to keep the federation without wanting to rule over it forever.
The film was released at a time when there were rumors about Ayub Khan suffering from ailments. His successor would turn out to be Yahya Khan, whose reputation of heavy drinking would even precede his real procrastination. Consciously or unconsciously, both aspects are reflected in the ailing chief in the movie, who admits, “Old age, sickness and alcohol have rendered me incapable of taking a firm stance (against the enemy).”
A community ruled by an inebriated head, threatened by foreign intrusion and divided against itself through mistrust, while fear lurks in the hearts of those whose love is pure — could there be a more candid depiction of Pakistan at that hour of its existential crisis?
Rajah resolves the moral dilemma at the tomb of a local saint where the visitors are dressed to represent diverse ethnicities but the two qawwals singing the traditional Sufi song, ‘Damadam mast qalandar’, wear Jinnah caps. Spiritual ideals translated into collective action might be the solution required for Pakistan, even today.
Carving a unified nation out of a diverse stock is like striving against the forces of nature. The human being seems to be in conflict with nature in every song of the film, until it is announced in the final one that the lamps of the people have outshone the stars, and their garden boasts of a perfume that cannot be produced by spring.
This is the promised goal of Samandar, and the film tells us how to achieve it. Whether those who delivered this message 42 years ago were thinking about the debacle of East Pakistan or not they managed to provide an insight that is as relevant today as it was then.