For us middle-class fellows who grew up in Lahore in the 1950s and 1960s, the greatest joy and entertainment was to save enough pocket-money to go and watch a film in one of Lahore’s film theatres. In fact whenever I left home on Temple Road and reached Regal Cinema or Plaza Cinema, the pulse would start accelerating – in both these theatres Hollywood and British films were shown. As soon as one crossed the Mall and reached McLeod Road via Regal Chowk or Abbot Road via Charring Cross, with the exception of Odeon Cinema, all others – Regent, Ritz, Kaiser, Palace, Rattan, Sanober, Nishat and Capitol – showed Bollywood and Lollywood films. Further away near the Lahore Railway station was Rivoli. There were several outside Bhaati Gate and then Crown Cinema cropped up in Garri Shahu. Some new ones were added to Abbot Road as it moved towards the Shimla Pahari. More still were built, one close to Gulberg Main Market and another on Ferozepur Road. These were later additions and now after 42 years, sitting here in my apartment in Solna, Greater Stockholm, I can’t recall their names. I am told that memories from early childhood remain etched forever while those of a later period tend to dim or fade away. This is really true when I try to remember the names of the cinemas of Lahore. For Indian readers with a Lahore connection, some theatres I have mentioned bore a different name.
Punjabi actor Prithviraj Kapoor thought film theatres were akin to temples and mosques
I remember once as a teenager when I was infatuated with a girl in our neighbourhood, I did not do so well in my exams. My father wrote a nasty letter to my mother, who lived in Karachi (my parents divorced in 1950 when I was only three and that scar has never really healed) blaming my bad results for listening to Radio Ceylon incessantly instead of doing my homework. Like most Punjabis, he looked down upon music and musicians though he would go into a trance when attending qawwali (sufi music) sessions. That made me wonder about the distinction he drew between permissible and impermissible forms of music. Plato’s distinction between music which elevates the soul and that which excites it to temptation is the cornerstone of the puritanical mindset. The Greek philosopher wanted to create an ideal, perfect state and in order to create ideal citizens he prescribed censorship to weed out influences which excite the senses. Islamic orthodoxy is solidly founded on such a distinction. I am, of course, thinking of orthodoxy in the Barelvi tradition because Deobandis and Wahhabis consider all music haram – even qawwali – although even they appreciate the azan (call to prayers) being recited melodiously. Quite simply, the universality of music cannot be denied completely.
The great Punjabi veteran actor Prithviraj Kapoor once in the early 1960s told a gathering of Indians and Pakistanis in London that film theatres were akin to temples and mosques, because they too received faithful members regularly. I think that was a very incisive remark indeed. Films, like religious and secular authorities, shape ideas and ideals and convey some social and moral message. That is why the religious and secular establishments are always wary of the influence of the cinema. Censorship operates in all societies and there have been periods when cinema has been reduced to sheer propaganda as was the case in Nazi Germany and even the Soviet Union. Even the liberal United States has had its dark McCarthy era (1949-1959), when alleged Communists working in the film and entertainment industries were hounded and victimised.
During the British epoch, when films emerged as a brand new type of entertainment in the Subcontinent, colonial authorities ensured that Indian cinema did not address themes related to the ongoing freedom struggle. On the other hand, mythological and pre-colonial historical epics were permitted. On the whole, pre-Partition Indian cinema catered to the boy-meets-girl theme, which is a universal subject. We are an emotional people who adore film heroes and heroines. Additionally Urdu and Hindi poetry thrives on tragedy and that means songs are central to convey joy and pathos attendant upon the vicissitudes that the lovers have to go through before they are united – or even more tragically separated. I consider the Subcontinent’s cinema an indivisible manifestation of popular culture and entertainment, which has over time evolved in different forms because of a combination of political and economic variables. Some of the most gifted writers and poets – many of whom were part of the progressive movement while others were great romantics – joined the film industry to make a living. It had a very benign influence on the culture that evolved in the industry. Thus from the very beginning cinema became a vehicle for inter-communal amity and understanding. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews and Parsees became part of an integrated – or rather an assimilated – pluralist community and cultural ethos.
However, all film industries have to conform to the national project even when they enjoy autonomy. Therefore, despite an inclusive, pluralist and secular ethos the compulsions of state-nationalism have impinged upon the cinema. Whenever India and Pakistan are drawn towards conflict or actual hostilities break out, narrow nationalist and jingoistic themes are taken up in films. Mercifully such deviations remain aberrations which represent reactive responses to perceived threats. Soon afterwards, things return to normality and the film fraternity returns to probing the eternal problems of love requited and unrequited. Of course cinema has also addressed serious social issues and promoted enlightened attitudes and solutions.
In this regard, it is important to take note of the extraordinary contributions of the Punjabis and Bengalis to the Bombay film industry – now known popularly as Bollywood – which before Partition (1947) had established itself as the epicentre and capital of the film industry. Perhaps, the fact that both provinces were blessed with major rivers whose tributaries facilitated brisk trade and movement, a varied background of shifting scenery and fleeting communities stimulated the artistic impulse of the people. Who would deny that the Danube has served as the backdrop against which great music has been created in eastern and central Europe? The same is true of the Nile and the Volga. Even the Ganga-Jamuna valley is famous for its romance and poetry. In the case of the Punjab, there is the additional charm and romance of its southern and western deserts where the music is haunting and Reshma’s voice is a good example of that. One can, in a broad sense, assert that songs and music flourish in environments which are not static and monotonous.
Colonial authorities preferred cinema based on mythology and pre-colonial history
My idea of the Punjab is an expansive and inclusive one and includes Punjabi-speakers settled in Peshawar and Bannu-Kohat, Quetta and other such places – including Delhi in the east. Pre-colonial and colonial Punjab was the stronghold of a vibrant tradition of story-telling and melodic rendering of heroic and romantic tales. Thus epics such as Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Sassi Punnu, Puran Bhagat were recited in the baithaks [private sittings] and at deras (more public sittings held by prominent, powerful people) or in the village square under a tall and big tree. Professional story tellers would wander around the Punjab narrating tales from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the tragedy of Karbala as well as the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and many other such stories. On the occasion of Ram Lilla, wandering actors would perform to eager audiences. Equally, mehfil-e-samma (Sufi music sessions) in the form of qawaali and other collective meditative practices at sufi shrines attracted communally mixed audiences.
Shah Hussain, a rebel sufi, drank wine and danced ecstatically in the streets of Lahore. His idiosyncratic behaviour and defiant life style earned him the ire of the conservative sections of society, who approached Emperor Akbar – in those days he was based in Lahore – to chastise him because of his close association with Madho Lal, a beautiful Brahmin boy from Shahdara, just across the Ravi on its western bank. Akbar ignored their protests. Shah Hussain and Madho are buried under the same tomb and an annual festival attracts a large number of people. Later, Bulleh Shah – another rebel sufi and poet par excellence – migrated from nearby Kasur and lived in Lahore where he, too, gathered a large following of non-conformists. He and his sufi master Shah Inayat Qadri belonged to the Qadri-Shattari Order which sought a synthesis between Islamic and Hindu mysticism and emphasized the unitary nature of human existence, known as the doctrine of Wahdat-ul-Wajud.
If we now bring into the picture the influences of the Yogi and Bhakti movements and add the even greater influence of Baba Guru Nanak, who had a Muslim musician Bhai Mardana always accompanying him wherever he went preaching his message of a shared brotherhood (Nanak Dukhia Sabb Sansaar), we can broaden the base of the multifarious influences which softened the rigours of war and conflict endemic to the Punjab since it was always caught up in the military conflicts between Kabul and Delhi-Agra. One can argue that the Punjab was culturally an unorthodox region where both strict and rigid Hinduism and Islam could not hold sway for long and the Sufi-Yogi-Bhakti-Guru tradition represented the popular wisdom of ‘live and let live’.
The rise of Aurangzeb and religious orthodoxy was a setback to such traditions and my theory is that his ban on music probably drove the Muslim musicians of Punjab and elsewhere towards the Shia faith, because originally when they converted to Islam from Hindu stock they were mostly patronised by the Sufis who adhered to inclusive doctrines nominally subscribing to Sunni principles. This is , of course, an issue which requires further research. A branch of them remained Sunnis and became qawwali singers. The harm done by Aurangzeb’s puritanism, however, was not necessarily so profound. During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), court patronage to artistes was again restored and Lahore had a thriving courtesan culture. In fact the Maharaja’s indulgent court life included regular visits to the courtesan quarters. It proved to be a boost to music and dance; and even skits and drama. Following the death of Ranjit Singh, the Kingdom of Lahore disintegrated quickly and the British annexed the Punjab militarily in March 1846.
The era for films and cinema was still some time in the future but the rudiments for it emerging in the Punjab had been laid by a vibrant culture of music, dance and popular theatre forms.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University, Visiting Professor at Government College University and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore