Pre-Partition Bombay became the capital of the Indian film industry. How do we explain the very large Punjabi presence in its evolution from the outset? I think a number of fortuitous developments converged to give the Punjabis an advantage in faraway Maharashtra over many other nationalities who did not speak Urdu/Hindi. The British favoured the recruitment of Punjabis in their Indian Army but they preferred Urdu instead of Punjabi as the medium of instruction in the government and municipal schools they established. Amongst the East India Company policy-makers in India, some favoured Punjabi while others preferred Urdu, which was already in use at the lower level in the civil and military sectors in northern India. The latter school of thought favouring Urdu prevailed. It was argued that Punjabi and Urdu were kin as languages. Therefore Urdu could serve as the connecting language for the expanding British Empire and thus help disseminate communications and streamline standardisation more efficiently; and thus integrate the various branches of government. The British established the Urdu Board in Lahore and not Delhi or Lucknow and people like Muhammad Hussain Azad and later even Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj left UP and Delhi respectively to promote Urdu in the Punjab. Punjab’s importance for the British was of course its location on the route to central Asia and therefore the success of the Great Game against Russia required that Punjab should be firmly co-opted into the imperial scheme of things.
Irrespective of whether this was some grand conspiracy against Punjabis as some Punjabi nationalists would like us to believe or simply a practical approach to maintain coherence in the state machinery, the result of such a policy was that educated Punjabi Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were almost invariably literate in Urdu. On the other hand Punjabis, serving in the army and other tertiary institutions, were posted to far-flung regions of India. As is usually the case, service-sector people and small businesses also move along in such circumstances and that is how Punjabi colonies began to be established in Bombay, Calcutta, the industrial town of Kanpur and of course in Delhi. Hindustani (spoken Urdu and Hindi become Hindustani) became the lingua franca of the lower tiers of the British colonial order and even illiterate Punjabis could manage to use it wherever they went in search of a livelihood.
Understandably the urban centres which evolved under British patronage became the engines of change and transformation where modern cultural values became part of the social and intellectual milieu. Madras, Calcutta and Bombay blossomed as dynamic urban centres. While Calcutta served as the first administrative capital of British India, Bombay became the financial capital. Film production started initially in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Delhi became the colonial capital in 1911 and British grandeur added to its majesty, already embodied in the Mughal and earlier monuments of the city. The last great contribution to modern city-building from the British was generously reserved for Lahore. It became the premier city of northwest India. Schools and liberal arts flourished. Science and medical colleges and even a university (The University of the Punjab was established in Lahore in 1882) set up by the government and community organisations helped produce people with modern ideas and ambitions. Moreover, overall prosperity increased by the beginning of the twentieth century because of the canal colonies and Punjab became the granary of the Subcontinent. Quite simply the Punjab became the darling province of the British. The princely families of the Punjab and many even beyond it built residences in Lahore. Additionally, Bengali teachers – Hindus and Christians – also flocked to Lahore and brought along their music and dance and other forms of performing arts. Not surprisingly, Lahore flourished as a paragon of progress and communal harmony although it was Hindus and Sikhs who took most advantage of the educational facilities and business opportunities while the Muslims lagged behind. Later, this factor was to play an important role in the partition process of 1947.
By the early 1920s there were nine film theatres in Lahore
At any rate, by the early 1920s there were nine film theatres in Lahore. It was the era of silent films. The first silent film made in Lahore The Daughters of Today was produced by a former officer of the North-Western Railways, G K Mehta, who had imported a camera from London. It was released in 1924. The lead role was played by the future legendary Bombay filmmaker, Mian Abdur Rashid Kardar, famously known as A R Kardar, who also assisted Mehta as assistant director. The film was shot largely in the open air as there was no studio in Lahore at that time. Kardar and his fellow artist and calligraphist, M Ismail, later a noted character actor in post-partition Pakistani films, sold their properties and in 1928 established a studio on Ravi Road, near Bhaati Gate. They founded a film production company called United Players Corporation. The lighting facilities in the studios were not very good and shooting was possible only in the daylight. The choice of Ravi Road was partly dictated by the fact that a thick forest along the banks of the River Ravi and the mausoleums of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan across the bridge provided excellent locations for shooting action-packed melodramas.
The first film produced at the Ravi Road Studios was Husn Ka Daku (1929). This time, Kardar was the director himself, as well as the leading male actor opposite Gulzar Begum. Ismail played a supporting role. An American actor, Iris Crawford, also acted in that film. The film did quite well, but Kardar decided not to act in films and instead concentrate on directing. Kardar also produced Sarfarosh (1930) with Gul Hameed playing the lead role. It was noticed in Bombay and Calcutta and Lahore began to receive greater attention. In those days, live orchestras provided background music as well as song and dance performances. Consequently, from the very beginning the musician community of the Punjab was associated with films and became an integral part of its evolution. The first Indian talkie Alam Ara, produced in Bombay, was released in 1931. It was a sensation. It had at least one Punjabi in the cast – Prithviraj Kapoor. Incidentally, Urdu was mentioned as the language of the film.
Lahore in the 1940s was an important film-making city, but the money was in Bombay and Calcutta
Although Bombay, Calcutta and Madras emerged as centres of film-production earlier than Lahore, it enjoyed an advantage over Calcutta and Madras when the talkie era began. Calcutta was essentially the cultural capital of the Bengali renaissance while Madras catered for the Tamil-speaking audiences of southern India. On the other hand, Punjabis were conversant in Hindustani – the actual lingua franca of northern India. Urdu, written in the Persian script, and Hindi in Devanagari, when spoken by people in day to day life was simply Hindustani. On the other hand, Marathi- or Gujarati-speaking Bombay became the centre of Urdu-Hindi cinema. It also became the unrivalled film capital because it had the greatest outreach to filmgoers all over India. Therefore, Lahore or rather Punjab provided the Hindi-Urdu-speaking talent which could be absorbed easily at the Bombay film industry. As explained already, several structural changes wrought by the British had equipped the Punjabis with skills which they could market outside their province and language was one very important skill in this context. Therefore, several generations of Punjabi Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even some Christians, often with a Lahore connection, sought a career in the Bombay film industry as actors, music-directors, lyricists, story- and script-writers and indeed as directors and producers.
Although A R Kardar moved to Calcutta in 1930, he continued to make films in Lahore as well. In 1932, he produced the first talkie from Lahore, Heer Ranjha. It was in Punjabi. Soon afterwards Lahore’s reputation as a filmmaking centre was established firmly when Roop Lal Shori, a resident of Brandreth Road, Lahore, began to produce films such as Qismat Ke Her Pher. Later, a Gujarati, D. M. Pancholi, set up a studio in Lahore. Himansu Rai, a Bengali, who later founded the famous Bombay Talkies in Bombay, also started his career in Lahore. Punjabis had begun to look for career opportunities in Calcutta and Bombay as well. Legendary KL Saigal, Prithviraj Kapoor, writer, song-writer and director Kidar Sharma and singer Mukhtar Begum – both from Amritsar – were based in Calcutta from the early 1930s.
The Lahore-born veteran chronicler and music patron Pran Nevile has vividly described the vibrant cinema culture that evolved in Lahore in his book, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey. People thronged to its various theatres in large numbers and visits by leading Bombay film stars became memorable social events. Among them was the visit on 2 December 1937 by legendary singer-actor K L Saigal, a Punjabi from Jammu/Jullundur, which attracted huge crowds. In the beginning, films produced in Lahore were mainly in the Punjabi language. Till 1947, Punjabi films were shown in the whole of undivided Punjab as well as in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Kanpur where Punjabis had been settling in significant numbers since the early twentieth century. However, in the 1940s some very successful Urdu/Hindi films were also produced from Lahore. Among those were Khandaan (1942), Khazanchi (1941) and Dasi (1944).
In any event, although Lahore of the 1940s was emerging as an important film-making city, most of the money and capital was still in Bombay and Calcutta. Therefore besides the beautiful men and women of Punjab and indeed villains, character actors and comedians who tried to make their mark in those cities, Punjabis with other artistic and technical skills also sought a livelihood in them. In fact it was not uncommon that some artistes worked in all these cities and films were also shot on locations in these cities. In the forthcoming articles in this series we will review the contribution of the Punjabis to cinema in all these three cities but obviously the most space will be given to the Lahore-Mumbai connection. My conviction is that the cultural links between India and Pakistan are too deep to be severed completely by nationalist politics and concomitant tensions and armed conflicts which the 1947 partition of India, Punjab and Bengal has bequeathed to the Subcontinent. It is no exaggeration that Pakistani plays are watched eagerly by Indians and we Pakistanis love to see Bollywood films.
At some recent weddings which I attended in Lahore, the mehndi and wedding parties borrowed the latest songs and dances from Bollywood. Interestingly this is true of all classes and ideological groupings. At least at two such receptions where the families were demonstratively of Islamist leanings and wore their nationalism proudly on their shoulders, the young boys and girls who sang and danced remained oblivious to the fact they were influenced by Bollywood rather than the Jama’at-e-Islami headquarters at Mansura on the outskirts of Lahore. I am sure this tendency will remain unchanged in the future as well. There is nothing surprising about it. Language is a great connector and so are music and poetry. They emerge from the inner recesses of the historically formed and culturally-shaped human personality. So it comes as no surprise, that for instance, Heer Ranjha has been made and remade more in Bollywood than in Lollywood.
Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen talk about the Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema and demonstrate how Bombay cinema has a long history of probing themes that focus on the imprint of Islamic culture. So it works both ways. When former President Asif Ali Zardari said that in every Pakistani there was an Indian and in every Indian a Pakistani he probably made the wisest and most honest remark of his life. Of course he was assailed not only in Pakistan but also in India. I remember hysterical Hindu nationalists on social media expressing disgust at being reminded of a Pakistani dimension within them. So the politics of rejection is mutual, though in Pakistan it is more easily noticeable because the hegemonic Two-Nation Theory requires a denial of any such relationship. In the forthcoming articles in this series I will be demonstrating the very significant Punjabi contribution to cinema which I believe still plays a binding role in spite of ultra-nationalist encroachments on Bollywood and Lollywood.
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
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: email@example.com