Shocking pink lurex slacks stretched across an ample posterior; a luminous green sharara encrusted with imitation mother-of-pearl sequins; an eye-catching satin lacha in the throes of an orgy of glitzy gota.
Filmi fashions have come a long way since the heady days of Naghma, Aliya and Neelo. Today, one is just as likely to bump into one's favourite screen goddess at an upmarket Gulberg boutique than at an exclusive darzi in Samanabad. Bad taste has hit bad times. The Pakistani film industry, long considered an impenetrable fortress of lurid excess, is in danger of crumbling to an assault from the style merchants.
While a Babra or a Shabnam can be forgiven for making the leap into the well-cut, things have reached a sorry pass if mere starlets like Neeli can flit across the screen in dhoti shalwars. For all you know, the hordes of extras assembled for a filmi birthday scene – zealous upholders of the motto that loud is beautiful – will soon be kitted out in Nur Jehan Bilgrami creations. Is nothing sacred?
All, however, is not lost. The frontiers of bad taste have simply shifted from the Urdu film to the jealously guarded domain of the Punjabi cinema. Here, one can still admire awesomely powerful heroes decked out in awesomely crimson satin lachas and kurtas, overpowering evil with a fearless display of appalling taste. Leopard-skin printed kameezes, purple kurtas with pink piping and other assorted delights are still happily the norm in this world — and that covers only the men.
The Punjabi film heroine, on her ample part, continues to uphold the age-old tradition of overkill with a vengeance, doubling as a mobile jewellery shop when called upon to do so. Christmas trees have rarely been so adept at performing the bhangra. The penchant to display wealth is only tempered with an equal proclivity to display `health' — in most cases a euphemism for flab. This desire manifests itself in a motley collection of breath breakingly body-hugging outfits — tight-fitting tributes to heroines from their costume designers.
The last unrepentant defenders of the bad old days are the charming duo of Musarrat Shaheen and Sangeeta — arch-rivals in the sartorial overkill stakes. Ms Shaheen, D.I. Khan's most famous celebrity (apart, that is, from Maulana Fazlur Rehman) has remained firmly entrenched as vamp and Pushto superstar, Sangeeta has branched off into directing melodramas as lurid as her outfits, and wielding undue influence over sister Kavita's bizarre wardrobe. But there is obviously a limit to how much of our priceless heritage the two ladies can bear to carry on their shoulders — however wide these may be.
Sangeeta's faith in frilly maxi dresses and peacock-feathered headgear remains as resolute as ever. To expect her to be lured to gentility at this stage of her career would be like asking Nur Jehan to shelter her generous endowments behind a burqa.
Musarrat Shaheen in full regalia is indeed a sight to behold. No outfit is wild enough to deter her, no wig surreal enough to cramp her style. Ms Shaheen understands the rules of the genre better than most: In Pakistani films a vamp should look the part, should flaunt her separateness from the simpering shurafa around her. Most important of all, she must be prepared to die in a pool of ketchup to save the man she loved but couldn't have, only because she smoked cigarettes in long, slim holders and hung around in seedy nightclubs.
But it is not merely the vamp whose wardrobe is designed as a straitjacket for her personality. Villains must also advertise their profession by dressing to kill, so to speak. The latest fashion in villains is curiously inspired by 1970's British punk: Leather outfits studded with rhinestones, with zip and chains to match. Aslam Parvez's untimely death has more or less wiped out that distinctive character from the 1950's and 1960's — the suave villain in a Chinese brocade dressing gown restlessly playing with the sash and standing at the top of the sweeping staircase to menacingly say, “Najma beti, tum club se bohat der me aa rahi ho.”
Clothes and personalities may just complement each other in real life, but in films clothes are the person. The hero's younger-sister must wear floral cotton shalwar kameezes and a white dupatta, the evil mother-in-law must dress in sarees with a print that advertises the fact that the lady can't grow old gracefully, the saintly mother figure must wear white and cook chapatis in a smoking corner and cough intermittently.
The link with reality may well be tenuous but in terms of the film's logic, the costumes make a point. The loudly dressed badmaash in a Punjabi film discards his satin lacha and red scarf and dons a Peter Pan cotton shalwar kameez to show he's become human. The reformed tawaif refuses to dress in anything other than white to stress, her new-found purity, and Anjuman discards her make-up and bright colours for a black sack to prove she is now single mindedly out for revenge. The evil zamindar, Ilyas Kashmiri, normally decked out in silk and pearls, will don a white cotton outfit in the last reel, heightening the impact of his fall from gracelessness.
There is a certain point to this stereotyping. Just as film plots are grotesque versions of some kind of reality, so are costumes. When the '50s begum sported ghararas as chic formal wear, her filmi counterpart rushed to Lawrence Gardens in a garish approximation. When the trendy late 1960's socialite discovered bell-bottoms, starlets went one step and several inches further.
But sometimes the combinations would go awry. Who can forget Asiya in a peach saree rushing through her suburban lawn, rubbing herself against convenient bushes, sporting incongruous platform boots? Or Aliya, of the sultry unshaven look and the neckline plunging intrepidly into a sea of zari.
Shamim Ara's gharara phase began when Razia Butt novels were the rage and ammijaan and abba huzoors the ubiquitous refrain. Shamim Ara had a fatal appetite for diamonds: she would devour them in the last reel and lie dead on her suhaag raat, dripping ketchup from the right hand corner of her mouth — disproving the adage that diamonds are a girl's best friend. Deeba on the other hand, lived up to her reputation as the girl next door by chewing relentlessly on the zari at the edge of her dupattas.
In the 1970's – the era of Pakistan's flirtation with permissiveness – a curious outfit appeared in filmi night-clubs. Mumtaz was the chief exponent of the style — a long, tight-fitting maxi dress, with a blouse elaborately embellished with gold. Akh lari bado badi was perhaps the key number in the genre, a huge success with the milling midriff-raff.
Rozina's bouffant, Babra's bell bottoms, Rani's elaborate tawaif joras, Nasira's no-nonsense sarees, are now all part of history. Only Ghulam Mohiuddin among the men refuses to accept that the 1970's have passed: his collars still stress that point to inordinate lengths. Nadeem and Javed Sheikh have had their embarrassing moments too, but today prefer to disguise themselves as Mr Singapore.
Thankfully, the Urdu cinema's new-found gentility is being challenged by a new breed of foreign actresses with an uncanny eye for things fluffy, frilled and flared. Sabita, Babita, Nautan, Sushma and company seem well versed in the time honoured art of batting (false) eyelashes and all the other nakhras and adas that went out of fashion with Aliya.
Will excess soon become the sole prerogative of the foreign-returned, or will a new breed of desi actresses turn their backs on designer chic and follow in the platform-booted footsteps of their satin-clad sisters? Will cold reality, like morality, triumph or will we be transported back again to the steamy world of dream sequins?
This article was originally published in the Herald's August 1987 issue under the headline "Dream sequins". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer was a senior staffer at the Herald at the time of publication, and is currently a senior editor at The News, Karachi.