The Pakistani film industry and film music have had their peak period: both flourished between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s and then both went into decline and atrophied. There has been a revival of Pakistani films of late but not of film music. Beginning with a brief historical, cultural and theoretical discussion of film music, I shall look into the various reasons for this degeneration.
Folk songs and puppet shows – which can be seen as precursors to films and film music – have been part of the culture of this region since time immemorial. In the past, roving teams of bards would recite love epics such as Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu, etc; others would perform scenes from mythical narratives such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and such historical incidents as the tragedy of Karbala. Then, of course, music and dance were also devotional and spiritual: in Hindu tradition, people sang and danced to please gods and goddesses and dance took the form of wajd, or rapturous ecstasy, among Muslim Sufis.
The dohas (laments) of Bhagat Kabir and the sayings of Guru Nanak, which combined spiritual concerns with a critique of social injustice, were sung to popular approval. At royal courts, princes and emperors patronised dancers and musicians. From being mainly a devotional and popular form of art, music under the courts became sensuous and exciting, while also symbolising the majesty and might of its patrons. The institution of the courtesan – which combined coquetry, affected mannerisms, music and dance in an indivisible whole – flourished under the Muslim rulers of Turco-Persian origin, though it also had its religious antecedents in the institution of dasi at Hindu temples. And, last but not least, the singing of qawwali and ghazals became quite common in the urban centres of the Indian subcontinent during the reign of Muslim emperors.
These were very special cultural gifts that the Muslims had brought along with them from Arabia, Central Asia and Persia.
It was this rich and variegated cultural context in which cinematography or moving pictures arrived in the Subcontinent in the early 20th century. Film was instantly adopted as a new medium through which popular art and entertainment came to be provided to the people. It told a story in which age-old concerns about good and evil, love and betrayal, justice and tyranny, beauty and ugliness, sincerity and treachery, were projected through moving human images.
Unlike most earlier public forms of art and entertainment, film had an in-built limitation: it could not go on for days as some dance and song sessions in courts or in the streets could. It required an enclosed space – a cinema house – in order to be exhibited; one batch of viewers had to vacate the cinema so that another could enter. This restriction forced film-makers to keep their productions short. It was within a film’s limited runtime that its entire narrative had to unfold, complemented by song and dance. These time constraints meant that each song would not run for more than three minutes.
A film song was a product of the collaboration between three principal protagonists: a music director, a singer and a lyricist. Two of these – the singer and the lyricist or poet – have been very much a part of indigenous culture in all its classical, regional and folk variations even before the advent of films. The institution of music director, on the other hand, was borrowed from the West. In our indigenous tradition, a musician (a singer or an instrumentalist) would lead a live performance while others provided the sangat or accompaniment. In a film song, however, the music director became the core player. He created a tune to which either an existing piece of poetry was adapted or a lyricist wrote new verses and then a singer, or singers, sang the song.
The music director would also decide the arrangement and order of instruments to be used in the recording of a song. The predominant form of poetry written for film songs is the geet – much closer to folk poetry and folk music – though occasionally other literary genres such as the ghazal and nazm have also been used.
Theoretically, film music, and for that matter, any form of music in the Subcontinent, is derived from the classical Hindustani tradition of either northern India or Karnataka in southern India. Film music in Pakistan has been based heavily on the northern Indian Hindustani tradition. One may also note that songs derived from traditional ragas and raginis have always enjoyed longer lives than those which stray away from them. The reason for this must be rooted deeply in our cultural psyche, I suppose, which helps us better retain the tunes that are familiar to our inherited sense of rhythm and melody.
Before I present the story of Pakistani film music, let me also note here that the performing arts, especially song and dance, have always been considered un-Islamic accretions by the ulema. In the 1960s, however, Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul A’la Maududi came to the intriguing conclusion that drawing, sketching and painting the human face and figure were forbidden in Islam, but reflecting the human face and figure (through a mirror, for instance) was not prohibited. Since cinematography only projects images on a screen like a mirror, he argued that Muslims could make films with the provision that these were used for the right purposes and did not feature female actors. In case a female was needed to be shown in a film, he said, her role should be performed by a male actor.
In typical emulation of Plato, Maududi also made a distinction between good and bad art forms. He put music and dance in the latter category. Later in the essay, we shall encounter the implications of this categorisation for films and film music.
The Pakistani film industry in one sense predates Pakistan. Let me explain.
The first films made in the Subcontinent were silent and produced in Bombay (or Mumbai), Calcutta (or Kolkata) and Madras (or Chennai). These silent films had no dialogue but they still had background music – featuring orchestras, dancers, singers and musicians – to provide extra entertainment. The first talking movie made in India was Alam Ara. It was released in 1931 in Bombay and had both song and dance — à la Parsi theatre of the time that told tales of love, hatred and intrigue mainly through dialogue as well as live singing and dancing.
Though film production in Lahore started a little later than in Bombay, Calcutta or Madras, the city did have a busy film industry by the time of Partition in 1947. The first film produced in Lahore was a silent movie, The Daughters of Today. It was released in 1924 and its lead role was played by Mian Abdur Rashid Kardar, famously known as A R Kardar, who subsequently established a studio in 1928 on Ravi Road, near Bhati Gate.
There was a strong reason why Lahore came to have a film industry.
Urdu – or rather Hindustani, the spoken form of Urdu and Hindi – became the language of film-making in Bombay. Many earlier films, even those made in Calcutta, were also in Hindustani. Punjabis – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike – were well-conversant in this language and therefore had an advantage over other linguistic non-Urdu/non-Hindi nationalities of the Subcontinent when it came to film-making. There was a very large representation of Punjabis in the Subcontinent’s films from the very beginning. Though Lahore first emerged mainly as a regional film-making centre, producing only Punjabi language films, in the 1940s some very successful Urdu/Hindi films were also produced here. Among these were Khazanchi (1941), Khandan (1942) and Dasi (1944). The city seemed destined to grow and become a strong competitor to Bombay and Calcutta, but Partition disrupted this evolution.
I have shown in my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (originally published by Oxford University Press in 2012), that Punjab paid the heaviest human price during Partition because of mass violence and migration. In Lahore, Hindu and Sikh property was looted, vandalised and set ablaze. Film studios and cinemas in the city, owned almost entirely by Hindus and Sikhs, suffered the same fate. In the years immediately after Partition, Lahore’s film industry – which had by then become the national film industry of Pakistan – was greatly handicapped because of a dearth of capital, artists and technicians. Hindus and Sikhs who worked in the film industry in the city had all left for India. (Hardly anyone of them was killed; their Muslim colleagues had ensured their safe exit.)
Luckily, there was a simultaneous influx into Pakistan of Muslims who were working in film-making in Bombay and Calcutta. These included music directors Master Jhanday Khan, Master Ghulam Haider, Khawaja Khurshid Anwar and, most notably, melody queen Noor Jehan. All of them had become established names by then. The legendary Baba G A Chishti, considered the Grand Old Man of Pakistani film music, was already living in Lahore. As was another music director, Feroz Nizami.
Except for Khurshid Anwar, all of these individuals came from musician families — the successors of Indian/Hindu musicians who had converted to Islam centuries ago. Their music had the added colour, beauty and aesthetics of Sufi music and exhibited the etiquettes and tastes of the Muslim princely courts. It was thanks to the genius of these hereditary musicians that music survived in this part of the world in spite of opposition from the ulema and widespread public prejudice against singers and dancers.
There was, thus, no dearth of good and competent musicians, singers and poets in Lahore in and immediately after 1947.
Pakistan began its journey as a Muslim nation state, representing both liberal and religious understandings of what it meant to be an independent political entity. Modernist, pragmatic politicians and governments called the shots from 1947-1977 (before the religious and conservative ones started to dominate). The former did not have any grudge against films or film music.
The first film made in Pakistan was Teri Yaad. It starred Dilip Kumar’s younger brother Nasir Khan and Asha Posley, and was released in the autumn of 1948. The film was a flop and its songs went unnoticed.
The earliest films whose songs became popular were in Punjabi. Munawar Sultana, for instance, sang Menu rabb di saun tere naal pyar ho gaya ve channa sachi muchi in the 1949 film Pheray. In the 1950 film Laarey, she sang the heart-wrenching Likhian na murrian, mere sarr gaye bhaag ve. Music director Master Inayat Hussain had Inayat Hussain Bhatti sing Su’ay choorey waaliye ni ikk waari ajaa sahnoo mukhra vikkha jaa. It became a sensation, strengthening Master Inayat Hussain’s credentials as a music genius.
Pakistan’s first Urdu language, super hit musical film Dupatta was released in 1952. Its music was done by Feroz Nizami and Noor Jehan was its lead singer. The two had earlier worked together in the 1947 film Jugnu, made and released in Bombay. It included an evergreen duet that Noor Jehan sang along with Mohammed Rafi: Yahan badla wafa ka bewafai ke siva kya hai. Dupatta featured a great song, one that has established itself as the hallmark of a tantalisingly perfect melody, in Noor Jehan’s youthful but also wistful voice: Chandni raatain sabb jagg soey. The song is popular even now for its simple but enthralling tune and is seen as a manifestation of the singer’s immense musical acumen.
Noor Jehan initially sang only for films in which she played the heroine. Her voice and musical talent were of such vintage quality that no overview of Pakistani film music would be enough to do justice to all the songs she has rendered in her long career. I will have to confine my favourites to a few.
Kalli kalli jaan dukh lakh te karorr ve, a song she sang for the 1955 Punjabi film Patay Khan, was set to a tune made by music director Akhtar Hussain who was only 17 when he composed it. The song – pathos-laden, melancholic and heart-wrenching – has such melodic beauty that its creation can only be considered a gift of divine bounty. O P Nayyar, a Lahore-born musician who became one of the most celebrated music directors in Bombay, considered it the ultimate exercise in artistic perfection.
Noor Jehan’s collaboration with Khurshid Anwar also produced vintage film songs which will always be the pride of Pakistani film music. A gold medallist in philosophy from Government College in Lahore, Khurshid Anwar was an anti-British freedom fighter working along with Bhagat Singh before he learnt classical music and had the likes of K L Saigal and Suraiya sing for him in films that he worked on in Bombay. Indian music director Roshan was his assistant. He returned to his native city of Lahore in 1952 and gave music for the Noor Jehan-starrer Intezar in 1956, producing wonderful songs such as O jane wale re thehro zara rukk jao and Jis din se piya dil lay gaye dukh de gaye.
In 1959, he worked together with Noor Jehan in Koel, coming up with an inimitable song, Dil ka diya jalaya maine, which has an overtly classical tune pressed into the service of a popular composition — a rare feat. Three years later, the duo were at it again for Ghoonghat, combining the classical ethos of a ghazal with the facility of a geet to produce Kabhi tum bhi hum se thhe ashna tumhein yaad ho ke na yaad ho and Mere piya ko dhoond ke laao sakhee. In 1970, their collaboration resulted in one of the most popular Punjabi songs of all time, Sunn wanjli dee mithri taan ve, for the film Heer Ranjha.
Khurshid Anwar also wrote and gave music to the 1959 film Jhoomar, in which a young Nahid Niazi rendered the evergreen hit Chali re chali re mein toh des piya ke chali re in her thin reedy voice. She had also sung the classic Rim jhim rim jhim pare phoaar for the same music director of Koel, reprising the childhood voice of Noor Jehan who played the lead role in the film and also sang the same song later in it.
Master Abdullah, the brother of Master Inayat Hussain, was a young and immensely talented music director in those early years. In the 1965 film Malangi, Noor Jehan sang Mahi ve sanu bhul na jaanveen for him — a song replete with Punjabi folk overtones. The duo worked together again for the 1966 film Laado and produced Shikar dupehere pipli de thalle, which has a similar folk charm and exudes a quintessential Punjabi zest for life. Their third notable song together was Way chad meri veeni na marorr for the 1973 film Ziddi. It was remarkable for its playful tune, sonorous orchestra and sensuous lyrics that together evoked a sense of coquetry and depravity. Another song, Tere naal naal naal ve mein rehna, from the same movie, similarly combines vocals, arrangement and verses to create an atmosphere of spirited flirtation.
Music director A Hameed produced several memorable songs in this era. Here I will name only the 1962 movie Susraal in which he converted Munir Niazi’s ghazal, Ja apni hasraton pe ansoo bahaa ke so ja, into an all-time great song with the voice of Noor Jehan.
Pakistani films were low-budgeted and had a smaller market than films made in Bombay. This was not without some unintended benefits. In Bombay, for instance, large budgets allowed musicians to employ large orchestras, a trend borrowed from the West, even in the very beginning of film-making in the city. Similarly, being a cosmopolitan port, Bombay was more exposed to foreign influences than any other place in the Subcontinent. In film music, this exposure resulted in music directors borrowing – sometimes even imitating – Western tunes much earlier than in Lahore. Pakistani film music, thus, remained faithful to native traditions much longer. A few instruments and the tabla or the dholak were all that was needed to produce music for a film. The rest was left to the genius of the music director, the singer and the poet.
This loyalty to tradition allowed Pakistani musicians such as Master Inayat Hussain to introduce ghazal singing in films.
In the 1954 film Gumnaam, he used the distinctive voice of Iqbal Bano to sing Payal mein geet hain chham chham ke which instantly attained the status of a classic. In the 1955 film Qatil, he had her sing Ulfat ki nai manzil ko chala, which also became a super hit and remains so after many years.
It was around this time that Zubaida Khanum, a singer of immense talent, emerged on the Lahore film music scene. She had migrated to the city from Amritsar and had no previous training in music. Hers was the eternal girlie voice and music directors made very good use of it.
The memorable songs she rendered are so many that mentioning even some of them would require quite a bit of space. For instance, she sang Sayoni mera dil dharrke for music director Salim Iqbal in the 1958 film Sheikh Chilli. Decades later, it is still sung at weddings in Punjab. She sang Teri ulfat mein sanam dil ne bahut dard sahey for music director Rasheed Attre in the 1956 film Sarfarosh. She then sang an absolute beauty of a song, Aaye mausam rangeelay suhane, for the same music director in the 1957 film Saath Lakh. The song became an instant hit and launched the film career of actress Neelo, who went on to become one of the most popular showbiz stars of those times.
In the 1958 release Mukhra, Zubaida Khanum sang Dilaa thehr ja yaar da nazara lain de to music also set by Rasheed Attre whose contribution to Pakistani film music will always be remembered for both its quality and quantity. The song was also sung by Munir Hussain. Both versions have been cherished by film music buffs.
Zubaida Khanum rendered another classic, Meri chunni diyaan reshmi tandaan, in the 1958 film Jatti. Its complex but haunting tune was set by Baba G A Chishti. Even now, younger singers sing the song in order to prove their talent.
One of the most talented film singers of the era was Naseem Begum. She sang some unforgettable songs before she died suddenly in her late thirties. One of her earliest songs was Nainon mein jal bhar aaye in the 1958 film Begunah, for music director Mian Sheharyar. The song exhibited her masterly control over a highly-trained voice that reminded listeners of the legendary Mukhtar Begum. Her rendering of Chanda tori chandni mein jiya jala jaye re for music director Salim Iqbal in the 1963 film Baji can easily be included in the classics of Pakistani cinema — as can be her rendering of Munir Niazi’s ghazal Uss bewafa ka shehr hai aur hum hain dosto for the 1962 movie Shaheed.
Salim Raza was the most popular among male singers of the 1950s and the 1960s. He sang Yaaron mujhe moaaf rakho, mein nashe mein hoon for Rasheed Attre in Saath Lakh. For Master Inayat Hussain in the 1962 release Azra, he rendered Jaan-e-baharaan rashk-e-chaman, which retains a very prominent place in the repository of Pakistani film music both for its stylised lyrics and experimental tune that uses an obvious mixture of belly dance and the classical Hindustani raag. Salim Raza also sang another gem of a song, Sham-e-gham phir aagayi, in the 1963 film Seema.
Although the best films have sometimes had the best music and became immortal by combining audio-visual creativity on celluloid, this has not always been true. Some films were flops and were forgotten as soon as they were released but their songs, or just one or two of them, have survived on their own. To give an example, the 1959 film Savera did not do well but its song Tu jo nahin hai to kuchh bhi nahin hai, sung by S P John to music composed by Manzoor Hussain, will live forever for its funereal tune set to a loud orchestra that only heightens its anguished ethos.
Waadaa, a film made in 1957 by W Z Ahmed, who had an established directorial career in Bombay before Partition, falls in the same category. It was a musical drama but only one of its songs, Jab tere shehr se guzarta hoon, could stand the test of time. For this song, written by famous poet Saif-ud-Din Saif, music director Rasheed Attre used Sharafat Ali’s voice, matured by his training in classical music.
Another one-hit wonder is ghazal singer Ghulam Ali. Though he remains a class act in singing ghazals, he has enjoyed only occasional success in film music. His most known Pakistani film song is Pehli vari ajj ainaan akhiyan ne takya for the 1972 Punjabi movie Tha.
Many other singers such as Masood Rana, Kausar Perveen, Irene Parveen and Munir Hussain have sung songs that are remembered and reprised even today in small parties, big functions, concerts and television shows.
By the early 1960s, Karachi – which was then Pakistan’s federal capital and its financial and industrial hub – also became a centre for film-making. Pervaiz Malik was one of the pioneers of film production in the city. He formed a team which included actor Waheed Murad, writer Masroor Anwar and music director Sohail Rana. Together, they produced hit films and great songs, one after the other.
In the 1964 Karachi-made film Heera aur Patthar, Mala sang Ja ja re chanda ja re, evoking loss and nostalgia in equal measure in a tone that is remarkable for its anguished restraint. One of the first super hit films to come out of Karachi was the Waheed Murad-starrer 1966 movie Armaan. Its song, Akele na jana hamain chhor kar, rendered by Mala and Ahmed Rushdi, became immediately popular and to this day is sung at parties and concerts.
Ahmed Rushdi also sang for Waheed Murad an exquisite number, Kuch log ruth kar bhi lagte hain kitne pyare, in the 1969 film Andaleeb. Composed by music director Nisar Bazmi, the song continues to be cherished by lovers of film music. In the same year and for the same music director, Ahmed Rushdi sang Aise bhi hain mehrbaan zindagi ki raah mein for the film Jaise jante nahin. It consolidated the legendary actor Mohammad Ali’s status as the leading Pakistani film star of the era.
Karachi is also the city where Mehdi Hasan started his career as a singer. His status as a music maestro is beyond comparison. Though he is essentially a ghazal singer who performed best live – that is, when he had enough time on hand to demonstrate his mastery over the intricacies of classical music – he was par excellence in film music too.
One of his earliest film songs was a ghazal featured in Susraal (Jis ne mere dil ko dard diya), but it was his playback singing for Mohammad Ali that allowed him to imprint his indelible mark on the history of Pakistani cinema. Their combination was a sure sign of a song’s – and a film’s – success back in the 1960s. In the 1967 film Aag, Mehdi Hasan sang Yun zindagi ki raah mein takra gaya koi to a tune set by Nisar Bazmi. The song has the classical tinge of a ghazal woven into a contemporary melody. His rendering of Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal, Ranjish hi sahee dil hi dukhane ke liye aa, in the 1972 film Mohabbat, offers the same captivating mix of tradition and modernity in the music also set by Nisar Bazmi.
One of his finest ghazals, Gulon mein rang bhare, written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz with music arranged by Rasheed Attre, was a part of the 1964 film Farangi. In the 1969 film Zindagi Kitni Haseen hai, he produced another unforgettable song, Jabb koi pyaar sey bulaye ga, this time for music director M Ashraf. It is an ironically lively ditty to express loss and lament. In 1974, when Mehdi Hasan sang Hum chale iss jahan se for Dillagi to music given by Rafiq Ali, the singer’s star was at its highest. He was soon to sing another masterpiece, Bey iman chahoon tujhay subh-o-shaam, for music director M Ashraf in the 1975 film Jab Jab Phool Khiley.
Music directors and singers from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, infused Pakistani film music with rich Bengali folk, classical and contemporary sounds and tunes. One of the first music composers from East Pakistan to make a mark in the Pakistani film industry was Muslehuddin. Among his most memorable songs is Raat saloni aayee, featured in the 1961 film Zamana kia kahega. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi and Nahid Niazi, it has a romantic ethos and a distinctive tune that resembles many great Indian film love duets from the same decade. Raat chali hai jhoom ke, rendered by the same two singers for Muslehuddin for the 1966 film Josh, has the same feel about it.
Robin Ghosh was the other musician of considerable talent from East Pakistan. He composed Kabhi to tum ko yaad ayen gi for the 1967 film Chakori that launched the illustrious film career of actor Nadeem. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi, the song has unmistakeable hints of Bengal’s charming melodies melded with an enchanting Western orchestra complete with saxophone. The same music director deployed Runa Laila, an extremely talented young singer, in the 1972 film Ehsas. Her rendering of the song Humain kho kar bahut pachhtao ge had the same melancholic tinge that characterises a large part of Bengali music. But, perhaps, the biggest hit Robin Ghosh produced was Pyar bhare do sharmile nain, sung by Mehdi Hasan for the 1974 film Chahat.
What I regret the most is that I have not been able to discuss the contribution of lyricists whose great verses have made many a song immortal. The reason for the omission is that I wanted to include in the essay as many songs as possible. Poets like Tanvir Naqvi, Qateel Shifai, Mushir Kazmi, Ahmad Rahi, Saifuddin Saif, Tufail Hoshiarpuri, Himayat Ali Shair and Hazeen Qadri among many others have written lyrics that are rich in their evocative diction and replete with meaning in their stylistic arrangement. It is worth mentioning in this regard that Muslim (or Urdu language) poets have always been much sought after in the Subcontinent’s films. Even in today’s Indian cinema, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar remain highly successful lyricists because of their training in Urdu poetry.
The most obvious reason for this is that a poet trained in writing ghazals or nazms, two dominant poetic forms in Urdu, can easily make the transition to writing geets for films. Ghazal, essentially a romantic lament and an expression of devotion and love in apparently disjointed couplets, is centred on the celebration of female beauty as well the tragedy and loss that result from unrequited love. Since a large part of the films of the Subcontinent deal with the same, or similar, themes, it has not been difficult for trained ghazal writers to come up with film songs.
Nazm writers, who focus and expand on a single subject, are similarly suited to write songs meant to highlight social, cultural and political issues. In both cases, a major reason for the poets’ success as lyricists has been their ability to have their fingers on the public’s pulse and give an expression to those feelings that everyone possesses but is seldom able to express, let alone poetically.
Though most Pakistani films have essentially been formula flicks based on boy-meets-girl plots, there have occasionally been some socially aware films in which poet-lyricists were able to write songs that rose far above the average film music in their symbolism and political significance. Tanvir Naqvi, for instance, wrote Woh zamana zarur ayega for the 1961 film Farishta. Sung by Saleem Raza, with music composed by Master Inayat Hussain, the song optimistically promises a utopian milieu in which love, peace and equality reign supreme. It gave voice to the dream of a socialist Pakistan as a complimentary response to Sahir Ludhianvi’s famous poem Woh subha kabhi to aaye gee, sung by Mukesh and Asha Bhosle for the 1958 Indian film Phir Subha Hogi.
Riaz Shahid, a Lahore-based film director, has made several films on political subjects. These include Zarqa – released in 1969 and based on the story of a Palestinian freedom fighter – which featured a song, Raqs zanjeer pahen kar bhi kya jata hai, written by revolutionary poet Habib Jalib. Rasheed Attre provided music for this classic while Mehdi Hasan’s immortal voice made the song’s defiant message eternal. Khamosh Raho, a little known film released in 1964, featured Habib Jalib’s famous rebellious poem Mein Naheen Manta, picturised on a young Mohammad Ali and sung by Ahmed Rushdi to music composed by Khalil Ahmed. Nahid Niazi rendered another song, Jagne walo jaago magar khamosh raho, written by the same poet for the same film. Both songs were indeed written in opposition to the suppression of political dissent by the dictatorial regime of Ayub Khan.
Some fine songs of a devotional nature have also been featured in films. These include, among others, a chorus led by Saleem Raza and written by Naeem Hashmi. With such faith-inspiring lyrics as Shah-e-madina yasrab ke waali, its music was composed by Hassan Latif Lalik. Another famous song in the same genre is Naheed Akhtar’s Allah hi Allah kiya karo. It was a part of the 1975 film Pehchaan and its music was composed by Nisar Bazmi.
Many patriotic songs and melodies revolving around the ecstatic Sufi dance, dhamaal, have also been included in Pakistani films. One example of the latter is Dam mast qalandar Ali Ali sung by Ahmed Rushdi and Munir Hussain for the 1966 film Jalwa to music composed by Nashad. But the most known instance of this is Hussaini laal qalandar, sung by Noor Jehan for the 1971 Punjabi movie Aasoo Billa. Its music was directed by Nazir Ali.
Simply put, Pakistani film music offers a whole range of genres and formats.
And then all of this came to a screeching halt.
The golden period of Pakistani film music could not retain its artistic vitality as it entered the 1980s. Though some senior music directors such as Khursheed Anwar and Nisar Bazmi were still active in the early part of this decade, their output gradually decreased before it ceased altogether. One of the most prolific singers of this era was Naheed Akhtar but most of her songs failed to attain the level of a classic. Going by their tunes and lyrics, most of them seem to titillate and entertain rather than engage and invoke sublime passion — except, of course, a few songs such as her 1975 duet with Mehdi Hasan, Yeh dunya rahe na rahe mere hum dum and her solo Tujhay pyar kartay kartay meri umer beet jai from the same film.
So, here onwards, this essay will read more like a social and political critique than an analysis of Pakistani film music.
Though the mass availability of bootlegged Indian films to be watched on home video players and the demolition of cinema houses to make room for shopping plazas contributed to the decline of Pakistani films, and with them Pakistani film music, the real reasons for the films’ demise have been political and ideological. The ambiguity underlying Muslim nationalism, which became the foundational ideology of the Pakistani state, had woven into it the potential for conflict between the modernists and the fundamentalists. At some point, this conflict was bound to become a clash. When it finally did in 1977, the contest was won by the fundamentalists with General Ziaul Haq’s military coup. He removed, arrested and subsequently hung then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a result of right-wing agitation.
Even before Zia had imposed martial law, a connection was made between Bhutto’s populist use of socialism and a general deviation from Islamic piety and chastity. Films, with their song and dance, perfectly symbolised all that was perceived as bad and immoral in society. Cinema houses, along with wine shops, became obvious targets of protests by Islamist parties. Many of them were attacked and burned down during anti-Bhutto protests.
Lacking popular support and legitimacy, Zia found it expedient to embark upon a comprehensive anti-intellectual, anti-entertainment, anti-cultural killjoy campaign. Art, especially the performing arts, was an obvious ideological casualty of his Islamisation. Once Islam is invoked, few Pakistanis dare to question the motives behind its invocation. Zia successfully used this to blunt the artistic streak among Pakistanis.
Consequently, the film industry almost collapsed. What survived were loud, crude and violent Punjabi films which started projecting gang fights between different clans, representing the strongmen culture of Punjab. The military government, for some reason, allowed these films to include vulgar and obscene scenes, often displayed during songs played for mujra dances. The reason must be to let people achieve some sort of catharsis from the otherwise politically and socially constricting atmosphere that the state created and promoted.
After the film industry nosedived and quality films were no longer produced, popular music thrived outside films. Ghazal singing in live and televised performances came into vogue. The likes of Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali and many other established singers started using ghazal singing as an independent art form. During the 1980s and the 1990s, several classical musicians also started singing ghazals. The other trend that emerged was the advent of bands and artists who followed Western musical traditions. Starting with Alamgir, Muhammad Ali Shyhaki and Nazia Hassan, this trend soon spawned Pakistan’s first internationally known band Vital Signs. Many others followed suit, with bands such as Junoon soon assuming cult status among their fans. Television provided the visual outlet to such developments. Popular songs were no longer dependent on films.
Electronic gadgets further compounded the production of high-quality film songs which could now be recorded piecemeal. Technicians and sound engineers eclipsed, if not entirely replaced, music directors and creative musicians. This upended the process by which film music was traditionally created, where the tune and lyrics were decided before the composition and arrangement of the orchestra were decided. Now, producing a song has become a matter of electronic skill. How much this development has harmed film music can only be guessed. Perhaps not much, because we do not have a film industry to speak of.
Since the start of the 21st century, a revival in film-making is said to have taken place in Pakistan – more in visual quality than in thematic depth and quantity of films – but somehow music and song are not the strong points of these new films. Neither Khuda kay Liye (2007) nor Bol (2011), which are considered films of vintage quality, boast any memorable songs. Most subsequent films have focused on providing either light-hearted fun and entertainment or patriotic messages, without investing the time and effort to enrich them with good music.
The globalisation of art and culture and its concomitant technological advancements have provided film-makers easy solutions, allowing them to increasingly use Western and Indian tunes and techniques for music in their films. Song and dance routines in many cases have become carbon copies of the average fare from contemporary Indian film songs — often filmed in exotic locales or elaborate sets and sung to catchy but forgettable tunes. Again, following the Indian example, almost every Pakistani film of the current era has featured a mindless item song which is more a public mujra with raunchy lyrics and provocative dancing than anything else.
Given all this, there is no guarantee that film music in Pakistan will rebound even if there seems to be a revival of Pakistani films. With the Taliban and other extremists still exercising considerable clout and rightist ideologies sinking their roots even deeper into the social and cultural milieu, films are unlikely to become the main avenue through which popular entertainment is provided to the people, as had been the case in the 1950s, 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. Perhaps social media, television shows and live performances will become more important platforms in this regard.
Yet, it can be asserted with some degree of certainty that songs from the golden age of Pakistani film music will continue to fascinate and entertain people for a long time to come. They cater to the people’s innate sense of rhythm and melody by conforming to ragas and raginis on which our folk, regional and classical music is based.
This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a historian based in Sweden. He has achieved widespread recognition for his non-fiction work The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed.