Book review: Understanding contribution of artists and actors of Punjab during Partition

The book presents facts, interwoven with the author’s candid observations and experiences; right from his school days, his love for cinema, film stars and film songs

Photo courtesy: Social Media
Photo courtesy: Social Media

Humra Quraishi

As the very title relays, in this book the well-known academic, commentator and author, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, has focused on the men and woman from the Undivided Punjab, whose “contribution” to Indian cinema is immense and truly remarkable!

What I liked about this book is the writing style. It is uncomplicated. Simple and direct, the book is brimming with facts which are interestingly interwoven with the author’s candid observations and experiences; right from his school days, his love for cinema and film stars and film songs on Radio Ceylon!

To quote him, “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 the Regal or the Plaza Cinema, my pulse would start accelerating---in both these theatres Hollywood and British films were screened…I remember once as a teenager I was so infatuated with a girl in our neighborhood that I did not do 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 poor results for listening to Radio Ceylon incessantly instead of doing my homework.”

Quite obviously, Ishtiaq Ahmed has written this book with an emotional connect to the film stars and just about everything connected to them. As he comments right at the start, in the very preface, “The idea of publishing a book on Punjab’s contribution to Indian cinema has tempted me for a long time…An incorrigible film buff, my career as an academic, however, demanded that I devote first and foremost attention to the harsh and stark reality of politics, power, democracy, dictatorship, the state, government and citizens. Such concerns apparently were far removed from cinema. But not quite.”

And with that take off, Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed delves deep into the that phase of Partition highlighting how people were affected with that upheaval, with the inevitable shifts, and the aftermath it carried. And here comes in the focus on the leading artists and creative characters who had to shift base from Lahore. To quote him, from this book: “Beautiful Punjabi men and women headed towards Bombay and Calcutta, because in the formative years the Lahore film industry had limited capital, and essentially produced Punjabi language films which had limited outreach. Villains, character actors, comedians, bit actors, storywriters, scriptwriters, song writers, music directors, directors, producers, film makers, studio owners, from the Punjab---all those who sought employment opportunities and nurtured ambitions to make a name for themselves at the all-India level --- headed towards Bombay and Calcutta…. The advantage they enjoyed over other nations from South Asia was their Urdu- Hindi (Hindustani) language skill. The competition they faced was from Urdu and Hindi speakers of Northern India, Bihar, and the princely state of Hyderabad in southern India.”

In fact, in this book Ishtiaq Ahmed has brought forth several other details which many of us wouldn’t been aware of. He writes, “The rioting of 1947 set in motion irreversible, irrevocable migration. B. R Chopra and I. S. Johar were planning films in a big way for Lahore but had to run for their lives. Ramanand Sagar left in July, so did Gulshan Rai. Comedian actor Om Prakash (of Fateh Din fame, an all-time favorite skit by Radio Lahore) comedian bad-man Jeevan and many others also left Lahore for Bombay. O.P. Nayar recorded his immortal song ‘preetam aan milo/ dukhia jiya bullai, aan milo’ at His Master’s Voice studio in Lahore. He left Lahore in 1948 when it became clear that people with the wrong religion were not going to return to their home on either side of the Punjab. Writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, escaped, sitting on top of a railway carriage carrying loads of Hindus and Sikhs out of Lahore. Songwriter Naqsh Lyallpuri began his literary career in Lahore as a journalist but had to leave Lahore in 1947. Punjabi singers, the sisters Surinder Kaur and Prakash Kaur, and Pushpa Hans also left Lahore. Music director Sardul Singh Kwatra was bewitched by a Muslim woman he loved, but had to leave for India at the time of Partition …”

There is a long list of those who made Bollywood! Or Bollywood made them! And what hold out are the author’s personal interactions with many of the leading film stars he has written about in his book. Though settled in Stockholm, he has kept in touch with several Bollywood’s who’s who he has detailed in this book. After all, such detailed books can only written if the author carries that deep connect with the subject.

And it is of significance that Ishtiaq Ahmed does not miss out detailing the migration which took place in the other direction too! Yes, he brings into focus all those literary and film personalities who headed towards Lahore. “Nazir and his wife Swaran Lata, Noor Jahan and her husband Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, character artist Alauddin and many others headed to Lahore. Manto came in January 1948; music directors Ghulam Haider and Khurshid Anwar followed some years later, and director M Sajid in 1969 or 1970. Meena Shorey, Khurshid and Mumtaz Shanti also migrated to Lahore...”

What can be also termed noteworthy that many of these Who’s who families and clans stood divided during Partition; some shifting out, others staying back. "While Nazir shifted to Lahore, his nephew K Asif stayed on in Bombay. Kardar stayed on but his brother Nusrat Kardar and son Rauf Kardar returned to Lahore. While Suraiya, her mother and grandmother settled in Bombay, many of her other relatives shifted to Lahore …”.

Also, Ahmed puts forth details to some of those “cross-religion marriages that created peculiar challenges. Raj Kapoor’s mama (maternal uncle) married a Muslim, converted to Islam and stayed in Lahore. A unique case of reverse migration took place as well: poet Sahir Ludhianvi (Abdul Hai Fazl Mohammad) left Lahore for India.”

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