Stars Above

by Samia Altaf

In the 1960s, in the sleepy little city of Sialkot, almost in no-man’s land between India and Pakistan and of little significance except for its large cantonment and its factories of surgical instruments and sports goods, there were two cinema houses, all within a mile of our house, No. 3 Kutchery Road. Well three to be exact, the third being an improvisation involving two tree trunks with a white sheet slung between them at the Services club and only on Saturday nights.

The one closest to us our house, just this side of the railway crossing, was Nishat, popularly known as Begum’s cinema with a risqué aura because it was owned and managed by the ‘Begum,’ a burqa-clad, not so young, but still beautiful woman. There was hushed talk about the Begum’s morals because she, a single woman, owned and managed a cinema house in a time when so-called ‘decent’ women rarely went to the cinema let alone own one.

The second, past the railway crossing on the other side of the ‘drumma wallah chowk,’ the main city square, was the Lalazar. Lalazar was considered to be in a class above the others partly for its sweeping marble staircase curving upwards to the gallery and partly for its owner Mr. Majeed’s newly acquired daughter-in-law Mussarat Nazir, the rustic Punjabi beauty and a leading lady of film industry. Mr. Majeed, a portly gentleman with a loud laugh, was among the city fathers, the ‘shurafa,’ of the city. Mussarat Nazeer, still in her teens, came to public attention in the movie Yakkey Wali. My father tells how he and his friends, all grown and married men, saw that movie about twenty times and every time M. Nazir appeared on screen, they along with the whole house threw coins at the screen in the age old tradition of showing one’s appreciation. M. Nazir’s untimely departure at the height of her career to lead a life of married bliss in Canada was mourned by all till she returned thirty years later, still the rustic beauty, and became a household name selling millions of audio cassettes of Punjabi wedding and folk songs. My older son, then three years old, heard her signature folk song ‘Laung gwacha,’ saw her face on the grimy cover of a much used audio cassette, fell immediately in love and vowed to marry her. His grandfather understood completely.

Lalazar screened English pictures—movies were called pictures even in the sixties—only as Sunday matinees with just one show. The public trembled with anticipation and agreed the Lalazar, with its curved marble staircase lined with a red carpet sweeping up to the balcony and the swishing red velvet curtains that exposed a large screen, was no less than the Regal or Plaza in Lahore or the Bambino in Karachi. Two decades later all these grand cinema houses would be reduced to pigeon holes, pathetic and forlorn, as offices for seedy travel agencies, shady tailoring shops, barber saloons, and two-bit coffee houses under the then military dictator General Zia’s Islamic drive. Zia, the Islamic zealot, had obtained a fatwa from equally seedy sycophantic mullahs declaring cinemas un-Islamic, a setback from which neither the cinema houses nor the film industry have yet recovered. But back then these cinemas were the thing with their swishy curtains, dark interiors, bright exteriors, and oversized colorful billboards advertising the recent picture showing faces of our beloved actors in various states of agony and ecstasy.

My father, the only defense lawyer in the city knew both these proprietors, the Begum and Mr. Majeed, defending one against accusations of immorality for legitimately owning a cinema house, and the other against vague charges of tax evasion, which my dear mother, in a testy mood as a result of some real or imagined slight from Mrs. Majeed, would mutter “were not so vague after all.” As was the custom in those times, both cinemas were gracious enough to acknowledge the favor—we never had to worry about making reservations or finding seats or even buying tickets. When the Begum or Mr. Majeed learnt that we had showed up, we were invariably led to the best seats in the house, a special family box. Given a chance I would have much preferred sitting in the pit—where you could look up to the stars above and feel the collective love of the rag-tag crowd oohing and aahing with their each sigh and every smile— along with the tonga wallas, the shop keepers, and the chai-paan wallahs that occupied those cheap seats at twelve annas, three- fourths of one rupee, a pop.

O the stars that came and the worlds they brought with them in our dopey little town. Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Tony Curtis, Cary Grant, Jean Simmons, Gina Lolobrigida. Bridge on River Kwai, The King and I, Where Eagles Dare, From Here to Eternity. Ben Hur was screened one lazy Sunday in June when we packed in the car to head for Lahore to bring back mother who had gone off to be with her sister after a serious tiff with father, vowing never to come back to such unappreciative people, the father and his ungrateful offspring. After she left we made do for some days, slept in, made a mess of the house, ate at the club, overdosed on Eat More ice cream. Soon the house started to fall apart. Little brother contracted head lice, the dog threw up on the third day then stopped eating altogether refusing to come out from under little sister’s bed who lay on it sick and crying. We all agreed we missed her, Dad most of all, for he could not find clean shirt collars, and he set out to bring her back buffered by the lot of us. Packed in the car, on this urgent and sacred mission, passing through the Chowk we saw the billboard—the golden chariot pulled by the horses with flaring nostrils and Charlton Heston with equally flaring nostrils in a raggedy little skirt, an extended piece of cloth going over his left shoulder like a sari palloo, with golden chest and golden thighs gleaming atop the Peepul tree in dramma wallah chowk. Dad immediately changed the direction of the car headed to GT road towards Lalazar—Mom and our sadness could wait. What could quotidian concerns matter on this Sunday morning? And then Charlton Heston, Judah, a galley slave, valiantly working the oars as his Christ–like ribs gleamed in the semi-darkness of the ship’s hold. We came out an hour and half later dazed with me having a total crush on Charlton Heston. Decades later when I saw him on TV in the USA stuffed in a tight buttoned up suit defending the NRA, that awesome jaw line seemed totally wasted. I felt like saying to him Remember Judah? What was I thinking? Ah, but in the movie his tortured soul and repressed passion for that woman with a biblical name, Rachel, was real stuff.

Spartacus brought the slave rebellion—Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis! One with a dimpled chin and the other a dimpled cheek with that peculiar curve to his lip to steal my fickle heart specially when he offers himself to the Romans and certain death by proclaiming “I am Spartacus” that sets the whole clan proclaiming the same. The image of Kirk Douglas/Spartacus dying happily on the cross as Jean Simmons standing below shows him his newborn son supposedly to carry on the good fight gave rise to cries of Allah-o-Akbar from the audience.

A lot of funnies came to town. Doris Day whom I associated with eternal sunshine arrived repeatedly with Move Over Darling, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Que Sera Sera became big brother’s most sung song in our house specially when he beat me at badminton. Alfred Hitchcock pictures were my father’s favorite . Psycho had the city in a dark cloud of gloom for a whole week and once I caught Mrs. Piracha looking suspiciously at mother’s younger brother who had an uncanny resemblance to, and was the same age, as Anthony Perkins. Thank God it was replaced by a Doris Day number and the city regained its equilibrium and good cheer.

Though these were outstanding movies that brought much credit to Lalazar the jewel in its crown was Come September, the Rock Hudson and Gina Lolobrigida rom-com that Lalazar had the good commercial sense to run for an extended weekend—four whole days starting with Thursday matinee. The city was atwitter with this news and in awe of the billboard showing Gina L’s magnificent cleavage. The first screening was by invitation and my parents were of course invited. Then Mom too was atwitter. Mrs. Piracha, the district magistrate’s wife, Miss Monimuddin, the unmarried principal of Government College for Girls, and Revered Thomas’ married daughter Edna, a school teacher at my school, the Convent of Jesus and Mary—all purdah observing ladies—were in a state, wanting so much to see the movie but held back by cruel norms. For Miss M it would not be seemly as an unmarried woman to be seen alone at a cinema house let alone at a picture of ‘this kind.’ The others were too shy to be seen at such a picture in the company of husbands who had reputations to maintain as serious and somber citizens of the city. My mother, the veteran of such pictures—she had seen Marlene Dietrich’s Blue Angel and Irma la Douce with my father at the Services Club, the details of which could not even be discussed publicly though we caught them laughing over some scene or the other—offered to escort them. A box was reserved for the party and my parents escorted them, father leaving the ladies to enjoy it in unencumbered privacy. The ladies came back glowing and wild, shrieked with unrestrained delight in my mother’s sitting room, burkas forgotten and somber buns undone, chattered incessantly over tea and samosas looking like sixteen year olds touched by Rock Hudson. Who knew what was later revealed about him? And who cared? When I saw Come September as a teenager, Rock H did not move me— did I had a premonition about his orientation? I fell in love with Bobby Darin with his cute pout and underdog expression. It was a memorable movie. The picnic on Vespa scooters that became the rage with all the Sialkoti teddy boys. Big brother immediately got one, even taught me to ride it—but only in the confines of the courtyard of the house. The awesome spectacle of RH’s Jaguar emerging from the belly of an airplane caused uproar and cries of Allah-o-Akbar, as did RH’s ‘coolness,’ the Italian mansion, and Gina L, the epitome of sexiness. With many things to recall what I remember most of the movie is the expression on the faces of the old couple minding the villa, he diminutive and shortsighted, she rotund and disapproving, as they watch Gina L climbing the curved staircase of the villa after telling them she was a grade school teacher. You could see it in their faces—no school teacher would have an ass like that—‘one that could pull the moon out of its orbit’ (Juno Diaz)—or even if she did would not be able to swing it like that. Teaching snotty schoolboys and grading crappy school books seemed ridiculous in such a situation. It is that expression of incredulity that has stayed with me.

Lalazar screened English pictures only as Sunday matinees but local language, mostly Urdu, movies made in Bollywood and Lollywood played for weeks with three screenings a day at 3:30, 6:30 and 9:30 pm at both Nishat and Lalazar. Of course the public took whatever was playing, for reviews of pictures were only by word of mouth. They shone because of the music and the stars— Raj Kapur and Nargis, the young romantic pair, were a great draw. Awara played for twenty weeks—its signature song ‘awara hun’ blasting endlessly day and night from every little pan shop. Our own Dilip Kumar from Peshawar was irresistible in any movie be it Babul or Devdas.

Dev Anand, the Bollywood perennial who lived to be ninety years old and continued playing lead roles almost till the end, was a great favorite and it was one of his movies, Taxi Driver, that convinced me at age eight that I should be a nightclub dancer when I grew up. She, wearing a frilly strapless flowing dress, her hair open and curled, swinging her bare sculpted shoulders as she danced and sang ‘dil sey mila key dil piyar keejeay’ is the one who has true love for the reckless taxi driver and dies of that love unrequited. That was it! That was the way to go. It was there and then I decided I would grow up to be a nightclub dancer and the first step towards that was to undo my two austere, tightly wounded, braids and make my hair swing—seductively or so I tried—across pale chubby shoulders that I exposed by pulling down the shoulders of my own frilly little frock and waltzed into my mother’s sitting room. Ay Caramba! The horror of it! My contrary mother spouted an expletive that cannot be reproduced here at the Hindus next door and their insidious schemes to undermine the newly-created Pakistan by putting thoughts in the heads of little girls. She soon dispelled my ambition with a resounding whack to my head, gathered my abundant hair and tugged it into a ferocious ponytail that pulled my eyes to the sides of my face where they have, I feel, stayed. Loose hair was a sign of loose morals. There was an interminable tirade about young Muslim girls and cinemas and precisely why these can never be combined, most of it directed to my dear father who indulged me in this frivolous, nay, dangerous activity. A family council of all the toothless aunts led by Baiji my grandmother, sat and discussed the matter with much shaking of their chador-covered heads and murmurs of disapproval. My chances in the marriage market, already quite bleak because of the ‘unfair’ hue of my skin, were clearly about to crash and burn irretrievably. Only divine intervention could prevent such a fate.

Baiji, , the custodian of all things moral and the undoer of all things immoral, arranged my rescue from this path, on which I was carrying the whole family and the clan if not the Islamic Republic in my wake, by signing me up for daily Quran lessons at the local Bibiji’s. I was muscled into a baggy shalwar and full-sleeved kameez—no more frilly frocks for me—my head covered demurely in a thick chador with not a wisp of hair showing anywhere and off I went with tears in my eyes and a yearning in my heart. No more pictures for me but for about a month I was in heaven crooning ‘dil sey mila key dil piyar keejeay’ and suffering silently and blissfully just as did the doomed nightclub dancer.

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(Inspired by Alan Bennett in the London Review of Books.)