Stars Above, Part 2

by Samia Altaf

Part 1 of this essay is here.

Madam Noor Jehan

Pakistani cinema of the nineteen-sixties was active and vibrant, its death knell still a decade away. Memorable movies were made and ran for weeks—Do Ansoo, a silver jubilee hit from fifties, Heera Aur Pathar, Ghunghat, Chakori amongst others, and, of course, the great hit Armaan. Our heroes were as handsome as any—Darpan, Sudhir Santosh Kumar, Waheed Murad, Mohammad Ali—and the villains—Aslam Pervaiz,Talish—as nasty as any. Amongst the heroines were Sabiha Khanum, Nayyar Sultana, Bahar, and Shamim Ara who went on to direct films, quite a feat in the male-dominated industry. All these, including Rani, Neelo, and Zeba, the dewy–eyed beauty, traipsed through our lives, trembled and faltered and danced and sang their way into our hearts. For all the drama, the costumes and the histrionics, it was the musical score that stayed. The lyrics written by acclaimed poets, music composed by artists steeped in the classical tradition—Rasheed Atre, Khurshid Anwar, Nisar Bazmi—and sung by the greats of the times—our own melody queen Malika-e-Tarannum Noor Jehan leading the pack who kept crooning till almost her dying days, heart disease and all. We saw these pictures once, twice, as many times as we could wangle, because going to the pictures was the main thing.

Though we thrilled through the fictional lives of the stars, part of the attraction were the intermission, a much anticipated event by itself, and the trailers that ran before the main film. As soon as the velvet curtains swished together at intermission, the vendors descended screaming their wares. Pakorey, Choley, biscuits, soda-water, lemon and orange flavored, the bottles clinking and opened intriguingly by pushing the round glass stopper to the bottom. Coca-Cola would make its way to sleepy Sialkot in the mid-sixties and change our intermission lives forever.

At the run-up to a screening, much like a warm-up act, ‘trailers’ were shown. These were either glimpses of coming attractions, the tantalizing bits, or favorite cartoons, or newsreels that had found their way to this distant outpost. Not surprisingly, most of the latter had travelled from the USA, bringing us a glimpse of life there or sharing what was popular in that culture, since Pakistan was by now staunchly in the American camp, being a member of CENTO and SEATO. The newsreel showing the testing of the hydrogen bomb was a perennial—for years the dense mushroom cloud rising in grainy black and white greeted the audience as it made its way to settle into the seats.

Many years later when Pakistan’s news services had become more sophisticated we were shown Mr. Bhutto’s heroics at the Security Council meeting where he tore up the agreement between India and Pakistan, willing his nation to “eat grass” and continue to fight rather than reconcile. Mr. Bhutto was prescient— that is precisely the state of affairs in the country now. Its children are literally eating grass, and that too contaminated, with 40 percent under the age of five dying of malnutrition. One third of the population still defecates in the open without access to clean water and sanitation while the well-fed and shiny armed forces stand ready to take on India at the drop of a hat. Each time that half-minute clip played, the audience erupted in full-throated cheers and cries of Allah-o-Akbar and Bhutto Zindabad. Understanding little of the politics of the time and not knowing the implications of this heroism for the future of the country, I too participated in the celebrations with reddened cheeks and moist eyes much as at the goings on in the movies.

Our favorites among the trailers were, of course, the cartoons. Bugs Bunny with his What’s up Doc and Elmer Fudd. What the folks in the backwaters of Sialkot made of these very American expressions and idioms was quite lost on us but we shrieked in unrestrained delight as Bugs Bunny bested Elmer despite the latter’s menacing gun.

For family outings we went to the 6:30 pm show. Dad in crisp, white starched kurta pyjama in summer and a three-piece natty suit and tie in winter. Mom dressed in her swanky saris and her Jackie Kennedy hair-do which was quite the talk of the town. Not just the audacious hairdo but the fact that she had made a special trip to Lahore, to Hanif’s—no Sialkoti hairdresser would even dare the attempt—driven enthusiastically by her husband—was what gave it the special aura. When we emerged, the late-show goers were milling around scanning our faces to get an inkling of our experience, or so I thought, as to what happened inside—much as we would scan the faces of our schoolmates at the annual physical exams as each one came out of the examination room—wondering what her chest measurements were.

The more sophisticated folks went to the 9:30 pm show. These viewers were mostly men, mostly young, and hip—the ‘teddy boys’ wearing drainpipe trousers and pointy shoes, hair ‘puffed up’ and smoldering cigarette in hand—who came in roaring on their Vespa scooters, rarely accompanied by ladies, headed to the balcony or to the private boxes. The majority of the viewers were termed by the teddy boys the ‘hoi polloi’—the unwashed masses who were coming for some fun after a hard day of keeping shop, driving tongas, gardening, waiting tables. This motley crowd strolled noisily in the stalls at twelve annas a seat watching the movie with a noisy, rowdy engagement and then rollicked noisily home after the show ended at 12:30 am singing all the songs at the top of their voices. Those who had no homes to go to plunked down to sleep on the streets still with stars in their eyes. Many years later as a young doctor on night duty at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Lahore, the height of our rebellion was to sneak in to watch a late night show at the Plaza cinema just down the road form the hospital on Queens Road. But back in Sialkot all we could do was watch the teddy boys with envy.

Stars of films seen in childhood had a larger than life reality and a certain glamour that no actor of today can ever have. They lived in a time and place in a fantasy world so far removed from our own that one could never think of their impinging on one’s life, though once in a while the impossible did occur. Once, while trying on my new, custom-made pair of shoes at Hopson’s, the famous Chinese shoemaker on Lahore’s Mall, Waheed Murad walked in with his wife. Waheed Murad’s latest movie, Armaan, with the beautiful Zeba in the female lead, was a book office hit and its signature song ‘akaley na jana humain choar kar tum, tumharey bina hum bhala kiya jiyen ge’ sung by Ahmad Rushdi and composed by Sohail Rana was on every lip and blared from every tea and pan shop. He, slim and youthful, in short-sleeved ‘bush-shirt,’ his hair slick and silken, falling in that heart-breaking fashion on his forehead as he swung around to speak to Mr. Hopson, within touching distance, just took my breath away. Mr. Hopson, the proprietor and shoemaker par excellence, one with a vile temper, all teeth and smiles that crinkled up his already crinkled eyes, the scowl that he had directed at me for being unhappy with the placing of the ankle strap all gone, left me halfway through the shoe fitting to cater to the famous arrival. As Waheed Murad turned around, he looked squarely at me, and smiled, in recognition (I insist! I am still enjoying that delusion). And me, what could I do but gaze stupidly back since I had one shoe off. He was still in the store as I left and swear that he was all but ready to burst into ‘akaley na jana.’

Once I saw Zeba leaving a music concert organized by Lahore station of Pakistan TV. She, all pink cheeks and bouffant hair, in jewels and chiffon was hanging on to Mohammad Ali’s, her husband’s, arm. I could evince no interest in her because by now Waheed Murad had died an untimely death due to a mysterious undiagnosed disease that left him wasted, and here she was hanging on to a robust Mohammad Ali.

Another star brush came years later. I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of a cousin many times removed. There I met Neelo, the star of the film in which she plays a young Palestinian activist apprehended by the Israeli Defense Forces. Tied in chains, facing imminent death and worse, her spirit refuses to succumb as she, in a clingy outfit, continues to dance and sing the revolutionary song, ‘raqs zanjir pehan kar bhi kiya jaata hai’ composed by Rasheed Atre, that introduced my generation of students to the Palestinian cause. Now old and fat but still quite grand, resplendent in jewels and rings and bangles and arched (artificially) eyebrows, she spoke in that breathy voice she had rendered immortal in Anjuman, another popular film where she plays a courtesan who tries to seduce Waheed Murad who had gone to the brothel to rescue his own elder brother who was besotted with the courtesan while his, the brother’s, beautiful and dutiful wife (Sabiha Begum) suffered in tearful silence at home. Anjuman, of course, as happens in these wonderful films, falls instantly in love with the younger brother, and gyrating across the room, sings that hit song ‘aap dil ki anjuman mein husn ban kar aa gaye.’ He heroically resists her irresistible charms till he cannot. Neelo’s star, long faded, shone now in the reflected glory of her son, who handsome and soft spoken like his mother, was the rising star of the post-Zia crippled and stunted Pakistani film industry. He was also the groom at the wedding.

The highlight of my star encounters was meeting Madam Noor Jehan, the much beloved Melody Queen, in the labor room of Lahore’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital on a hot and humid July night. She had accompanied her daughter who was delivering a baby, and I, as luck would have it, was the house surgeon on call that night. Madam, though a bit distracted because of the nature of the visit, was nevertheless in full glory. Clad in a hot pink embroidered chiffon sari, long nails painted to match, jewels twinkling all over, the diamond in her nose ring flashing brilliantly like the beacon in a lighthouse. Of course, she pulled all and everything out of their orbits and into her own—the nurses, the ayahs, the ward boys, the peons. Even the chowkidar left his post at the gate and took a position just inside the labor room door. Women, in various stages of labor, ignoring their ruptured membranes and half dilated cervices, trailing their intravenous tubes, gathered around. Madam sat by her daughter’s side alternately wiping her sweaty face, encouraging her to push, and crooning to her—and to all around—in that mesmerizing voice of hers that we had heard millions of times in tea-and-pan shops, at the tailors’ bazaar, walking down the street, and interminably in our own homes. Here was that very voice! Madam, known for her graciousness, did not disappoint and sang on demand Punjabi and Urdu songs throughout the night. And we heard our favorite songs directly from the melody queen. No request was turned down—’Mainoo nehr waaley pul te bula ke,’ ‘awaz dey kahan hai,’ and on and on. For me, the highlight for me was Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s ‘mujh se pehli si muhabbat merey mehboob na maang.’ Imagine that!

It was a night to remember. Madam’s grandchild was delivered successfully at the break of dawn and the scene met by the incoming team, led by the professor and chair of department of obstetrics, the next morning was akin to a drinking orgy, no less than that in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The ward boys drunk on that voice and that vision were lying fast asleep curled up under the benches, their cheeks resting in their palms. Student nurses, their uniforms crumpled, head-covering askew, sleep walking. New-born babies who had apparently delivered themselves—for I do not remember delivering any—lay wherever flailing and screaming unclaimed and unattended on tables and chairs and in basinnettes. Women in various stages of labor were roaming the halls holding their bulging abdomens and crooning, their husbands, sensing an opportunity, sneaking into see them, bringing tea and biscuits against medical advice, making them vomit on the floor.

And where was I, the doctor-in-charge? Right there amongst the mayhem just as mesmerized trying to hold on to that voice. What did she say to you? What did you say to her?—my friends asked when they learnt of this episode. What does one say to one’s heroes when one meets them face to face but gaze, mute and dumb? Even the professor of obstetrics had an understanding half-smile as she shook her head, flashing her own diamond-studded nose-ring in that early morning light.