The star-crossed romance that ends in death has fascinated filmmakers for decades. This is more than evident in the numerous cinematic versions of doomed love stories, including Devdas, Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Shirin-Farhad, Mirza-Sahiban, Sohni-Mahiwal and Anarkali-Salim.

The Mirza-Sahiban legend, in particular, has been filmed several times in both India and Pakistan, and has inspired two recent productions. The more high-profile one is Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya, a launchpad for Harshvardhan Kapoor and Saiyami Kher. There is also Hemnt Praddeep’s MMirsa. Mirzya will be released on October 7, while MMirsa doesn’t have a date yet.

Mirzya (2016).

The Mirza-Sahiban tale is one of the four major tragic love stories of Punjab, the others being Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal and Sassi-Punnun. Seventeenth-century poet Peelu was supposed to have been the first chronicler to have put down in verse an oral legend that had passed down the generations through balladeers. In 1880, the story was documented by British Army Captain RC Temple.

Mirza, from the Kharal Jat clan of Danabad, and Sahiban, from the Sial family of the Jhang district, study together as children and fall in love as they grow older. Their romance becomes the talk of the town and is strongly opposed, especially by her brothers. Mirza, an ace archer, is sent home while Sahiban’s marriage is fixed with a local. The couple elopes on the day of Sahiban’s wedding and takes off on Mirza’s horse, with her brothers in hot pursuit. Mirza stops to rest despite Sahiban’s pleas. Worried that Mirza will kill her brothers, Sahiban hides his arrows up a tree (according to some versions, she breaks them). As her brothers catch up with them, the defenceless Mirza is killed by Sahiban’s brothers. In the common telling of the story, Sahiban kills herself. Peelu, however, doesn’t record Sahiban’s fate, while in some versions, she is strangled to death by her brothers.

This particular love story is not only unusual because the male character’s name comes before the female’s. The two lovers are related, in that they are “milk cousins” – Mirza’s mother and Sahiban’s father were nursed by the same woman. And unlike other star-crossed tales, the heroine precipitates the final tragedy. Sahiban’s action of taking away Mirza’s weapons raises the question of whether she was unable to defy her family despite her love for Mirza. According to Peelu’s epic poem, Mirza dies asking Sahiban this very question.

One line of thought is that Mirza was right in his assessment – that even though he had saved Sahiban from a marriage she did not want, when it came to the crunch, she dithered between him and her brothers, leading to his death. Perhaps that is why most versions have softened the outcome of Sahiban’s decision by having her kill herself in order to prove her love for Mirza and be united with him in death.

Mirza Sahiban (1956). Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.

Various versions of the story, which is set in undivided Punjab, have been filmed in India and Pakistan. The earliest possible version, Mirza Sahiban (1929), dates back to the silent era. Two Hindi films followed with the same title during the early years of the talkies, in 1933 and 1935. When the legendary studio Ranjit Movietone commissioned a rare Punjabi language production in 1939, they adapted the legend as (what else but) Mirza Sahiban.

Mirza Sahiban (1947). Courtesy

K Amarnath’s ambitious version, Mirza Sahiban (1947), starred singing star Noor Jehan and Trilok Kapoor as the doomed lovers. The film, while being an adequate enough retelling for its time, depended largely on its fabulous musical score by Pandit Amarnath, who sadly died before the release. Mirza Sahiban was Noor Jehan’s final film in undivided India before she moved to Pakistan after the Partition. This makes the film, its songs like Haath Seene Pe Jo Rakh Kar, Rut Rangeeli Aayi, Aaja Tujhe Afsana Judai Ka and Saamne Gali Mein Mera Ghar Hai and its all too familiar tragic ending all the more poignant.

Even though the movie was a box office success, editor and critic Baburao Patel, in a typically acerbic review in his Filmindia magazine, remarked, “Noor Jehan as Sahiban is hardly convincing. One cannot imagine a love-bitten maiden to be so fat. It is high time Noor Jehan was transferred to the playback department as her voice is a definite asset.”

Haath Seene Pe Jo Rakh Kar, Mirza Sahiban (1947).

Two more adaptations, both titled Mirza Sahiban, followed in the 1950s, first in Urdu in Pakistan (1956) and then in Hindi in India (1957). Both films failed to make a mark. The Hindi version, starring Shyama and Shammi Kapoor came at a time when Kapoor was still (as he called himself) a male starlet, trying to find his feet in Hindi filmdom. The flopping of the Pakistani film, however, was a surprise. Mirza Sahiban was a big production for its time, directed by a well-known filmmaker, Dawood Chand, and starred a leading hero, Sudhir, alongside upcoming popular heroine Musarrat Nazir. Renowned music director Khwaja Khurshid Anwar composed the music. Yet, none of this helped the film.

According to Pakistani filmmaker and film historian Mushtaq Gazdar, the success rate of Mirza Sahiban adaptations is mixed because of the very nature of the story. “Perhaps it is the only love legend where the woman shows a slight hesitation in her commitment to her lover and this might be the reason for the lukewarm response towards movies on the subject,” he writes in Pakistani Cinema: 1947-1997.

Mirza Jat (1967). Photo courtesy Omar Ali Khan.

The next reworking of the story, the Pakistani Punjabi production Mirza Jat (1967), broke this jinx. Masud Parvez’s film not only became a raging hit in Pakistan, but also set its lead pair, Ejaz Durrani and Firdous, on the path to becoming Pakistani Punjabi cinema’s foremost star pair. They would hit their peak playing tragic lovers yet again in Parvez’s Heer Ranjha (1970), which is regarded as the best Punjabi film ever to come out of Pakistan.

Mirza Jat best captures the Punjabi flavour of the story, features very solid chemistry between Ejaz and Firdous, and is probably the best among all the versions. A highly melodious musical score by Rashid Attre, rich poetic lyrics by Ahmad Rahi, and fine singing by Noor Jehan (this time as a playback singer only) tremendously help the film.

Sunje Dilwale Boohay, Mirza Jat (1967).

Masud Parvez remade the story with the same title yet again in 1982 – one of two adaptations that year in Pakistan, the other being Jahangir Qaiser’s Jat Mirza. Both films were in Punjabi, as was a version done in India a decade later, Ravinder Ravi’s Mirza Jatt (1992).

Perhaps the most interesting and different take on the legend is seen in the Indian Punjabi production Mirza: The Untold Story (2012). Baljit Singh Deo’s movie is set in contemporary times against the backdrop of the Vancouver underworld. Mirza is an undercover cop and ace shooter who infiltrates a drug cartel run by Sahiban’s brothers, not just to break them up but also to avenge his brother’s murder.

Mirza: The Untold Story (2012).

While the concept is intriguing and the film, by Punjabi standards, is well mounted and slickly filmed on location, its final execution falls short. The plot concentrates too much on the hero and the crime angle and fails to develop the intensity of the love story, which is needed to justify the cathartic end. The central performances by Gippy Grewal and Mandy Takhar as the lovers are extremely weak.

The love story has also been referenced in the Punjabi production Hero Hitler in Love (2011). Hitler Singh falls in love with a Pakistani woman, Sahiban, and goes across the border to woo her by using the pseudonym Mirza.

Other nods to the romance include the music of Alam Lohar, the legendary Punjabi folk singer from Pakistan. Popular Punjabi singer and actor Harbhajan Mann has also visited the tale for the song Mirza Sahiba in his album Lala Lala Lala, which uses reincarnation as a tool for the lovers to finally unite in the present.

Mirza Sahiba by Harbhajan Mann.