Films that are 50

Films that are 50: A mad scientist, a vampire and willing victims in cross-border hit ‘Zinda Laash’

The baggy adaptation of the Dracula legend proved to be a neat box office fit in Pakistan in 1967.

When Pakistani actor Habib proposed a movie about the Dracula legend in Pakistan, filmmaker Khwaja Sarfraz didn’t bite.

It would be a commercial disaster, Sarfraz said. Yet, he could not reject the idea since Habib was a close friend. Sarfraz dragged his feet for over six months, finally relenting only when he realised that Habib was dead serious. Sarfraz laid down three conditions: he would pick the cinematographers and the background music composer, and select the sets and locations. Habib agreed and thus, the first ever Pakistani vampire film Zinda Laash (The Living Corpse) finally got rolling.

Unlike several technically shoddy Pakistani films, Zinda Laash is a superior production from across the border. The highly expressionistic use of light and shadows by cinematographers Raza Mir, Nabi Ahmed and Irshad lends the film a suitably eerie and Baroque atmosphere. Even as the film creates menace by playing around with symbolic visuals and props in addition to the lighting and the sound design, it mostly keeps the blood and gore off the screen. This makes for richer viewing, as the violence is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Zinda Laash (1967).

Zinda Laash is a baggy adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel – he is acknowledged in the credits – and is inspired more by the Hammer production Horror of Dracula (1958). Zinda Laash follows the efforts of scientist Tabani (Rehan) to create the elixir of life in his laboratory at home. Tabani drinks the potion and appears to die from its after-effects. As per his request, his remains are stored in a coffin in the cellar. At night, however, Tabani rises again, having become a vampire thirsty for blood.

Engaging as film is, it is undoubtedly dated and dips in the portions set outside Tabani’s house. Though Zinda Laash was made in the swinging ’60s and gives us a contemporary version of the Dracula tale, it ultimately plays safe in the battle of good versus evil. In the essay Violence And Horror In Pakistani Cinema, Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad write, “Zinda Laash is in many ways politically conservative. The religious faith of the film’s triumphant survivors defeats Professor Tabani’s mistaken belief in the arrogant pretensions of rational science.”

Khan and Ahmed add, “Female sexuality and desire are represented in powerfully agential terms. Professor Tabani’s ‘victims’ are largely willing; they lie back, close their eyes and expose their necks to his bites. They appear dishevelled and uninterested in children or domestic life after his ‘visits.’.”۫

Rehan and Habib in Zinda Laash. Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.
Rehan and Habib in Zinda Laash. Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.

In terms of performances, it’s all about Dracula. Rehan, who was the unanimous choice for the role by Habib and Sarfraz, is spot-on as the caped prince of darkness. Rehan had worked in India in key supporting roles in Mehboob Khan’s films Elan (1947) and Anokhi Ada (1948) before making Pakistan his home. In an interview, the actor recalled that his fangs were acquired from a local dentist from abroad.

The other actors, including Habib playing second fiddle to Rehan even though he is technically the hero, are fine too. Nasreen is noteworthy as the scientist’s first victim after he becomes a vampire.

While the background score is an asset, the songs do little for the plot and seem to pop out of nowhere. However, the two club sequences still have some life to them, thanks to the sensuous choreography that was regarded quite daring and even indecent at the time.

Udhar Jawani Idhar Nasha .

Zinda Laash faced some of its biggest hurdles at the time of its release. The Pakistani Censor Board was shocked at what it termed the “filth” of the material and gave it an Adults only rating – the first ever such certification for a Pakistani film. The censors clamped down on some of the dance numbers, declaring the hip and breast movements of the female dancers as vulgar. A religious reference to Saint Joseph was also deleted.

Even if the scientist did not quite have his happy ending, the film itself did. Zinda Laash was released on July 7, 1967, and was a hit – the adult certification ended up reeling in audiences. Some viewers said they could not sleep afterwards, while a newspaper report even claimed that a woman had died in Gujranwala after a Zinda Laash viewing.

Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.
Courtesy Omar Ali Khan.

After its initial run, Zinda Laash was thought to have been lost forever. But thanks to the efforts of Pakistani filmmaker Omar Ali Khan, the film’s negative, supposedly lost in the floods of 1996, was found in rusting cans at Evernew Studios in Pakistan. To Khan’s delight, the material was largely in decent condition, leading to its restoration. Zinda Laash has also been released as a special collector’s edition DVD with several extra features.

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