Aurat Raj (Women’s Rule) is a passionate, frenetic and highly subversive film about a hoary social issue – the place of women in society.

Made by one of Lollywood’s more intriguing characters, the comedian Rangeela (Mohammad Saeed Khan), Aurat Raj (1979) is a grand statement delivered in the form of bizarre slapstick. Every comedian knows it’s all in the timing. Sadly, Rangeela misjudged his. The film was released just as President General Zia ul Haq was imposing on the country a conservative social vision diametrically opposed to the film’s message. The film was a box office dud.

Aurat Raj imagines a world in which Pakistani women wear the pants and men are reduced to hapless marionettes with little purpose beyond fulfilling the passions of their female rulers.

Soofia (Rani) is married to a despicable drunkard (Waheed Murad). Unexpectedly and inexplicably, Rani harnesses her inner tigress and leads a revolution of the oppressed. Her Women’s Party wins a national election.

Insecure in her mandate, Soofia approaches some shady foreigners for a weapon that will overturn the gender tables. The arms dealers explode a smoke bomb that turns men into grotesque dupatta-covered minions. The women morph into uniformed, bellowing men who have no hesitation to fire their automatic rifles at any male who dares raise his voice against them.

Over the course of two hours, the men are subjected to every crime (rape), abuse (beating), prejudice (purdah and lack of education) and humiliation (public dancing) imaginable by the once meek but now vengeful women of the country. Myriad sub-plots rise and fall like half-formed dreams, but there is no doubt that the point of such nonsense is serious. Though the on-screen role reversal is farcical, the film is successful in generating compassion for women as well as disgust with patriarchy.

The original Rangeela

Born in Afghanistan, Rangeela found himself in Lahore by the 1950s as a billboard painter and an avid bodybuilder. He got a lucky break when he was dragooned into filling in for a missing comic on set. His oversized head and skinny frame caught the imagination of the public and more roles followed.

A person who at first appeared to be a poorly educated Pashtun hick in time turned out to be a cinematic renaissance man. Rangeela is considered not just one of Pakistani’s best comedians but was a leading man and an accomplished director. He displayed business acumen by establishing his own production house, sang songs as a playback singer and even composed music for some films.

With movies like Aurat Raj and the eponymous Rangeela (1970) in which he played a socially rejected cripple based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Rangeela showed himself to be an auteur of some vision and courage as well.

Throughout Aurat Raj, Rangeela deploys music as a lively dramatic device. The election victory of the Women’s Party is secured largely due to a troupe of female qawwals who make the case against the men and their evil ways in song. A qawwali-like atmosphere is used again as Waheed Murad (the nasty husband) begs women “not to defame themselves by auctioning their men in public”.

At various points in the film, music director Nazir Ali and Rangeela sample other famous songs, such as Amanat Ali’s elegiac Inshaji Utho and Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal (Daag 1952). These serious or sentimental songs are used to great comedic effect, such as when after a major military operation that pitches a female army against the rebellious burqa-clad men, a shell-shocked Rani is left standing alone in a devastated landscape. Suddenly, we hear Kishore Kumar singing Yeh Kya Hua Kaise Hua (Prem Nagar, 1974) from an abandoned soldier’s radio.

But the most compelling use of music in Aurat Raj is the frequency with which the post-bomb men/ladies are made to dance for the pleasure of the women/men. Seeing macho matinee stars such as gandasa wielder Sultan Rahi and Waheed Murad desperately shaking their hips and pumping their chests is not a pretty sight. At first hilarious, the spectacle soon becomes farcical and then vulgar. Before too long one cannot help but feel the weight of the humiliation that is heaped upon the head of the mujra dancer, who is more often than not a woman

Aurat Raj may be one of the strangest films ever conceived. And though its execution is haphazard, it deserves recognition as a heartfelt attempt at social change. The film is noteworthy also as a fabulous testament to the unfettered artistic imagination of the one-of-a-kind Rangeela, Pakistan’s original women’s rights activist.

A version of this story appeared on the blog and has been reproduced here with permission.