Sultan Rahi holds a position not unlike that of Noor Jehan in the Pakistani film industry. Just as she was the undisputed Malika-e-Tarannum (Empress of Melody), Sultan Rahi is by far the most recognised male face of Pakistani movies.
Rahi’s great fame started in the mid-1970s and reached its most dizzy heights in the ’80s, when his face was visible on nearly every movie poster in nearly every town. Beginning as an anonymous extra, he graduated to short action roles before gaining a few notices in the early ’60s as a character actor of some talent.
Though from an Urdu-speaking Indian immigrant background, Rahi did most of his acting in Punjabi films. Indeed, the whole genre of so-called gandasa (long-handled axe) movies, which has dominated Punjabi filmdom since the late ‘70s, is built almost entirely upon the face and voice of Sultan Rahi.
Gandasa films are generally set in rural Punjab and involve lots of bloodletting, clannish revenge and sentimental references to the land of the five rivers. Action, fights and other displays of testosterone-driven aggression keep the lungi-clad, horse-riding characters occupied and moving to a climatic gory end. Rahi made hundreds of such films and through them, his fortune. But he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his niche and expressed a deep longing to be given a challenging “real” role.
Jasoos (1977) captures Rahi at a critical point in his career. His epic Maula Jatt, which would forever change Pakistani movies, was still two years away. Rahi had made a number of Urdu movies before Maula Jatt, but in the 17 remaining years of his life would appear in just 14 more. From 1979, on it was action, action, action and Punjabi, Punjabi, Punjabi. One can understand why he longed for that call that never came to play a more complex character.
Though Jasoos was an action thriller with a fair quota of guns, car chases and killings, Rahi is given the space to explore a range of emotions that moved beyond righteous indignation. As Imran, the dashing head of a private detective agency, Rahi reveals a natural comedic touch as he delivers genuine humour with understatement, facial expression and subtle body language.
Even more compelling is his interaction with leading lady Mumtaz, who plays Shama, a simple woman caught up in a web of intrigue. Rahi, sans wig and axe, was a ruggedly handsome hero. His winning smile, as well as an ability to flirt, softened his action hero tendencies and made women’s hearts melt. Though the production was cheap and Iqbal Yusuf’s direction nothing to write home about, Rahi’s humane performance lifts Imran’s character out of the realm of caricature and holds the otherwise manic movie together.
Jasoos is the story of a mysterious black-hooded killer determined to get his hands on the will of Seth Azam (Changezi), a wealthy landlord. Azam hands the will over to Imran with instructions that he is to act as executor in the event of his murder.
Sure enough, Azam is murdered, sending Imran on the trail of corrupt police, a conniving widow (Rozina) and her brother, the mysterious masked murderer, two thugs and a gang of female baddies led by a master of disguise (Ghulam Mohyideen). Along the way, Imran falls in love with Shama (Mumtaz), who turns out to be the illegitimate daughter and sole beneficiary of Azam’s many properties.
As the gangsters, female spies, and police chase Imran and Shama across northern Pakistan, we are treated to some of the most unusual and unlikely of subplots, such as pagans dancing in front of huge Easter Island-like statues chanting “Zambo! Zambo!” and a nautanki performance in which actors who appear to be identical specimens of Imran and Shama do a snake charmer’s dance in which eight women dressed in black, swivel and writhe on the ground like cobras.
The soundtrack, by the enigmatically named Tafo, is just as abrupt and weird as the plot. Tafo is, in fact, a collective of musicians led by the ace tabla maestro Altaf Hussain Tafo Khan and his brother, Nisar Hussain, on the accordion. Throughout the ’70s, often in collaboration with M Ashraf, but also on their own, they contributed some of the liveliest, most diverse and innovative sounds in Pakistani films.
Tafo was/were early experimenters with electronic instruments, including drum machines, fuzz pedals and synthetic loops of sound. In several scenes such as the Zambo Zambo tribal dance, they seem to have been given free reign to make up anything they wanted. The result is at both visually quaint and sonically bizarre but ultimately hilarious and immensely creative.
In Shola Sa Bhadka Bhadka, Tafo spend the first half of the song making one of the mysterious female spies, the striking Chakori, move to all sorts of electronic beats, squelches and sizzling electric guitar riffs. She jerks, twitches, lunges and writhes for a couple of minutes as the musicians give vent to a full orchestra of canned sounds. The dance is provocative and at times channels a young Elvis Presley. It’s easy to see how Chakori caught Rahi’s eye and landed the female lead in Maula Jatt.
Accordions, blaring trumpets, catchy guitars and burbling fizzes of electricity keep Chakori pumping, shaking, writhing, sliding, twisting and shaking as a confused Imran watches from a balcony window and the master of disguise observes from behind the drapes. The voice is that of Nahid Akhtar, the Multan singer with the galvanised vocal chords. Akhtar worked often with Tafo and M Ashraf, producing dozens of memorable songs throughout the racy ’70s and into the conservative ’80s. Her wide, open voice, which crescendos like a silver cornet in a hot jazz ensemble, is instantly recognisable. Combining the charisma of Noor Jehan with twice the gumption of Asha Bhosle and Usha Uthup combined, Nahid Akhtar owned the disco/saucy song genre like no one else before or since.
A version of this story appeared on the blog https://dailylollyblog.wordpress.com/ and has been reproduced here with permission.