Lollywood Flashback

Sound of Lollywood: In Pakistan’s version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, a stirring lament for love

‘Us Bewafa Ka Shahar Hai’ has become one of the most loved Pakistani film songs of all time.

If I had to sum up the story of Shaeed (1962) in one sentence it would be this: an anti-imperialist take on Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course, the central character, Lawrence, is portrayed in a rather different light than the self proclaimed hero of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In Shaheed, Lawrence (Talish) is a conniving, pith helmet-wearing, pipe-smoking European/Jewish oil man who plays off one faction of Arab tribesman against the other to wrangle a 100-year lease to extract oil from the motherland. Laila, played by the young and gorgeous Musarrat Nazir, is Lawrence’s femme fatale, who after being ousted from the tribe for her flirtatious ways, sets herself ablaze, razes the foreign interloper’s refinery to the ground and restores the pride of the Arabs. A loose woman is the martyr of the title.

Such radical ideas were what audiences expected of Khalil Qaiser, who along with a group of other creative talent such as poets Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, writer/director Riaz Shahid and actors Talish, Saqi and Allaudin (all of whom appear in Shaheed) produced a number of politically tinged and socially progressive films (Clerk, Zarqa, Khamosh Raho) throughout the 1960s. Though for most of the decade the country was under the dictatorial hand of Field Marshall Ayub Khan, this group’s approach to social criticism broadly aligned with Khan’s secular, forward-looking, internationalist vision for Pakistan.

Sadly, just a few years after Shaheed was released, Qaiser was gunned down by unknown assailants at his home, bringing one of Pakistani film’s most promising careers to a tragic and premature end.

Music director Rashid Attre, who composed the soundtrack of Shaheed, was also a part of Lahore’s radical clique and frequently got calls from Qaisar and Shahid. A Punjabi from Amritsar, Attre was a Lollywood original, contributing songs to films as early as 1942 (Mamta). A dapper dresser with a soft spot for three-piece suits, Attre drew regularly on his training in Hindustani classical music and as a table maestro to bring raga-based melodies and light classical forms such as thumri into his work.

He also sought to put his music to the lyrics of the best poets, be it Faiz or as in the case of Shaheed, Munir Niazi, whose poem Us Bewafa Ka Shahar Hai has become one of the most loved Pakistani film songs of all time.

Laila (Musarrat Nazir), the sexually bold heroine of the film, is a much sought after woman in Watan, the Arab oasis community where Shaheed is set. But her own affection for the blacksmith Haris (Ejaz) remains unrequited. Haris, instead, is in love with the Jewish beauty Aaliya (Husna) who betrays her own community and with Haris rouses the somnolent Arab tribesmen to rise up against Lawrence and the Europeans.

Us Bewafa Ka Shahar Hai, Shaheed (1962).

After confessing but failing to gain the love of Haris, Laila returns to her salon dejected and drunk. In her stupor she gazes out over the silhouetted domes of Watan and begins her desolate lament: Us bewafa ka shahar hai aur hum hain dosto/Ashq-e-rawan ki nehar hai aur hum hain dosto (There lies the city of the unfaithful one and here am I, friends/ There flows the canal of moving reflections, and here am I, friends).

The song, which is built upon a gorgeous melody, sets the mood with a quiet acoustic intro before the glitzy twang of a Hawaiian guitar reveals Laila lying broken-hearted on the floor. As she staggers to her feet and sways in grief Laila pours her heart out before the silent city.

Tagged as the second Noor Jehan, Naseem Begum, another Amritsari musician with a classical music background, sings this sad song with grace and great pathos. Trained in the art of singing by the great Mukhtar Begum, Naseem kicked off her career in 1956 and was the dominant female playback singer until Noor Jehan stopped acting and turned to singing full time. Attre and Naseem Begum, with their shared background, were a natural pair and worked together on many films.

Us Bewafa was an instant and enduring hit as was the film. Shaheed won nine Nigar Awards and remains one of the high points of Pakistani Urdu cinema.

Nate Rabe’s novel, The Shah of Chicago, is out now from Speaking Tiger.

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

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