We may like to think that there are Hindi movies (India) and Urdu/Punjabi movies (Pakistan), two distinct industries separated by that nasty political and oft-contested border.
But the reality is that there is a South Asian style of popular movie making that happens to be produced in different languages and in different cities. The flow of ideas and people between these places goes back to the very beginning of cinema on the subcontinent. Punjabis went from Lahore to Calcutta and even America to learn the ropes. Some of Indian cinemas all-time greats took their first steps in the studios in Lahore. Without talent that originated in what is now Pakistan, Hindi cinema would be a shadow of what it is today. And Pakistani directors and producers have always looked to Bombay for the next big idea.
So when Indian audiences laughed their way through the blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony in 1977, prolific Pakistani director Haider Chowdhury saw the proverbial goose and golden egg. Tweak the title ever so slightly, bring in a big name star and lo ji, golden jubilee pukka garanti!
Alas, by the late ’70s, there was a new technology that had the middle classes all agog. The VHS was just beginning to disrupt the movie business in the same way the humble little cassette had the music industry about the same time. Indian movies, though officially banned in Pakistan, were available on pirated video tapes from a mushrooming cottage industry of corner video shops. Families were settling down night after night to watch Bombay’s latest offerings in the comfort of their own living rooms rather than make the trek to the neighborhood cinema. By the time Akbar Amar Anthony was released in September 1978, most of the target audience had seen the original several times over.
The Indian version was a tremendously fun film. By comparison, the local copy was as attractive as a cold plate of congealed curry.
The film begins interestingly enough. Three young brothers are separated at the time of Partition when mobs attack their home. Amar (Iqbal Hassan) is adopted by a Sikh family who are apparently on their way to India. Anthony (Mustafa Qureishi) is protected by a Christian priest who gives up his own son to placate the angry mob. Akbar (Asif Khan) remains with his mother and blind sister.
Fast forward 30 years. Asif is struggling to get a job and is informed that he has blood cancer. Amar is a village lout who spends his time beating up all comers (supposedly in a village right across the border). Anthony, hiding behind the guise of a priest, is a villainous gangster.
In a fit of rage, Anthony kills his father and disposes of his body in one of Lahore’s canals. He is watched by Akbar who confronts him but Anthony persuades him to take the blame for the murder in exchange for Rs 100,000 which will be enough to get his sister’s eyes repaired. Anthony is also blackmailing Amar’s father and ends up killing him, which brings the raging son across the border to confront the evil Christian.
To make a tedious story short, the three men take turns trying to frame or kill each other until at last, bloodied and wounded, they recall their family ties and collapse in front of their mother and sister as the call to prayer signals that God is happy with the outcome.
The production is typical B-grade Punjabi, which means cheap, hilariously unbelievable and violent. Wajahat Attre, the respected music director, manages to produce several songs that serve as oases in this otherwise pitiless desert of a film. The songs are mostly upbeat dance items in the rural Punjabi style. In addition to the songs themselves, Attre proves that he’s got his finger on the pulse with incidental music as well. As the action builds or a chase is on, the soundtrack comes alive with some amazing organ playing that would make people like Jimmy Smith smile.
The scene is set by Anthony telling his henchmen that he wants some really special entertainment as he is hosting a foreign guest for drinks. The guy on his left says, “Leave it to me, boss. I’ve arranged Black and White Beauty tonight.”
A stone-faced hippy strums his Stratocaster as the women sway and shake their ample bodies in front of Anthony and his Vat 69 drinking buddy. What starts as a standard item number soon turns into something a bit more edgy. After a couple of verses, the camera zooms in on the women’s lips as they pout and make kissing sounds. The hippy twangs his strings.
This is all just tantalising foreplay. Several verses later, the camera zooms in again this time to catch the women making the same sounds but this time their faces and lips virtually locked in on each other.
Though the sex act and nudity are taboo in Pakistani films, dance scenes are never shy about suggesting physical lust and love. But this blatant, completely unexpected nod to lesbian sex leaves the audience, if not Anthony, completely gobsmacked.
I Am Black Beauty is further evidence that you never quite know what you’re going to get in a second-rate Punjabi movie.
Nate Rabe’s novel, The Shah of Chicago, is out now from Speaking Tiger.
A version of this story appeared on the blog https://dailylollyblog.wordpress.com/ and has been reproduced here with permission.