Chan Ve (O! Moon) is a Punjabi movie released in March 1951. Though it remained in cinemas only for between nine and 18 weeks, the film is regarded as an all-time great.
In 1951, Pakistan was still reeling from the traumatic events of Partition four years earlier. The first film was made in Lahore in 1925, with output growing in fits and starts for the next half a decade or so. By the mid-1930s, often up to a dozen or more films (in both Urdu/Hindi and Punjabi) were being released each year. The Lahore industry was building up a head of steam, but Bombay was where the real action and future lay if you were an aspiring star. Until 1947, Lahore served as a sort of feeder industry to Bombay, providing a platform for actors, musicians and directors to develop their skills before they took their chance in the Big Smoke.
Many of the principals of Chan Ve were demonstrations of this trend. Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (producer) Noor Jehan (director, female lead, singer) and Firoze Nizami (music director) had all spent time in Lahore and, in the case of Rizvi and Noor Jehan, Calcutta, before winding up in Bombay in the early ’40s. In 1947, when they were forced to choose to stay in India or return to Pakistan, they opted for Lahore.
What they found was a city and country in chaos. Most of Lahore’s studios had been owned by Hindus who had migrated. Rizvi and his wife Noor Jehan were allocated the destroyed and abandoned Shorey Studios, which they renamed and rebuilt as Shahnoor Studio. When the studio was ready, in 1950, the pair commenced work on Chan Ve.
Though Rizvi had had his initial success in Lahore, directing the hit Khandan (Family) in 1942, he, being a native Urdu speaker from Azamgarh, had never mastered the Punjabi language. To remedy the situation, he relied on his wife to communicate with the technicians and follow the script which if the final product is evidence, worked brilliantly. Noor Jehan became Pakistan’s first female director and Chan Ve a blockbuster.
The film is a genuine classic. Noor Jehan as Seema, a country girl in love with Dr Aslam (Jahangir Khan) from the city, turns out a tremendous performance. She’s lively, sparkling, endearing and fiery by turns. The dramatic heart of the film centers on a tense confrontation between Seema, accused by her uncle, the village patwari, of being a loose woman, and a hostile, aggressive panchayat. Noor Jehan embodies both the determined defiance of the wrongly accused as well as the horrific pain of a woman suffering (physically and emotionally) at the hands of a unyielding system stacked against her. Santosh Kumar, who was starting his rise to fame as the towering hero of the ’50s and early ’60s, skilfully plays Firoz, Seema’s slow-witted childhood friend and secret admirer.
Chan Ve was the first Pakistani success of music director Firoze Nizami, who had worked earlier with Rizvi and Noor Jehan in Bombay on Jugnu (1947). Nizami hired a young male vocalist from Lahore, Mohammad Rafi, to join Noor Jehan on the soundtrack and also recommended an actor named Dilip Kumar to Rizvi to play the lead role in that landmark film.
Nizami was a native of Lahore and an accomplished classically trained vocalist. He began his career singing on All India Radio but, like so many others, couldn’t resist the lure of Bombay’s film world. After scoring several films and having some success, he hit the big time with Jugnu which, as luck would have it, was released just three months before Partition. Returning to Lahore, Nizami’s first film in Pakistan, Hamari Basti (1949), was like most films prior to Chan Ve a flop.
When Rizvi approached him to compose the score for Chan Ve, Nizami eagerly accepted. And once again the trio created magic. The songs of Chan Ve are soaked in the classical world Nizami so loved. The sonic atmosphere he creates is marked by gentle folk rhythms, raga-based melodies and multiple moods. Most of all, he allows ample space for Noor Jehan to show off her incredible stylistic range and control. Several of the songs were popular on both sides of the border.
Lamian Manzilan Dil Door Kinare is the heart-rending lament of Seema who, after being dragged in front of the panchayat, falsely accused and physically abused by her uncle, is locked away in a small dirty room. She sings out to her husband Aslam, who is far away (lamian manzilan) in London unable and unaware of her torture.
Nizami’s classy music is lush with orchestral strings that swell and swirl as they lift the emotional register. But it is a muted cornet – encouraging, honeyed – that is the musical masterstroke here. As Seema, sings the horn provides a gentle, encouraging presence whose European sound reminds and links the listener to Europe and Seema’s absent protector, Aslam.
The spirit that Noor Jehan brings to the scene – that resigned, dead gaze, the messy hair – is stunning. Her ability to both sing and act set her in a class of her own, and it is truly one of the unhappiest twists in the story of South Asian cinema that she would be compelled to retire from the screen within a decade by her second husband, actor Ejaz Durrani.
Chan Ve deserves its glorious reputation. It is the work of an amazing cohort of master artists who, out of the rubble, were able to raise a near-dead industry and give Pakistan its first sustained box office and artistic success.
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.