Ishq-e-Laila, one of the biggest hits of 1957, was a retelling of the ancient Arabian/Persian folk tale of Laila and Majnun. Traditional tragic love stories were producer Jagdish Anand’s long suit. His first, and indeed Pakistan’s first golden jubilee film, was 1954’s Sassi, which told the centuries-old story of star-crossed lovers Sassi and Pannun. The following year’s Sohni failed to click, but Heer (1955), a dramatisation of Heer Ranjha, probably the most popular South Asian folk love tale, was a massive hit.
The story of Laila and Majnun has its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, but was really popularised by Persian poet Nizami, who is credited with giving the story complex and multidimensional characters, a plot and a narrative. From Turkey to Indonesia, versions of the story have been a part of popular culture for centuries. India’s innovation to the story is the claim that Laila and Majnun are buried in Binjaur in Rajasthan, where tombs and a shrine mark their love to this day.
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Eric Clapton’s iconic album Derek and the Dominos included two songs, Layla and I am Yours, which drew their inspiration from Nizami’s beloved 12th century version of the story.
Given the poor reception most releases received in the early days of the Pakistani film industry, it is perhaps not surprising that Anand struck gold with Sassi, Heer and Ishq-e-Laila. These were familiar stories that didn’t require audiences to stretch their imaginations to absorb new social or technological ideas. For most cinema-goers, these were stories they had grown up with and possibly seen performed by travelling theatre troupes. To see the characters come alive with natural human movements and feeling on a big screen would have been magical.
One of the many pleasures of Ishq-e-Laila is that we get to see the First Couple of Pakistani cinema together. Santosh Kumar plays Qais the “Majnun”, driven mad by his burning love for Laila (Sabiha Khanum), the volatile Bedouin chief’s ravishing daughter. Kumar and Khanum had a chemistry that was not only evident in the characters they played but also extended off the sets. In 1958, they were married during the shooting of Anand’s Hasrat, another major hit for Pakistan’s only Hindu producer.
The film’s status as a classic is in no small part due to its lavish soundtrack. There are movies with lots of songs, and then there is Ishq-e-Laila. Music director Safdar Hussain, originally from Lucknow, worked on many of Anand’s films. He managed to come up with 19, yes 19, individual melodies for the beautiful lyrics of Qateel Shifai, who over time would develop into one of Pakistan’s most popular and respected lyricists. Many of the songs were hits of the day and are well-loved even today.
Sitaraon Tum To So Jao is sung by Iqbal Bano. Like all the other participants in this film, the woman many consider to be the best female ghazal singer Pakistan has ever produced was at the beginning of her career. She had emigrated to Pakistan from Delhi just five years earlier, and had only recently come to the attention of the music world when she scored a big hit with Ulfat ki Nai Manzil ko Chala (Qatil, 1955). Bano had her first official ghazal recital in the same year as she sang in Ishq-e-Laila. Though the diva sang in more than 70 films as her career developed, she focused almost entirely on non-film ghazal work.
Even though Iqbal Bano “The Legend” was yet to emerge, her great ability to sing is evident in the short but lovely Sitaraon Tum To So Jao. Laila is pining for Qais, whom she has been prevented from meeting. Like the young Sabiha on screen, Bano’s youthful voice matches the need of the scene perfectly. Her voice is strong and perhaps just a little raw, but you can also detect subtle signs of the iconic warble that endeared her to millions of fans across the world.
Nate Rabe’s novel, The Shah of Chicago, has been published by Speaking Tiger.
A version of this story appeared on the blog https://dailylollyblog.wordpress.com/ and has been reproduced here with permission.