Seeta Maryam Margaret is an Urdu movie released in 1978. It racked up pretty good sales and silver jubilee status on the back of a triple role played by legendary beauty Rani.
Throughout the golden era of Pakistani film, certain producers got a lot of flak for being so-called plagiarists. While it is easy to condemn some Pakistani films for their heavy sampling of ideas, scripts and even sounds from their colleagues in Bombay, it does nothing more than give those of us who point fingers a warm, fuzzy feeling of faux superiority.
These guys were in business. They needed to churn out hits and box office bonanzas to satisfy their backers as much as any filmmaker in history. If audiences in India were rushing to the cinema halls to see Amar Akbar Anthony, why not offer a slightly tweaked version called Akbar Amar Anthony and see what happens?
You wouldn’t turn down a cool beer on a hot day, so why would you turn your back on the chance to cash in on a proven winning formula?
A queen is born
Rani, the leading lady of Seeta Maryam Margaret, had been raised in an artistic environment. Her father had been the dedicated chauffeur to the playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri, a giant figure in South Asian theatre and cinema who got his start in the late 19th century adopting many of William Shakespeare’s plays into a South Asian context. Shortly before his death in 1935, Kashmiri moved to Lahore, then India’s and now Pakistan’s centre of Urdu language, publishing and literature, where he settled with his wife, the marvellous and equally fabled ghazal singer Mukhtar Begum.
Though Kashmiri drew his last breath more than a decade before Rani was born, Mukhtar Begum sensed that the young girl, born Nasira, had that “something special”. And she should know. Several years earlier, while working with her husband in Calcutta, she came across another Punjabi belle named Allah Rakhi Wasai. Beautiful and blessed with a nightingale’s voice, the begum took the youngster under her wing. She alerted a number of film producers and theatre directors, including her husband, to her protege who went on to scale the loftiest peaks of South Asian cinema as actress and singer Noor Jehan.
Though Rani was as beautiful as Noor Jehan, she struggled to carry a tune. But under Mukhtar‘s guidance (and one assumes, that of Mukhtar’s younger sister, Farida Khanum, yet another icon of Pakistani music), Rani developed into a fine dancer.
Her beginnings in the film world, however, were more notable for flops and missteps than success. It wasn’t until 1967, playing across from dreamboat Waheed Murad in Devar Bhabhi that Rani at last clicked with the public. A fabulous run of hits followed, including some of the golden era’s most beloved and commercially successful films: Behan Bhai (1968), Anjuman (1970), Umrao Jan Ada (1972) and Ik Gunah aur Sahi (1975).
In Seeta Maryam Margaret, Rani had her hands full and the stage all to herself. A distressed woman abandons twin newborns on the streets of Lahore. Both are rescued by passersby: Bhagwan Das (Mohammad Ali) a poor Hindu and, Mr. Nameless (Talish) a wealthy Christian nightclub owner.
As fate (and this particular narrative formula) would have it, Seeta, the Hindu couple’s young daughter, is identified as a changeling and her original mother and family cruelly rip Seeta away from the only family she’s known. She is told her birth name is actually Maryam and her mother and uncle make it very clear that she is expected to be grateful for being rescued from the “idol worshippers”.
In the meantime, across town at the popular Blue Moon Club, the country’s finest men are led to financial ruin and reduced to wastrels by the hot dancer-cum-purveyor-of-the-feminine-arts, Margaret. A tough, take-no-prisoners sort of woman, Margaret seems happy to be pimped by her alcoholic father until she falls in love with Maryam’s cousin, Rasheed (Faraz). Of course, he rejects her because of her profession. But when a depressed and lonely Maryam discovers that Margaret is her identical twin, she convinces the dancer to switch places and finally find the love she has longed for all her life.
The film’s soundtrack, scored by the under-appreciated A Hameed, is thoroughly enjoyable. Every song not only advances and enhances the storyline but captures the mood appropriate to the scene – from an innocent and slightly sad Maryam who is exploring her love for Rasheed to the brazen lust and steely ambition of a hardshell Margaret. Musically, Hameed proves he’s just at home with rocking, sexy dance numbers to gentle love ballads. Unlike the Tafo Brothers and M Ashraf, whose creativity and bold sound experiments often kill the ambience, Hameed was a master of taste and temperament.
Ay Bhai Ay Mister! Kuch Soch Samajh Kar Baat Karo is an upbeat, hummable melody. Sung by Ahmed Rushdi, it seems innocuous enough except that it describes a horrific scene of Mr Nameless (Talish), pimping his beautiful daughter Margaret (who is actually, at this stage, a very depressed Maryam, having arranged for her twin to take on the person of Maryam to catch Rasheed) by driving up the price of his drunken clients.
The two key musical elements employed by Hameed are percussion and strings. Tabla, bongos and water drums are used really creatively and in perfect sync with lyric and rhythm to conjure the outer excitement of a mujra dance. The dark, beautifully orchestrated and performed strings bring out the haunting darkness of the dancer and the scene. Small combos and orchestras are commonplace in South Asian cinema music but rarely have they been used so evocatively and tellingly.
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.