Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been portrayed by a range of actors on the screen, including advertising professional Alyque Padamsee in his only film role, Sri Vallabh Vyas, Denzil Smith and British acting legend Christopher Lee. A Pakistani actor is missing from the list, and would have been there if the country had managed to get a biopic of the eminent lawyer and All-India Muslim League leader off the ground.

Mushtaq Gazdar’s authoritative history Pakistani Cinema 1947-1997 provides a fascinating account of a serious attempt by Muhammad Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship to produce a rival to Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-decorated 1982 biopic Gandhi. The Jinnah biopic, titled Stand Up From the Dust, was commissioned a few years after Zia imposed martial law on Pakistan in 1977. Attenborough’s portrayal of the Indian freedom movement and Jinnah, who was played by Padamsee as a humourless schemer, had angered many Pakistanis. “Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League were depicted in a simplistic and one-dimensional way as obstructive forces in the path of Gandhi’s movement,” Gazdar writes. For Zia’s government, Gandhi was “akin to a challenge from across the border”.

Gandhi (1982).

Since the Pakistani government had commissioned the film, it controlled every aspect of the production, from the identity of the producer to the finer details of the script. It appears from Gazdar’s account that the film was abandoned mid-way, and it is unclear whether a director or lead actor were recruited at all. Pakistani writer and former diplomat Akbar Ahmed seems to suggest in his book Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (Routledge, 1997) that the biopic was completed. “It was of such poor quality that it was discreetly hidden away in government vaults,” Ahmed writes. “It is the standard triumphalist version of the Pakistani story which simplifies and therefore misleads.”

The title was inspired by a well-known anecdote from the early life of Jinnah. He sees a bunch of children playing with marbles on a street and urges them to pursue a more respectable sport instead. According to Gazdar, an English voice-over in the script said, “Stand up from the dust and play cricket!”

The script combined archival footage and re-enactments of scenes from Jinnah’s life. Gazdar writes that “pro establishment scholars and journalists” and officially approved documentary filmmakers were asked to give their inputs. “It was decided that the producer should be an Englishman, like Attenborough,” Gazdar writes. “An advertising company that had won an award for a film on brain surgery, (and had probably never heard of the Quaid-i-Azam before) was selected for the job.”

The film was about the past, but was clearly made with an eye on the situation in Pakistan in the 1980s. Strict instructions were given that the script “would not conflict with the Martial Law regime policies” and “would portray Jinnah as greater than Gandhi,” Gazdar writes. The script would also “emphasize that the Quaid-i-Azam’s main motivation or founding Pakistan was to form an Islamic State as has been established by General Ziaul Haq’s regime”. The effort was to depict Jinnah as “all-powerful, peerless and ultimate boss with unprecedented control over the party and his people – a one-man leader/Zia justification”, according to Gazdar.

Mumahhad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi in 1944. Courtesy British Library.

The project appeared doomed from the beginning, a “distortion of Jinnah’s democratic ideals”, and a hagiographical exercise that didn’t meet Zia’s standards. The project was “shelved after an expenditure of more than ten million rupees in material and commercial obligations, besides an equal amount in salaries plus travelling expenses and per diems of the top ranking officials and highbrow experts of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Ministry of Culture, and the Pakistan Television Corporation”. Zia apparently said that the film was “a very good effort”, but “lacks in feelings”, Gazdar reports.

A proposed remake was shelved after Zia died in an airplane crash on August 17, 1988. “Perhaps the reasons for not having any film so far on the founding father of Pakistan lay in the apprehension of each successive government about the contrast between Jinnah’s vision of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India and the Islamic state of Pakistan as it is being conceptualized in his name,” Gazdar observes.

More than a decade later, Akbar Ahmed completed the dream of a Jinnah biopic, one that would be truer to the Quaid-e-Azam. “In Gandhi, the actor portraying Gandhi conveys one impression: menace,” Ahmed wrote in his Jinnah study about Alyque Padamsee. “He never smiles. When he speaks he is sarcastic. A misanthropist, he seems to be scowling most of the time, battling with his own private demons…Jinnah became a metaphor for all that was terrible about Pakistan and the Pakistan movement.”

Alyque Padamsee as Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Gandhi (1982). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Ahmed wrote along with British director Jamil Dehlavi the screenplay of Jinnah, which stars Christopher Lee as Pakistan’s founder. The 1998 film opens with Jinnah’s death, following which he finds himself stuck in a celestial library run by Shashi Kapoor’s unnamed character. Should Jinnah go to Heaven or Hell? Through the film, Jinnah retraces his steps and revisits his political milestones and his relationship with his second wife, the Parsi-born Rattanbai, and his daughter, Dina.

Unlike the Zia-commissioned film, Jinnah appears to have had a limited release in Pakistan after being shown at several festivals and at a private screening in Mumbai. In an article for the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune, Akbar Ahmed wrote about the support extended to the project by former Pakistani president Farooq Leghari.

“Along with friends, we had set up a company called Quaid Project Limited to make the feature film,” Ahmed writes. “I was the managing director of the company and owned its single share. The other members of the board included such distinguished Pakistanis as Jamy Rahim and Amir Chinoy, well-known names in industry and finance, and the equally distinguished British statesmen Sir Julian Ridsdale, former MP, and Sir Oliver Forster, former High Commissioner to Pakistan. No one on the board was paid and it was often a thankless job, yet the support and loyalty of the directors never wavered and I will always be grateful to them.”

Christopher Lee told BBC that Jinnah was the “most important film” he had made. “It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career – as a film and as a performance,” Lee said.

The making of Jinnah (1998).