There are iconic films Gone with the Wind, Mother India – that capture a historical moment. Other films are remembered for ushering in a new epoch – think Star Wars or Zanjeer. But rarely has one film dominated an industry and a public’s consciousness as completely as the Pakistani rustic action picture Maula Jatt.

Released on February 11, 1979, what appeared at the time to be just another Punjabi potboiler has, in fact, become the undisputed glittering prize of Pakistani film. Recognised today as a unique cinematic creation that has spawned its own Jatt franchise, Maula Jatt will be memorialised later this year in a much-ballyhooed recreation by director Bilal Lashari. The Legend of Maula Jatt stars Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Humaima Mallick, Mahira Khan and Gohar Rasheed and is expected to be released in June.

The story of Maula Jatt can be traced back to the 1950s Urdu short story Gandasa, by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. The character portrayed in the short story, a village tearaway caught up in a society driven in equal measure by violence and love, is as familiar to Punjabis as Heer Ranjha. Wehsi Jatt (1975), the hit movie based on the story, set the ball of blood-drenched Punjabi movies rolling. Four years later, producer Sarwar Bhatti advanced the story and created Maula Jatt, in which he introduced new characters, a fresh plotline and lots and lots more gore.

What could have been a lazy rip-off turned out to be strikingly fresh, even innovative. Maula Jatt won the immediate affection of audiences across the country, and critics too sang its praises. At the same time, Maula Jatt struck fear into the heart of Zia ul Haq’s military government, whose clumsy attempts to censor the film proved unsuccessful and, as is usually the case when authorities try to restrict access, only enhanced the reputation of the movie.

The film begins on a grand operatic note. This is Punjab, intones an invisible narrator. There are two kinds of people here. Those who inflict terror upon the land and those who seek justice. Noori Natt represents the former. The humble Maula Jatt exemplifies the party of the just.

To the extent that the movie is a story of the blood feud between Maula (Sultan Rahi) and his sneering nemesis Noori Natt (Mustafa Qureshi), the plot line is strangely extraneous. What follows is more akin to a series of individual scenes stapled together rather than a logically recounted narrative. The only thing that matters here, from the very first rape scene that turns into an anguished death dance by the victim, is the action. The fights. The juicy insults. The severed limbs and the rivers of blood.

The tale is ostensibly one of enmity between Noori and Maula, but the relationship between the adversaries is so much more subtle and fascinating. Under Younis Malik’s intuitive direction, the characters reveal that below the surface of their violent hatred lies a deeper, friendlier sportsman-like rivalry, a bond that is as loving as it is loathsome. This intimate, homo-erotic connection is the true measure of Maula Jatt’s brilliance.

Though the two men do not meet until halfway through the film, the atmosphere bristles with menace. Noorie Natt is in jail for murder, but his goondas and family members, including his frightening and beautiful sister Daro Natni (Chakori), are causing chaos in the land of the five rivers. Maula has his hands full as he gallops from village to village on his white horse administering justice with his fists and glistening gandasa (axe).

When the men meet face to face at last, they are literally yoked together in an attempt to pull an overloaded bullock cart out of a rut. Like wrestlers or weightlifters proud of their physical strength, they show off to each other (often first by ripping open their shirts to display their finely muscled chests) and banter back and forth. Their first encounter is friendly.

Soon though, they discover the identity of the other and the blood begins to flow. But there is a self-conscious choreographed structure to their battles. Like bristling pack dogs trained for a fight, the men splay their legs (lungis flapping in the breeze) and bellow. Slowly they circle and leap towards the other. Maula displays a heavy scowl; Noorie wears a bemused smirk. With the wit and agility of slam poets they toss insults and threats back and forth.

Noorie, the calmer one, peppers his one-liners with intimate expressions such as sohniya (handsome), delicate hand gestures and kissing sounds. Maula is all raging self-righteousness: “Maulay nu Maula na maray, tay Maula naee marda,” (Maula won’t die unless Maula himself kills Maula), he howls in the film’s most famous line.

Indeed, it is this sort of dialogue that has made the film legendary and given it so much energy and life. Each man bellows at the other as if competing in a deathly mushaira. But their words veer dangerously close to the sexual. They refer constantly to hearts, their fingers and palms, hair and lips. They speak of licking the other’s blood and tasting each other. There is masculine brutishness on display but also a palatable sexual frisson.

The gandasa and lathi fights are the final element of this strange peacock dance. The men charge, they defend, they tumble. Noorie, as is to be expected, suffers more blows than Maula, but his arched eyebrow and uproarious laugh leaves the competition open for a rematch.

The playful nature of the men’s enmity especially shines forth in one remarkable scene. After indulging in yet another bloody battle, the police arrest both men. As the constables transport them to jail (in tongas), Maula and Noori are joined by their goondas who break into a muqabala-e-geet (singing competition) detailing the achievements of their respective heroes. Like parties of qawwals at a wedding, the singers entertain Maula and Noori who gaze lovingly toward each other as if their rivalry is some inside joke.

A poster of Maula Jatt (1979). Courtesy Cinema and Society Film and Social Change in Pakistan, Oxford University Press Pakistan.

Inayat Hussain Bhatti’s score is another secret of Maula Jatt’s success. Taking cues from Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s classic spaghetti Western soundtracks of the 1960s, Bhatti uses haunting and spare percussion along with elongated electronic drone notes to create an eerie tension. For long passages, silence is the chief sound. The camera zooms in close or contemplates Maula’s riveting eyes. We hear nothing but perhaps a pebble or two underfoot. But when it’s time for a fight, Bhatti deploys snapping electric guitar runs and a fidgety Hammond organ to bring you to the edge of your seat.

This sort of musical manipulation was rarely heard in Punjabi films at the time. When combined with living colour (all the better to show the bright red blood) instead of the usual grainy black and white, audiences must have found themselves nearly exhausted by sensory experience.

Maula Jatt ran for over 120 weeks despite the government’s attempts to have the movie banned. Rather implausibly, considering their own mandate, the military complained that the film was too violent. However, the producer, Sarwar Bhatti, was able to use the courts to successfully stall the government’s intentions for over two years. By this time the film became a massive phenomenon. Even when, at last, the government compelled Bhatti to produce a heavily redacted version, many movie houses simply reinserted the cuts back into the reel and ignored the generals. Sadly, only censored versions are available today.

From the remove of nearly half a century, it is tempting but probably completely unfair to suggest that the violence which the Zia years unleashed upon Pakistan, and especially the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto just a few months after Maula Jatt was released, is prefigured in the film. The ultimate subtext of the film is that of the common man’s search for justice, and freedom from oppression. In the final scene, Maula laments the fatal wounding of his frenemy Noori, who lies gasping at his feet with severed limbs. He bellows onto the heavens that what Punjab needs is “Justice, not revenge!” Could the message have been the real reason for the military’s meddling?

Maula Jatt marks the beginning of the end of the Urdu family film, which had completely dominated the industry since 1947. Punjabi action films, soon followed by Pashto soft porn, became and remained the only game in town until relatively recently. But the biggest beneficiary of the Maula Jatt phenomenon was leading man Sultan Rahi. Though he hailed from an Urdu-speaking family and had been a middling star of Urdu and Punjabi films since the early ’60s, it was his performance as Maula Jatt that transformed him into the King of Punjabi and arguably Pakistani filmdom.

For the next two decades, Rahi’s name and image were synonymous with Lollywood. Though he aspired to more serious achievements and spoke in interviews of his unease with his status as ‘Mr Action’, Maula Jatt typecast him forever. In what must be one of the most poignant life stories to come out of Lollywood, Rahi was brutally murdered on January 9, 1996. While driving from Islamabad to Lahore, he was attacked by unknown assailants and left to die in the dark Punjabi night like one of the hundreds of his on-screen enemies.