“The course of true love never did run smooth,” William Shakespeare said in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Waris Shah, the author of the eighteenth-century epic poem Heer Raanjha, would heartily agree.

The undivided Punjab produced tragic romances, including Sohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiban and Heer-Raanjha. Waris Shah, a Sufi mystic, was said to have been inspired by a true story, some say from his own life. Why would a mystic write an intense love story that he hadn’t experienced himself? The Sufi strain of Islam, like the Bhakti strain in Hinduism, strongly believes that even an ordinary human being can reach god through the path of love and devotion. This belief earned the mystics the ire of the authorities. The act of speaking to power was sublimated through passionate romances such as Heer Raanjha, in which the lovers are separated by Heer’s family and suffer deeply before dying for their love. Along the way, they never stop defying family members, the larger community and religious heads.

It takes a certain sensibility to depict such a passionate love story on the screen, and Chetan Anand, the director of Neecha Nagar (1946) and Haqeeqat (1964), proved to be the right fit. With Heer Raanjha (1970), the boy from Lahore came home.

While his younger brother Dev Anand presented in his movie Prem Pujari (1970) a sanitised Punjabi village with beautifully coiffured damsels wearing designer clothes and singing in mustard fields (surely inspiring Yash Chopra down the line), Chetan Anand’s Heer Raanjha was set in a rugged landscape and revolves around hearty village folk. SD Burman’s soundtrack for Prem Pujari was a hit but the movie itself flopped. Heer Raanjha, on the other hand, did surprisingly well. It had no fancy camerawork, no European locations and Swiss milkmaids chasing the hero down cobbled streets. The movie had popular music by Madan Mohan, a pair of lovers living ordinary lives full of hardship in rural India, and amazingly enough, dialogue that is entirely in verse.

Heer Raanjha is the only such Hindi movie, making it the Hindustani equivalent of a Shakespearean drama. This sort of writing required a special skill, and poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi rose to the occasion. He created lines not only for the leads, played by Raaj Kumar and Priya Rajvansh, but for the rest of the ensemble cast, which included Pran, Jayant, Achala Sachdev, Veena, Padma Khanna, Indrani Mukherjee, Tabassum, Jeevan, AK Hangal and Prithviraj Kapoor.

(The Urdu word ‘kaifiyat’, interestingly, refers to a narrative.)

Heer Raanjha (1970).

Azmi brought to the screenplay his idealistic worldview. In his hands, the romance was transformed into a commentary on the patriarchal norms that prevailed in eighteenth-century Punjab. Azmi’s poetry, like that of other revolutionary poets of his time, emanated resistance. His verse, like that of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, rejected rigid social values and class divides. Heer’s response to the cleric when she is asked to give her customary assent to the marriage she has been forced into is an excellent example of this defiance. At one point during a longish exchange between Heer and the cleric (Jeevan), she even calls him a snake.

Love is the enemy of religion, the cleric tells Heer. Then leave, I beg you, in the name of god, she replies.

Heer’s rebelliousness is as marked as Raanjha’s devotion to her, which leads him to embracing monkhood after Heer gets married.

May those who seek god find him, Raanjha sings, all I seek is but a glimpse of my beloved.

In this world created by Chetan Anand and Kaifi Azmi, love is the purest emotion. Despite the bitter opposition and hatred, the lovers are united in death. Would millennials accept a story of star-crossed lovers today? Judging by the response to a recent National School of Drama production Camellia, which is a cross between Heer Raanjha and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, it is evident that all the world loves a good love story, especially one with a tragic end.

Also read:

‘He always remained first class’: Shaukat Kaifi on the legendary poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi

This border that drinks blood and spits sparks’: Voices of Urdu poets on war and peace