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The break in the script: How did Partition affect the film industry?

Partition’s effect on the film industries of the two countries was radically different. While India lost some good talent, Pakistan had to literally restart from scratch

art and culture Updated: Aug 14, 2016 10:13 IST
Karan Bali
Noor Jehan in the Pakistani film, Lakht-e-Jigar (1956), a remake of the Hindi film Vachan (1955) starring Geeta Bali.
Noor Jehan in the Pakistani film, Lakht-e-Jigar (1956), a remake of the Hindi film Vachan (1955) starring Geeta Bali.(Courtesy Omar Ali Khan)

Enough has been written about the bloody Partition of the subcontinent; of the largest known human exodus in history across the borders of West Pakistan, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and India; of the borders created in a blatantly slipshod manner by the British Government before handing back power to the ‘natives’. It was, as we all know, a Brexit that left the subcontinent in shambles.

As undivided India lost parts of itself due to religious and political divides, a vast populace, affected by the creation of the two nations, struggled to relocate itself. However, in the case of the film industry, religion was not necessarily the prime reason for many to shift base — possibly because the film industry then, particularly its capital Bombay, was truly cosmopolitan and secular in nature.

Swarnalata in Rattan (1944)

Some who chose to go to Pakistan did so out of personal sentiment or simply to go with the tide. Actor Swarnalata was one of the few artistes who saw fame and success on both sides of the border in films such as Rattan (1944) and later, Heer (1955). She recalled in an interview that the shift was actually no big deal. Once her husband, producer-director-actor Nazir, decided they would make Pakistan their home, they just did.

Read more: In Black and White: The films that left a mark in 1947

Singing star Noor Jehan, then one of Hindi cinema’s top female stars, was absolutely clear that she would go wherever the place of her birth was. When the village in question, Qasur near Lahore, found itself in Pakistan, she decided to leave India. With Noor Jehan’s exit, a formidable career in Hindi filmdom with some extremely popular films – Khandaan (1942), Village Girl (1945), Zeenat (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) Jugnu (1947) and Mirza Sahiban (1947) – came to an end.

The ‘Village Girl’ song booklet. A Noor Jehan–Nazir starrer, Gaon ki Gori was the second highest grossing film of 1945. (Courtesy upperstall.com)

Both Swarnalata and Noor Jehan were rare instances of big names within the film industry who opted for Pakistan.
Most of the others who left, particularly from the acting world, were either veterans like Ghulam Mohammed and M Ismail who had played character roles, or 1940s leading ladies like Ragini and Shamim, whose careers had begun to decline. Many Muslims who were doing well for themselves in the film world preferred to stay back in India.

There were people who made the reverse journey too. Some prominent Hindu artists who came to India from Lahore included actors Pran and Om Prakash, and filmmakers Dalsukh M Pancholi and Roop K Shorey. Interestingly, a Hindu distributor, JC Anand, preferred to stay back in Pakistan. He would go on to become one of the most successful producer-distributors across the border.

Read more: Stories of Partition: An HT and Dawn collaboration

The effect of Partition on the film industries of the two countries was radically different. Though there was loss of some admittedly good talent from India, it was pretty much business as usual in Bombay and the various film centres across the different parts of the country. The Bengali film industry did suffer in that a large chunk of its market got taken away with the formation of East Pakistan.

Some of the brilliant, talented people who left India – apart from Swarnalata and Noor Jehan – included writer Saadat Hasan Manto, filmmakers Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, WZ Ahmed and Nazir, and composers Feroz Nizami, Ghulam Haider, and later in the mid-1950s, Khwaja Khurshid Anwar.

Posters of Heer (1955), produced by JC Anand, and the poster of Chan Way (1951), whose direction is credited to Noor Jehan since her husband filmmaker Shaukat Hussain Rizvi didn’t know Punjabi. (Courtesy Omar Ali Khan)

Life in Pakistan wasn’t easy. Unlike India, Pakistan had just one major centre known for making films, Lahore. However, the city was also one of the most affected by the communal fires of 1947. The two major studios of Lahore, owned by Pancholi Art Pictures and Shorey Pictures, were razed to the ground. As a result, the Pakistani film industry had to literally restart from scratch without any proper funding or any technical infrastructure whatsoever.

With most saleable names remaining in India, Pakistan struggled to make its first film, Dawood Chand’s Teri Yaad, which released on Eid-ul-Fitr, August 7, 1948. Sadly, the film, starring Dilip Kumar’s brother, Nasir Khan, and Asha Posley, was a complete washout. It was a poor production and fared badly in comparison with the technical proficiency and relative lavishness of Hindi films, which continued to show in Pakistan post Partition.

If the Pakistan film industry finally got going from the mid-1950s onwards, it was largely due to the pioneering efforts of dedicated filmmakers like Nazir, Sibtain Fazli, Anwar Kemal Pasha and WZ Ahmed. They not only overcame tremendous obstacles to create a viable film industry by giving opportunities to new stars like Santosh Kumar, Sudhir Kumar and Sabiha Khanum, but also fought a continuous battle with the all-powerful distributor lobby to ban or at least restrict the exhibition of Hindi films. This was to help the indigenous film industry grow and flourish.

Read more: Partition pangs: A shared grief, a love that transcends borders

Ironically, when Nazir and Swarnalata did finally come out with the first-ever silver jubilee film of Pakistan, the Punjabi movie Pheray (1949), it was a remake of one of Nazir’s earlier Indian hit films, Village Girl, where he had starred opposite Noor Jehan.

With limited resources at his disposal, Nazir made Pheray at a cost of just ₹65,000 within six weeks. It is said that the popular musical score of the film by GA Chishti had the prolific composer record the film’s seven songs in a single day!

The far from ideal conditions meant that a top star like Noor Jehan had to wait till 1951 to be seen on the silver screen again. The film was the Punjabi film, Chan Way (1951), whose direction is also credited to Noor Jehan, since her husband filmmaker Shaukat Hussain Rizvi didn’t know Punjabi. Chan Way was a smash hit at the box-office. Its songs, particularly Tere mukhde da kaala kaala til way with its refrain of O mundeya Sialkotia, were equally popular on our side of the border.

And with the overwhelming success of her first Urdu film, Sibtain Fazli’s Dupetta (1952), ‘Madam’ was well and truly on her way to building a glorious career in Pakistan. First, as a popular singing star and then from 1960 onwards, as a playback singer for more than three decades.

Noor Jehan in Dupetta (1952)

Noor Jehan’s departure from India in 1947 has always raised a hypothetical question among old-timers and historians: would Lata Mangeshkar have made it as big if Noor Jehan had not left our shores? Yet others wonder if – despite all her tremendous achievements in Pakistan – it was the Mallika-e-Tarannum’s loss in the long run. Because unlike the rich variety of Indian film music with influences from across the country, Noor Jehan’s singing, great though it was, largely restricted her to Urdu ghazals and robust Punjabi songs.

The wounds caused by Partition have been difficult to heal especially in the cinematic world of the two countries. As compared to other arts especially literature, filmmakers have only sporadically explored Partition on either side of the border. This is especially true in the early years following independence.

Lahore (1949), starring Nargis and Karan Dewan and directed by ML Anand, was the earliest film that had Partition as its backdrop, while Pakistan first explored the tragedy in Masud Parvaiz’s Beli (1950). Some other important films revisiting Partition in the first decade-and-a-half since the two countries got their Independence include Saifuddin Saif’s sensitive Pakistani Punjabi film, Kartar Singh (1959), Manmohan Desai’s Raj Kapoor-Nutan starrer Chhalia (1960) and Yash Chopra’s Dharamputra (1961).

Karan Bali is a filmmaker based in Mumbai. He is also the co-founder and content-in-charge of Upperstall.com, a website on the cinema of the subcontinent