Daily Times: Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: The heartbreak world of Lahore’s studios

By A Hamid

I have spent a lot of time in Lahore’s movie studios, most of it in the early years of Pakistan. I have always been fascinated by movies. But I have also seen much heartbreak in this world of make believe and false dreams. That is what I am going to write about this week. The movie that you see on the cinema screen has a hero, a heroine, a villain and plenty of songs and dances. Apart from the two central characters, the hero and the heroine, there are many others, some of whom make no more than an appearance or two. Most of the minor players do not even having speaking parts. There are also roles written for characters that are of no relevance to the main story. One of these actors or extras, as they are called, may have no larger a role than to enter or exit a room dressed as house help or walk through the street, which is soon to be the backdrop for the hero running after the heroine, who is not only running but also singing and dancing at the same time.

There are women, both young and old, who flit across the screen a couple of times in the company of the heroine. Some of them may have no larger role than one that requires them to pick up something from one place and put it down in another. Then there are the young women who play the heroine’s sakhian or sahailian, the ones who form the chorus when she sings and gyrates her hips or whatever she has been told to gyrate. The world of these women, known as extra girls, is a sad one because they all live in the hope of stardom one day, which is what keeps them going. They have their agents who are known as extra suppliers. If the movie director needs seven girls to move behind the heroine in a dance number, he sends word down to the production manager, who “orders” seven girls from the extra supplier. If the extra supplier is paid a hundred rupees for each girl he brings, the girl he brings gets no more than one-fourth of that amount. These girls come from underprivileged backgrounds and accept whatever money they can earn.

During lunch break on the set, while the lead characters and other bigwigs get choice food, often ordered from an upmarket restaurant, the extras, both men and women, have to be content with the simple fare they are served, often from a roadside eating place. I have seen extra girls squat on the floor to eat. Many of them have brought their children with them, some of whom they are still suckling. Many bring their mothers with them or their grannies, who are not always their grannies. When the dance master, as the choreographer is called in our studios, shouts for them to come to the set, they hurriedly touch up their makeup, hand over the baby, if they are holding one, to the older women who are chaperoning them, and get ready for the big number. When the shooting for the day is over, the big stars, the director and the producer jump into their cars, which chauffeur them home. Nobody pays any attention to the extra girls. Their babies clutched to their breasts, they walk out of the studio with the elderly women who have come with them and stand at the bus stop waiting for the next one. They cannot afford easier and faster means of getting home.

A producer friend of mine, moved by the plight of these women, once decided that they should at least eat more nourishing food. He had mutton and chicken dishes ordered for them at lunchtime, instead of the watery lentil and vegetable curries that were their lot. The extras, who included men, were delighted with the food, but my friend noticed that they were polishing off the meat and leaving potatoes and the like alone. “Hey! Eat some potatoes as well,” he said to them. Quite silly of him to have said so, but that is what he said.

If a pretty girl becomes an extra, what awaits her is the rough and tumble of life. Everyone assures her that he is going to have her “discovered” and cast as a leading lady, a heroine. The term “casting couch”, which originated in Hollywood, is the norm rather than the exception in our studios. These pretty girls almost never make it. All men want out of them is one thing, which I need not spell out. Between 1948 and 1960, I spent a lot of time in the movie studios of Lahore and what I write is based on my observation and experience.

There is one extra girl I will never forget. I would keep her name to myself. She was tall and very beautiful. Every man had his eye on her. They would assure her round the clock that they were going to help her hit big time, really become a top star. In the world of movies, everyone dreams, that being the only thing which can be had free of cost. Maybe, some who promised to have her star in the next big blockbuster did believe that they were telling her the truth. It is another matter that most such dreams are destined to lie shattered in that heartless celluloid world. This splendid-looking girl would be told, “I made so and so (some famous star) the heartthrob of millions, and then that one and that one. You are the next big thing.”

She did not make it, which was a pity because she was beautiful and I am sure she had as much talent as those who had become big stars. Unluckily, she ran into a fake producer who told her that a friend of his was making a movie in London and she was going to have the lead role in it, so she should get ready to travel. She was excited and she could not believe her luck. The fake producer placed a small suitcase in her care, assuring her that it contained his friend’s personal effects that he was in need of. The suitcase was booked along with her meagre baggage, but when she arrived in London, it was the British customs police that greeted her. The box was full of heroin. She was tried and sentenced to five years. There was nobody in England to come to her aid. I am told one day she killed herself.

The world of movies is full of such shattering stories.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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