Daily Times: Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Before Lahore Became Lollywood

The Lahore movie world of the 1950s had some colourful characters. None of them is now around, gone like those times and that world. Lahore was still Lahore, not Lollywood. The first character who comes to mind was called Malta. When I first saw him, he was quite young. He would talk in a low voice and there was always a smile on his face. He dressed carefully and favoured combinations – a jacket and trousers. He would meet everyone with exaggerated but quite genuine humility. If he were asked to sit down, he would oblige and if someone told him to take a walk, he would take a walk. As far as I know, he came from Bihar. His passion for movies had brought him here. Such people generally get attached to a film unit and become odd job men, fetching tea for this one and a pack of cigarettes for that one. When scolded, they do not react and even if someone uses harsh words with them, they respond with a smile and a shrug of their shoulders. They bear all that in the hope that one day, they would be asked to play a bit part, even if it should have no speaking lines. If they are asked to walk in front of the camera and become part of the scene being shot, their joy knows no bounds.

Malta was not attached to any particular film unit but he was happy to run errands for anyone and everyone. He would greet visitor nicely and stand quietly in a corner with his back to the wall. He wasn’t treated well. Sometimes, he would be told, “Why are you hanging out here?” Malta would smile self-effacingly and reply, “Sir, I merely came to say hello.” “Good, but get going now.” And Malta would bend low at the waist and leave the room. Once or twice I saw Malta being “shot” in a scene pouring water into the hero’s glass or walking through a street. No bigger role ever came to him, but he stayed. His love for the movies was like an infection that does not go, and, frankly, he was fit for no other occupation. He would often be the butt of jokes, even reprimands but he never minded. He would just smile. He grew old practically in front of our eyes, as it were, and before his time. One began to spot him less and less. One day, I was sitting in the office of a movie magazine when someone said that Malta had died. And I said to myself: but he had been dying a little every day doing the rounds of movie studios and producers’ offices. I am sure when death came to him, Malta must have smiled affably, bowed and begun walking behind the man with the scythe.

Another person I remember was Baba Qalandar. I don’t know what his name was but that was what everyone called him. He was the third assistant of a director for whom I was writing a story. He had come from Rawalpindi, secure in the belief that he would become a great film director. But his assessment of his talents was not in consonance with what they actually were. He could very well have stayed on in Rawalpindi, got himself a job and raised a family, but the movie bug had bitten him, and bitten him hard. He would say, while framing a shot with the fingers of both hands, “All that’s needed is a chance and I will make a movie that would become the wonder of its times.” His conversation was peppered with movie terminology. For example, “When I dissolved from here and was walking through the bazaar in Rawalpindi, I saw the same man again. I cut immediately and turned into a side street. After giving it a time lapse, I went home and there was this man again, knocking at my door.” At this point, someone would say, “Baba Qalandar, wind up this scene.” A third assistant made very little and Baba Qalandar must have been half-starved much of the time; but he had great self-respect and would never ask for help. When he had first arrived, his hair was black, but over the years they had turned grey. His film unit had also broken up, but no other unit would have him because he neither had education, nor much technical knowledge. His end was no different from that of Malta. The world of movies is full of such tragedies.

Another great figure was that of Baba Alam Syahposh, though he is now quite forgotten. He was a lyricist who had written the great hit song in the movie Dulla Bhatti: Vasta yi Rub da toon javeen vai kabootra/Chitthi meray dhol noon puchaveen vai kabootra. He had acquired his name because he used to wear black. He was always very nice to me. He lived a contented life with his wife and children in a small house off Ferozepur Road. He would line his large eyes with antimony and when you shook hands with him, you felt as if you had touched a cat that had been warming itself over a clay oven. He was from Ambala from where he had moved to Sialkot and then to Lahore. He had led a life full of romance and adventure, he once told me.

The canal that ran in front of the Punjab Art Studio, the city’s only movie-making facility, remained utterly dry in winter though summer would bring some water. There was hardly any traffic on Ferozepur Road in those days. Gulberg and the residential colonies that you see today around the canal had yet to be built. Garden Town was no more than a few quarters with yellow walls, lying across the fields. Model Town had few residents, since most of them had gone across to India. I would often come to see Saifuddin Saif and if he wasn’t there, I would look for the great actor, Ajmal, and the two of us would go to a straw-roofed roadside tea place that had a few wooden benches and tables. Everyone called it the Phoons Hotel. Where it used to stand, you now see high-rises. Today, crossing Ferozepur Road on foot means risking life and limb. I think of the Lahore of those days. What a calm and peaceful city it was! On Ferozepur Road the only buses we would see would be the ones that carried people to Model Town or Kasur. No wagons, no scooters, no rickshaws. What I wouldn’t give to bring back the Lahore of the early 1950s!

A Hamid, distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, will be contributing a column based on his memories every week. Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan


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