The impossibility of fully disentangling cinemas identified as ‘Hindi’ from those designated ‘Urdu’ presents very specific challenges to the task of situating Pakistani Urdu cinema as an object of scholarly study. Although my intention is to address cinema from Pakistan after 1947, the persistence of intimate connections between Pakistani ‘Urdu’ cinema and Indian ‘Hindi’ cinema means linguistic labels tend to obscure important aspects of mutual imbrication. As an industrial form seeking mass address, it is debatable whether it is even possible to identify cinema produced in Bombay, Lahore and other sites as recognizably ‘Hindi’ or ‘Urdu’, either before or after 1947. A broader notion of cinema from South Asia that deploys Urdu would include numerous films from the 1930s to the 1970s from a number of production centres. Even before the onset of the talkies in 1931 in colonial India, commercial cinema from Bombay (that which is commonly labeled as ‘Hindi’ cinema) had long utilized writers and poets who wrote screenplays and songs in the Urdu script or deployed rhetoric associated with Urdu, but in a register that did not seek to foreground its separateness from Hindi. The two languages may be understood as marking inflections in a greater Indian linguistic register (written in separate scripts), where the move from sameness to difference in spoken language is modulated by habit but also by deliberate choices in vocabulary and rhetoric.

At its best, this variation can provide a remarkably expressive range for writers and filmmakers. Due to the bitter history of the modern Hindi–Urdu divide, however, linguistic labels are hardly innocent markers and need to be deployed carefully, with some scholars of Indian cinema now preferring the more neutral term ‘Bombay cinema’ to ‘Hindi cinema’.1 The relation between film aesthetics and production in Bombay, Calcutta and Lahore was further complicated in the wake of the Partition of British colonial India in 1947 into the nation-states of India and Pakistan. Besides Lahore, Karachi and Dacca also emerged later as centres of Urdu film production in Pakistan, though Dacca’s Urdu productions ceased with the secession of Bangladesh after 1971.2 In Pakistani cinema, where production has been marked either by Urdu or by one of the other languages such as Punjabi, Pushto or Bengali (until 1971), one cannot avoid deploying the term ‘Urdu cinema’.

Thinking about this catachresis more productively, however, one might ask whether Pakistani Urdu cinema can ever be rendered a separate object of study from Indian ‘Hindi’ (or Bombay) cinema? I argue that the signifier ‘Urdu cinema’ also offers critical possibilities in asking a new set of questions relating to film production in the larger North Indian linguistic register that includes both ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ cinema, beyond nation-state frameworks. Is it more useful to think of these cinemas as continuing to contribute to an expanded field, in which political rupture also paradoxically engendered doubling, repetition and parasitism? Can the cinemas of Bombay, Calcutta, Lahore, Karachi and Dacca in this greater field be viewed as torn fragments of a larger palimpsest?

Of course any such placement of these diverse contexts of production within a single framework must account for the massive imbalance between the highly sophisticated global juggernaut that is Bombay cinema and the relatively modest scale of Pakistani production. Scholarship on Indian cinema has omitted the study of production in Pakistan after 1947, even though many Pakistani directors, actors and writers had formative career experiences in Bombay. While one might adequately study Bombay cinema without accounting for Pakistani cinema, the reverse is not tenable. Nevertheless, one can argue that the ‘view from the margins’ provided by studying Pakistani Urdu cinema can illuminate other fragments of this torn palimpsest, but without any illusion of rendering it whole.

Scholarship on Indian cinema has correctly stressed the ascendancy of the social film during the 1940s and 1950s, but recent work has also argued that other modes that foregrounded spectacle and ‘cinema of attractions’ genres continued to be deployed independently, or as subcodes in the social film. In terms of literary antecedents, early modern and nineteenth-century narratives and theatrical forms (epic oral legends such as dastans, poetic forms such as the lyric ghazal and the longer masnavi, and imaginative ‘historical’ themes in Parsi theatre) continued to be translated to cinema well into the 1950s. In both India and Pakistan these have included Orientalist fantasies based on Arabian Nights and similar legends, and historical films that imaginatively interpreted Mughal, Rajput and Maratha historical narratives.3

This essay examines only one of these literary genealogies, focusing on an example that demonstrates the transfer of precinematic narrative and theatrical modes into the ascendant social melodrama film during the 1950s. Given the paucity of work on cinema from Pakistan, the absence of an official archive, and the terrible quality of the limited material on VCD and DVD available from informal markets and on YouTube, the analysis offered here is not meant to be definitive. My case study focuses on the Urdu commercial feature film Zehr-e Ishq/Poison of Love (1958). Produced in Lahore a decade after the 1947 Partition, the film brought together a number of experienced writers, composers and actors, many of whom had been players in Bombay cinema. Khwaja Khursheed Anwar (1912–84), who contributed the music, story and screenplay, had worked during the 1940s and early 1950s as a music director in India and continued this career in Pakistan. He is considered one of the most sophisticated music directors of Pakistani cinema, while also working as a writer, director and producer. Director Masood Pervez also directed other important Pakistani films in collaboration with Anwar, including Intizar (1956), Koel (1959) and Heer Ranjha (1970). Zehr-e Ishq’s lyrics were written by noted Urdu poet Qateel Shifai and the dialogue was provided by the famous playwright Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj (1900–70). Taj has played a key role in the revival of Mughal ‘historicals’ in Indian cinema. He had originally written the stage play Anarkali (1922), which ignited the phenomenon of Anarkali revivalism that spanned decades.4 Taj himself later adapted the play as a cinema screenplay, which served as the basis for a number of films in India, culminating in Mughal-e Azam (1960), one of Bombay’s most celebrated films. As an Urdu playwright, Taj can be viewed as a successor to Agha Hashar Kashmiri (1879–1935), a most important playwright of Parsi theatre during the early twentieth century. A significant genre of silent and early sound cinema relayed the presentation of spectacle, frontal orientation and declamatory Urdu rhetoric characteristic of Parsi theatre into cinema as late as the 1950s.5

The title and theme of Zehr-e Ishq is most likely drawn from a long erotic poem of the same name, written in Urdu by Mirza Shauq in masnavi form, published in 1869 by Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow, and in many subsequent editions.6 Unlike the condensed abstract subjectivity of the lyric ghazal poetic form, the 1869 masnavi’s characters are drawn with evidentiary detail, focusing on the destructive travails of obsessive love. It shares with the Anarkali legend and other ‘Oriental’ stories the trope of an all-consuming passion that threatens to overturn dominant conservative morality, but also serves as a mystical Sufi allegory for seeking the divine. The poem Zehr-e Ishq’s narrative form is radically dissimilar to modern western narratives, with none of their standard tropes of rising action, climax, denouement or resolution, for instance. However, while Anarkali’s mythos can reside safely in the temporal frame of the vanished Mughal Empire, the 1958 Zehr-e Ishq film, as it is not based on the nineteenth-century mise-en-scene of the masnavi, presents challenges in translating the obsessive mood of the poem into a social film that seeks to address the bourgeois morality of the mid twentieth century.

During the 1950s, Pakistan produced Urdu films in a variety of genres and registers. While the social film achieved dominance during that period (in parallel with developments in Bombay), other genres persisted, including two releases in 1957 of films based on Orientalist Arab legends, Ishq-e Laila and Laila Majnu. In contrast to these productions, Zehr-e Ishq significantly locates an emergent bourgeois moral universe adjacent to, and paradoxically coeval with, ahistorical primitivism. Relaying the mood of destructive love in the Zehr-e Ishq poem into a cinematic ‘social’ form presents problems of mode and genre that the 1958 film grapples with, but ultimately cannot resolve.

The film is bifurcated spatially and by character type into two semiotic universes. The first is the world of Jameel, his mother Begum Sahiba, and his self-negating cousin Salma, who live in modern houses, drive cars, and dress and act according to upper middle-class rules of respectability. Their world exists in stark contrast to that of the nagan (snake charmer) tribe, which is suspended in ahistorical primitivism and in a jungle environment that is adjacent to the Begum Sahiba’s isolated bungalow. The arty Jameel is a singularly irresolute character, in direct contrast with the iron will of the two central female figures in the film, the Begum Sahiba and Sanwali, daughter of the nagan tribe’s chief.

The opening sequences are austere, with no ambient sound. The establishing shots track the imposing figure of the Begum Sahiba, dressed in a sari and with a cane, outside her colonial-era home. She walks towards her car, whose door is opened by an attentive and uniformed chauffeur. After pausing near the car, she walks up a slope to Jameel’s art studio, where he is seen through the large window painting at an easel. The next scene shows a reverse-shot from inside the studio, in which the looming figure of the Begum Sahiba is bracketed between Jameel and the easel bearing Sanwali’s portrait, prefiguring the insurmountable impediment that bourgeois respectability (embodied by Begum Sahiba) will pose to the impossible love between Jameel and Sanwali. In the next shot we see Jameel walking across the studio, then kneeling over a painting of a white bear that has been jarringly defaced with a black palm print – an index of Sanwali’s primitivism that repudiates bourgeois artistic forms. As Jameel kisses the palm print, he is startled to hear Begum Sahiba’s taunt, ‘diwana’ (crazed, obsessed). The word constitutes the first dialogue in the film, contributing to the premonition of the establishing sequence, of an oppressive and impossible antagonism between an unyielding bourgeois morality and a trenchant primeval lifeforce.

The film begins with Sanwali already obsessively in love with Jameel, whom she meets either in his studio or in a nonspecific location somewhere between the bungalow and the nagan habitat. Sanwali’s possessive love leads her to destroy everything that gets in its way, demonstrated early on when she dramatically flings Jameel’s pet dog over a cliff to its death. Even though Sanwali had originally given the pet to Jameel as a love-token, she now fears that it is diverting his attention from her. Both Jameel and Sanwali are initially compelled by their families to marry other people: Jameel weds Salma and they have a child, but he remains tormented by his memories of Sanwali; she, meanwhile, is imprisoned by her father and forcibly married to a man from another nagan tribe, far away in the desolate snowy mountains. The determined Sanwali soon escapes and runs back to Jameel. Upon her return, Salma also decides to flee, but her face is badly burnt in a car accident. Salma arranges with her loyal secretary to have herself declared dead, though she continues to go in disguise to the playground to see her child, now in Begum Sahiba’s care.

Jameel marries Sanwali, but they cannot conceive the child that Sanwali desperately craves, so she decides to claim custody of Salma’s child. In desperation she engages in verbal and physical confrontation with Begum Sahiba, which leads to the latter’s death. This sequence opens with a medium closeup shot of an imposing fireplace that partially includes Begum Sahiba seated in a nearby armchair. The camera moves back to a medium long frame attended by the noise of howling wind, whose source is shown in the subsequent shot to be an open window with flapping curtains. The next shot depicts the closed door of the living room from the inside, upon which the fireplace casts a sinister play of light. As Begum Sahiba gets up to check the door, Sanwali sneaks in from the open window and first requests, then threatens, to forcibly take custody of the child. Begum Sahiba loudly refuses and moves to strangle Sanwali; their ensuing brawl is edited as shot/reverse-shot, accompanied by a dramatic score and intercut with an image of the turbulent curtains. As Sanwali screams and escapes, Begum Sahiba falls to the floor and her struggle to rise is depicted in an extended shot. This frame is composed with Begum Sahiba sprawled low in the foreground against the massive symmetrical mise-en-scene of the formal living room, replete with polished floors, grand fireplace and framed art but devoid of any other person. The fire begins to die in the next shot, suggesting that this well-appointed bourgeois interior is nevertheless a sterile chamber, in which life struggles to continue.

Sanwali adopts Salma’s child, but when she discovers that Salma is still alive, and may return to claim her former life with Jameel, she attempts to kill the child with ruthless and shocking amorality. First she plays a game of blind man’s buff with the blindfolded child near the edge of a cliff, and then she hatches a poisoning scheme, concocted with the help of a witch from the nagan tribe. The hapless Jameel finally realizes that things are getting out of hand, yet he remains paralyzed. At the film’s denouement, in her one and only display of moral propriety, Sanwali commits suicide by drinking the poison she intended for the child. In the closing shot Jameel weeps over Sanwali’s grave as Salma appears on the horizon, gesturing towards a formulaic narrative resolution of the nuclear family unit. But the film is so bleak, and so much destruction has been wrought, that this bourgeois moral victory is plainly hollow and pyrrhic.

Clearly the 1958 film is not directly based on the 1869 masnavi, but it retains the same obsession with socially catastrophic and doomed love. The film is heterogeneous and composite in terms of genre, and the mood of unease and foreboding is maintained throughout by effective editing and shot composition. The interiors of the bungalow are claustrophobic, yet equally the outside offers no sense of freedom or escape. Camera movement is considerably restricted in normal narrative but more pronounced in the song sequences. Anwar’s musical compositions further accentuate the nagan aural register and contribute to the uncanny environment. For example, early in the film the Begum Sahiba fails in her attempt to make Jameel permanently leave the bungalow, as Sanwali patrols the outside and blocks all the exits for the car that is laden with luggage. This is shown in the song sequence Jaane Na Doongi (‘I Won’t Let You Leave’). Dressed in tribal costume and adorned in jewellery, Sanwali is first shot from a low camera angle that enhances her stature, as she sings and makes mocking gestures with her arms that veer uncomfortably between the playful and the accusatory. In the next shots she approaches Jameel, making defiant gestures with her hands and chest, then dances around him in circular movements that resonate with the disturbing lyric ‘I’ll remain wrapped around you like a baboola’ (whirlwind), evoking a possessive love that is inseparable from destructive primordial forces. Jameel characteristically remains helpless and passive throughout this song sequence. Indeed, the film is striking for its lack of a strong masculine figure: Salma’s father shamefully commits suicide at the beginning of the film due to debt, while Jameel’s father is not even mentioned; Jameel himself, although always cognizant of bourgeois morality, is singularly worthless in upholding it, even as he repeatedly witnesses at first hand the outrageous amorality of Sanwali.

In its bifurcated spatiality and dual life-worlds, the film Zehr-e Ishq offers a good case for semiotic analysis. For example, the flourishing of normal human life is placed in binary opposition to art, pets and dolls, which function as creepy substitutes for the natural human fertility denied to Sanwali (figure 1). The name Sanwali, meaning dark or dusky, evokes the primitivism of the nagan tribe, in contrast with the names Jameel or Salma – handsome and wholesome respectively – which can both be associated with the ashraf (respectable) values of the Muslim elites of South Asia. Even primitivism has to be semiotically coded for a Pakistani audience that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar with the complex symbolic role of snakes and serpents in various Hindu myths – members of nagan tribes wear recognizably tribal clothes and jewellery, or garments that resemble uniforms adorned with snake logos in order to properly denote ‘naganness’ (figure 2). Zehr-e Ishq is thus a composite film that juxtaposes codes of the ‘cinema of attractions’, in this case the lures of serpent primitivism, with the psychological depth of character of the the ‘social film’.

Fig. 1

The doll as child substitute, in Zehr-e Ishq/Poison of Love (Masood Pervez, 1958).

Fig. 1

The doll as child substitute, in Zehr-e Ishq/Poison of Love (Masood Pervez, 1958).

Fig. 2

The snake logo denoting tribal primitivism, in Zehr-e Ishq.

Fig. 2

The snake logo denoting tribal primitivism, in Zehr-e Ishq.

Sanwali’s barrenness and her eventual death mark the inevitable receding of primitivism in the face of modernity, while middle-class bourgeois respectability, unmarked by ethnicity, folklore or primitivism, achieves at least formal consolidation. This is a more or less essential ideological requirement of the mid-century social genre film, as Ravi Vasudevan has noted: ‘there is a strong tendency to subordinate movement and vision toward a stable organization of meaning […] this feature brings the complexities of the popular cultural form into alignment with a certain normalizing discourse and hegemonic closure.’ But the triumph of middle-class morality in Zehr-e Ishq comes at the cost of the death or permanent damage to all its agents, and Vasudevan’s observation of the social film, in which ‘the narrative reorganizes the family so as to secure a stable position for the middle-class hero’, is barely fulfilled by the hapless Jameel.7 If the era of middle-class respectability is to rest so precariously on such a slender reed, one wonders how its consolidation can ever be secured?

In its genealogical unfolding, the Pakistani Urdu social film of the 1950s can undoubtedly be considered as a specific subgenre within the Hindi/Urdu world of Bombay–Lahore film, and can therefore be situated in the universe inhabited by the cinematic codes of Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt productions, for example. However, Zehr-e Ishq demonstrates that there are particular ways in which ‘Urdu’ is being deployed in Pakistan to mark bourgeois life-worlds, placed in opposition to Indic myths that the aftermath of Partition began to render as ‘other’. Yet these bourgeois lives are not ‘local’ in an unproblematic sense, for the rural vernacular in early Pakistani society was emphatically not based on high Urdu. The film might therefore serve as an allegory of the psychic costs of Pakistani nationalism a decade after Partition, in which the pursuit of respectability and modernity is an ongoing project that can be realized only by continually excising intimate Indic and local life-worlds, encapsulated here by the primeval force of nagan primitivism. But its faultlines also suggest that the project of bourgeois modernity in this era could not confidently progress without evoking haunting reminders of earlier and local narrative and expressive genres in orality, poetry, theatre and early cinema.

1 Ira Bhasar and Richard Allen, Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema (New Delhi: Tulika, 2009). The label of ‘Hindustani’ is also used by some critics to characterize the language of Bombay cinema.
2 A useful survey of Pakistani cinema can be found in Mushtaq Gazdar, Pakistan Cinema, 1947–1997 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2007).
3 On the persistence of Orientalist genres, see Rosie Thomas, Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2014). On the historical film, see Urvi Mukhopadhyay, The ‘Medieval’ in Film: Representing a Contested Time on the Indian Screen (1920s–1960s) (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2014). Valentina Vitali has noted that ‘From the late 1940s, action films more or less disappeared as a distinct genre’, in Hindi Action Cinema: Industries, Narratives, Bodies (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 119.
4 Alain Desoulieres, ‘Historical fiction and style: the case of Anarkali’, Annual of Urdu Studies, vol. 22 (1997), pp. 67–98.
5 See, for example, the Bombay film Mirza Ghalib (1954).
6 For an English translation with notes, see Mirza Shauq, Zahr-i-ishq, or, Poison of Love: A Love Narrative from Awadh, trans. Shah Abdus Salam, et al. (Delhi: D. K. Publications, 1982). Zehr-e Ishq was also the title of an Urdu theatre play by Ahsan Lakhnawi, performed in Lucknow in 1897. See Abdul Alim Nami, Urdu Theater: Volume III (Karachi: Anjuman-i Taraqqi-i Urdu, 1962), p. 193.
7 Ravi Vasudevan, ‘Shifting codes, dissolving identities: the Hindi social film of the 1950s as popular culture’, in Vasudevan (ed.), Making Meaning in Indian Cinema (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 114.