Like all walks of life, Partition affected the world of Cinema, on both sides of the border. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Lahore-born Swedish historian, and prolific author, stands as a towering authority on the history of Pakistan and India. Besides being a Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University, his scholarly contributions like “Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned & Cleansed” and “Jinnah: His Successes, Failures & Role in History” have significantly documented crucial events of Indian and Pakistani history. Shivansh Khanna got into a conversation with him regarding his latest book, “Pre-Partition Punjab’s Contribution to Indian Cinema”, exploring the impact of the Punjabi community and culture on the Indian film industry.
You have a background in political science, but you ended up writing a book on films. Can you explain how your passion for films influenced this decision?
Well, my passion has always been music and films, even though my profession involved researching and teaching political science. I always wanted to be a singer, but my father didn’t permit me to pursue it. The partition of India also had an impact on the film industry, and I wanted to explore how people from Punjab managed to establish themselves in the film industry, both in Bombay and Calcutta. The partition affected people in all sections of life, including films and music, which were close to my heart.
Your book explores the impact of partition on the film industry. How did you conduct the research specifically for this book, especially the interviews with actors?
My research for this book was a combination of interviews with actors and extensive reading on the subject. I conducted interviews with various Bollywood celebrities, such as B.R. Chopra, A.K. Hangal, and Naqsh Lyallpuri, who shared their stories and experiences related to partition and their journey to Bombay. I also met Professor Shamsul Islam, who helped me get interviews with Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt, which were invaluable for my research.
Among the interviews you conducted, which one do you consider the most interesting and memorable?
I had many interesting and memorable interviews, but the conversations with Sunil Dutt and Dilip Kumar stand out the most. Both of them wanted to talk in Punjabi and reminisce, so our interviews continued for much longer than planned, they wouldn’t let me go. I also had a personal and touching interview with Ramanand Sagar, who invited me to his home and shared stories about his life in Lahore. I met his wife and the rest of the family. I asked her what do you remember about Lahore – she said very simply – “Sada base toh woh hi hain na, Lahore (Our base will always be Lahore)”, that was very touching. I had multiple interesting interactions with Raj Babbar as well.
All the people that you’ve mentioned in this book, all the people you’ve interviewed, are legacy. Unfortunately, I think my generation is unaware of 98% of them. Isn’t that tragic?
Not legacy but heritage, which independent India created through films.
Your book emphasises the enlightened and social themes present in the films of that era, as a contribution of Pre–Partition Punjab. How do you think the film industry has evolved since then?
During the early years after partition, the film industry in Bombay and Calcutta represented the most enlightened and socially conscious sections of society. Films carried powerful social messages, addressing issues like widow remarriage, caste prejudices, and Hindu-Muslim relations. However, as time went on, various factors, including political changes, and the rise of fundamentalism, affected the film industry in Pakistan. The decline of Lahore’s film industry was evident, and the themes in films shifted towards glorifying outlaws and challenging the state.
Now, it’s all become commercial, in those times, the actors had seen the freedom struggle and the partition, therefore they carried that wisdom. Bollywood, Bombay and Calcutta are composed of the most enlightened people. The partition was a great tragedy, but the best values created by it, of being united or secular, continued in Bombay.
And one thing I would like to add, why did the Punjabis from Lahore and Peshawar come to dominate the Bombay film industry was because the British brought Urdu as the medium of instruction to Punjab, so the language of Indian Films was Hindustani, it was neither Shudh Hindi nor Shudh Urdu, but the spoken language which is still spoken all over India and Pakistan and is called Hindustani. So, they were very conversant, and they wrote in that, and that is why you find Raj Kapoor, Dilip Saheb and Balraj Sahni, all with very clear diction, they never had a problem with speaking Hindustani.
You mentioned you wanted to be a singer, but your father didn’t allow you.
Do you still sing? Your book covers Pre-Partition Punjab’s contributions to the Music Industry. Can you tell us more about your favourite songs, singers and music directors from Bollywood, including your choices other than the ones hailing from Punjab?
Yes, singing has always been close to my heart. I used to sing even better in the past, but even now people are surprised when they hear me. In fact, during this 2–3-month tour in India, I sang in many places. It’s not easy to make a list of my favourite Bollywood songs and singers since there are so many great ones. Lata Ji’s songs hold a special place in my heart, particularly her rendition of C Ramchandra’s music “Yeh zindagi usi ki hai jo kisi ka ho” and Hansraj Behl’s song “Hai Jiya Roye” in Raag Darbari. I also appreciate Rafi Ji’s songs, like “O Duniya Ke Rakhwale” and many songs from the film Didaar. Naushad’s song “Mohe bhool gaye sawariya” is also among my favourites. The songs sung by Kishore Kumar in the 70s have no comparison. Mukesh was my favourite singer, and his song “Aasun bhari hai Jeevan Ki Rahe” from the film Parvarish is among my top choices. I like singing mainly Mukesh’s songs. The point is, the pain that was there in Mukesh’s voice, nobody had it, he didn’t have to make an effort. I fondly remember Manna Dey’s song “Tera haath haath mein agaya” … Dr Ahmed continues to sing…
When it comes to my favourite music directors – Naushad in the old period and Shankar-Jaikishan in the recent period, their work is commendable and praiseworthy. I appreciate Madan Mohan also very much. I think, we by nature are extremely into music, the entire Indian subcontinent. Music and sensitivity go hand in hand. People with a passion for music tend to be kind-hearted because music touches the soul and makes one more empathetic.
When I die, the melodies of all these great singers will go with me, I want to go with this music when I die, not any religious songs or sermons.
Apart from music, you also mentioned your admiration for certain actors, film directors and films. Can you tell us about your favourites?
Raj Kapoor is number 1 for me. His film Awara, in my opinion, is the greatest film ever made in India. The quality of the film and the topic it covers of how a poor fellow can fall in love with a rich one is superb. There’s always a message in Raj Kapoor’s films. Amongst actresses, people usually like Madhubala, but I like Nargis more.
I also like the works of BR Chopra, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Ramanand Sagar.
Andaz is another favourite, though I couldn’t include it in my book. It wouldn’t have fit in with the Punjab theme because it was Mehboob’s film and he was a non-Punjabi. I like Andaz a lot as it is a model love-triangle film. After that, there are many love triangle films were made, but no one can be like Andaz.
Among the current celebrities, any actors, or actresses that you think are good?
Well, I think Amitabh Bachchan is a great actor, Anil Kapoor, I like a lot, he’s a Punjabi and Shahrukh Khan.
Are there any specific movies or cinematic works from that era that you believe deserve more recognition or acknowledgement?
I believe there are a few Raj Kapoor films that have not received the recognition they deserve. One of them is Jaagte Raho, and another is his debut film Aag. Despite addressing significant themes such as the true meaning of beauty, Aag did not garner much attention during its release, even though it was ahead of its time. Prem Rog is another Raj Kapoor film that I feel should have performed much better. In this movie, Kapoor once again challenged the feudal order, but its impact was not as significant as it deserved. Even Mera Naam Joker didn’t receive enough recognition. It appears that Raj Kapoor’s vision as a filmmaker was ahead of its time.
Apart from Raj Kapoor’s works, I believe Balraj Sahni’s Hum Log was a very bold film for its era, exploring socialist and communist themes. Such films, in my opinion, deserved far more recognition than they received, considering their impact and the courageous exploration of societal issues.
After 1947, the Indian film industry flourished, what went wrong in Pakistan’s story?
Lahore was left burning. Before the partition, most financiers of films were Hindus, because most of the money was with Hindus and Sikhs, like Hindu Khatris, Aroras and some Gujaratis. In 1947, Lahore was left bereft of capital and all the talented people had left, so it took them a few years to start films again. In 1977 when the movement against Mr. Bhutto started, the fundamentalists attacked the cinemas in Lahore and I think from that time onwards, the investment in cinemas and cinema went down. Then it couldn’t keep up with new technologies and modernisation. Islamic fundamentalism negatively affected the culture and films, prohibiting it.
The Islamic revival attacked all forms of arts, performing arts, Lahore film industry went into a decline from which it never recovered.
How do you see the representation of different cultures, like Balochistan or the North West provinces, in Pakistani cinema and media today?
While I’m not entirely well-informed about the current representation of different cultures in Pakistani cinema, I believe efforts have been made to produce films in Pashto and Sindhi languages. However, the Balochi culture is relatively underrepresented in films due to various factors, including limited resources and traditional lifestyles. Despite challenges, folk songs and cultural exchanges continue to thrive, reflecting the vibrant artistic spirit of the Indian subcontinent.
In light of the current situation in Kashmir, where there are no functioning theatres and the government is making efforts to revive the film industry, what message do you have for fellow Kashmiris in India?
My message to the Kashmiri people of India, as well as to people everywhere, is to embrace their inherent freedom as human beings. Art, culture, and cinema are powerful mediums to express the richness of Kashmiri culture and heritage. It’s essential not to succumb to narrow-minded ideologies that restrict creative expression and cultural representation. The history of Pakistan’s film industry should serve as a lesson to all of us. The imposition of rigid beliefs and extremism can lead to the destruction of artistic and cultural heritage. As free individuals, we should cherish and celebrate our cultural diversity, sharing it with the world through various creative forms, including films.
Remember, life is too short to confine ourselves within the boundaries of dogma. We should allow our creative spirit to flourish, contributing to a more diverse and harmonious society. Embrace your cultural heritage, preserve it, and use popular media like films to showcase it proudly to the world. By doing so, we not only preserve our past but also create a legacy for future generations to cherish and admire.
In conclusion, what message do you want readers, especially the younger generation, to take away from your book?
My book is a tribute to those Punjabis who were impacted by partition but continued to uphold humanist values in the film industry. I look up to them, they did not compromise on those great ideas that they imbibed during the freedom struggle. It sheds light on the inspiring legacy left by those who remained true to their ideals despite the challenges they faced. They didn’t turn bitter and turn it towards other religious communities. They continued with the ‘Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai’ sort of thinking, which I think is a great inspiration for me for writing this book. People will read it and understand how I as a youngster growing up in the late 50s and 60s, was haunted by these films, mesmerised by them. Awara, for example, I saw 25 times, for a whole week every day.
For the younger generation, I hope this book serves as a bridge connecting them to the past and allows them to rediscover the beauty and brilliance of films and music that shaped our cultural heritage. That is to connect with their past, recent past, a traumatic past and find out how beautiful things were created by these people, which are immortal. So go back and enjoy what inspired us when we were 15, 16, 17 years old. Films become a part of your personal life when you go to college, or in younger days, later on in your life, those memories stay on.