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Laaj (2003) – Review



Our history, or more accurately our recent history, has an overbearing effect on us. The experience of being colonial subjects, the pain of living in the perpetual shadow of an overbearing majority and the suffering caused by the partition of the sub-continent along with what many people prefer to call a ‘religious divide’ have been pivotal in shaping our collective consciousness.

So, if somebody thinks that all these factors can be successfully played upon to make people go to the cinema, he is perhaps being too naive. For people in the business of making films firmly believe that history has always provided great fodder for cinema. No doubt it does. Remember Ben Hur, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and hundreds of other Hollywood blockbusters. Closer home, the historical romance of Noor Jehan has been the fodder of successful Bollywood filmmakers like nothing else. Lagaan, Ashoka and a couple of Bhagat Singh flicks are only the most recent additions to a seemingly never ending list of Indian movies based on history, both real or imagined.

Pakistani cinema has a comparable list to show if not in quantity than at least in the variety of historical subjects — romances, wars, anti-colonial struggles and Hindu-Muslim conflicts.

And if you want to see all these combined, go to see Laaj. The film set in the spring of 1936 moves to and fro between Bannu and Bekanare, two mutually distant parts of undivided India. It tells the story of a rich Hindu girl Ram Kori in love with a poor Muslim boy Noor Ali — this class division being another filmi favorite — set in the context of a war of independence from the British being fought in the backdrop of a simmering religious conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims.

All these themes are strong enough to evoke passion and consequently appeal for the movie. Sadly for Laaj’s writer-director Rauf Khalid this hasn’t happened. Even a casual viewing of the film shows that he has only himself to blame for the failure. First, he has tried to do too much. In a short span of three hours, he has attempted, unsuccessfully though, to prove or disprove too many theories – that Muslims are forgiving and considerate, that the British exploited Hindu-Muslim divide to strengthen their rule in India, that goras succeeded because of fifth columnists among us, that Pashtuns fiercely guarded their independence against the colonial invaders, that love knows no differences –the list can go on forever like this.

The problem this plethora of themes creates for the writer/director is an ideological confusion. The cine-goer is not sure even after watching the whole of the movie whether Rauf Khalid is supporting something or opposing it. When a Hindu girl shows her readiness to revoke her religious belief for the sake of her lover, she is quickly reminded that Islam does not favor a conversion for amorous purposes. You are not sure whether the writer/director stands for the poor girl or for the selfless pursuit of puritanical religious affinity.

In another set of contradictory ideological choices, the writer/director is caught between approving traditional Pashtun customs and opposing them for being too illiberal and inhuman. The film opens with a Pashtun girl facing the wrath of her tribe for getting abducted. The subsequent events show that our writer/director disproves it as being rather cruel. When it comes to fighting the British, however, he seems to eulogize the same Pashtunwali — customary Pashtun law — for providing people courage to defy the colonial order.

Nationalism/patriotism falls victim to a similar fate. Fakir Ippi, a controversial and little known Pashtun tribal figure, who is known to have kept fighting against local/national authority even after the foreign/colonial rulers have left makes it impossible for the audience to identify with. The movie leaves people wondering which side of this ideological battle they should take and consequently they fail to associate passionately with any of it.

In fact, the viewers expected to see many of these things in a Rauf Khalid film. He has to his credit a couple of TV serials made in defence of a staunchly Pakistani version of Kashmir issue. As if this was not enough, he opens Laaj by attributing it to late writer/director Riaz Shahid known for his historical hits like Zarqa and Gharana.

Had the movie been a faithfully correct reproduction of the events it purports to show, the audience might have tended to overlook the entire theoretical muddle. The problem is this is hardly the case with Laaj. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the movie — like most cinematic narratives — creates history retrospectively. And a retrospectively created history is selective at best and distorted at worst depending on who is behind the effort and what are their motives. If the purpose is to show that pre-partition Muslims as being the only upholders of bravery, chivalry and loyalty then all Hindus and British need be portrayed as being the embodiment of all that is quite the opposite — greed, cunningness and treachery.

Not that these historical stereotypes are the only thing wrong with the narrative. The presentation, too, is faulty. At a time when the British are shown to be using aero planes against Pashtun insurgents, the hero is made to travel 1000 miles on horseback through the most difficult terrain imaginable. Another important omission is a correct reproduction of accents — only a Rajisthani dance girl, a couple of minor Pashtun characters and the British actors are the only ones who remain faithful to their native accent, all the rest use as chaste Urdu as is possible.

And they say the director has taken pains to be faithful with details! Maybe. Because first the ruins of Cholistan’s Darawar fort are too much in the picture for the audience to believe that the action is taking place further southeast in Rajisthan and second the clothes worn by the Rajisthanis make them look more like clowns than real people. Only characters in Indian movies and real-life Rajisthanis are known to have been using dresses like the ones we see in Laaj.

The flawed details apart, even the broader scheme of the movie fails to take hold of all its ingredients. Love, freedom struggle, religion and nationalism when contained — with too much of an effort — in the story, they stretch it too thin for the hapless viewer to be able to make any sense of it all. Various events appear in the movie like clothes hanging on a washing line — that is, without any apparent link to each other.
The most tenuous of all these links is the one between love and war. Was it the former which triggered the latter or the link between the two is only accidental, you never know. The writer/director drops a couple of broad hints that it was the love affair the mishandling of which caused the Pashtuns to take up arms against the British. But does the history bear this out is the matter of a wild guess.

This may be because Rauf Khalid is motivated by a desire to outdo the established writers/directors of Pakistani cinema. A story with a single-minded focus on vulgarity or violence or both is not his cup of tea. His are lofty aims, so must be his story. Even the most ordinary of human affairs — that is the relationship between a man and a woman — must, therefore, be rendered in such a way that it edifies the viewers. But the problem is that all these aims are lost in the muddle that the movie is and the viewers are left wondering whether it has been any different from the run-of-the-mill Pakistani cinema.

On at least two other counts, the movie also gives away its Pakistani origin. First, it is a continuation of so many other Pakistani films produced in reaction to Bollywood movies allegedly made on anti-Muslim themes; second, it sizzles with all the requisite filmi masala which good movies should not — and this happens in spite of the writer/director claiming to the contrary. So you see a courtesan, a barely clad gypsy girl and a ready to reveal heroine all prancing and dancing for no apparent reason. The music and the lyrics, too, smack of following popular pattern — a Poorbi song for the courtesan, a Rajisthani number for the gypsy girl and a Pashtun tune for the hero. A case of abundance of formulas, not of their absence.

It is precisely this abundance, which leaves Rauf Khalid unable to deal with all his subjects in time for the movie to end. So it drags on, maybe unnecessarily, but even then he finds it impossible to resolve all the conflicts in it on screen. Hence a long written passage to tell what happens after the movie ends.

The movie is not without a couple of redeeming features, though. One is the outstanding performance of Talat Hussain as Fakir Ippi and the other is the rather brilliant portrayal of the war scenes. With possible exceptions of Nirma as gypsy girl and Nayyar Ejaz as the bad guy, most of the other characters — especially Imran Khan playing Noor Ali and Zara Sheikh playing Ram Kori — are unable to do justice to their roles.

Now that the public verdict on the movie is already out and most viewers appear to have rejected it by staying back, the writer/director must take note of the fact that there should at least be some difference between entertainment and ideologically motivated propaganda. While the former attracts, the latter more often than not repels. The viewers should be forgiven for desiring to be entertained not taught and sermonized.

Cast and Production Credits

Year – 2003, Genre – Drama, Country – Pakistan, Language – Urdu, Producer – N/A, Director – Rauf Khalid, Music Director – N/A, Cast – Imran Khan, Zara Sheikh, Nayyar Ejaz, Nirma, Talat Hussain

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