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Larki Punjaban (2003)

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Saima and Shamyl Khan in Larki Punjaban (2003)

Larki Punjaban, the biggest Pakistani film ever attempted, courted controversy from the very beginning. It was rumoured to be co-directed by the Indian director Shashilal Nair. It was released in London before it was released in Pakistan and Syed Noor was heard swearing by its success. It elicited protests from Sikh activists who claimed that the movie was an attempt to brainwash the youth into having inter-religious relationships and called for a boycott of the film. Then, Noor was also quoted as saying that he would be able to get permission to show the movie from India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry within six months. Now all this is enough controversy to qualify as hot air — especially when we are dealing with Lollywood. After this hyped up turkey, the Pakistani film industry is beyond redemption.

That Larki Punjaban disappoints is an understatement. I saw it at Nishat Cinema, Karachi with a handfull of people and a few (of the few that were there) walked out half way. The most entertaining aspect of this cinematic experience was a gang of boys who kept on passing lewd comments and laughing raucously throughout; driven undoubtedly by an urgent need to get their money’s worth. If this is the response our industry’s biggest film gets on its home turf, then Lollywood has a lot to worry about. But then again, like the Jatts they are so fond of portraying, nothing so irks them that a shouting match can’t cure.

They are a bunch, with not just limited resources, but a limited vision to boot. Larki Punjaban, an action packed love story with religious overtones, is directed by Syed Noor, written by Rukhsana Noor (Syed Noor’s wife), stars Saima (Syed Noor’s alleged mistress) and gives us a new hero Shamyl Khan (Syed Noor’s nephew). If that is not an exercise in nepotism, what is?

Saima as a nubile Sikh girl in the first flush of love, requires an impossible stretch of imagination. Saima, a fabulous actress otherwise, does not fit the character and one would expect a seasoned director like Syed Noor to realize that. But casting Saima in every venture has become his pet peeve. Umpteen Syed Noor films have her in the starring role. Sometimes it works (Daku Rani) but here it doesn’t. If he wants to do her any further favors, he should write a role that suits her age, but then again, that would be too much of a risk. And Lollywood doesn’t risk anything. So what if that is the reason that it has become a festering pool of mediocrity?

Larki Punjaban, despite proclaiming to be a film with a difference, is standard Lollywood fare. It is shot in Lahore and Manila and according to Afzal Khan, the head of Paragon Entertainment Group, which has produced it, the notorious Shashilal Nair has also shot portions of it in India. Here it should be noted that apart from being heavily embroiled in litigation with the likes of Manisha Koirala, Nair is persona non grata in Bollywood. Also in Pakistan Nair’s name is nowhere in the credits and no portion of the film look like it has been shot in India. There is a lot of Kuala Lumpur though; shot after shot of sky scrapers and a dragon dance that serve as a visual vacation for Pakistanis who can’t afford a plane ticket.

Our directors seem to be under the misconception that shooting on foreign shores is enough to resuscitate the film industry. Javed Sheikh shot Yeh Dil Aapka Hua in Spain. Shehzad Gul took Chalo Ishq Larain to Dubai. Syed Noor’s last utterly forgettable release Commando is set in the Philippines and now the second half of Larki Punjaban takes us to Manila. Of course, they don’t have the ways, means or mindset to do what Karan Johar did with Kal Ho Naa Ho, that is take his cast to New York and shoot a typical Bollywood film in the heart of the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But then again that is expecting too much. If Syed Noor had paid enough attention to the script instead of ‘exotic’ locations, Larki Punjaban might have been a better film.

Instead, it is one big ball of confusion. It is ‘a Shashilal Nair film’ directed by Syed Noor. It is a Punjabi romance that reaches it’s climax in Manila. It is Saima’s hundredth (approximate figure) film and Shamyl Khan’s first. And though it is supposed to promote inter-communal harmony, it turns into a murky diatribe about how Hindus are trying to drive a wedge between Sikhs and Muslims. The effort that was Larki Punjaban seems to have been doomed from the word go.

Two long lost friends (Begums Bahar and Naghma) part ways at Partition and some fifty years later get together by phone. The Sikh friend comes with a troop of Sikhs in tow. All the men are stereotypical Sardarjis with ultra bright turbans and very fake beards. Amongst them are her niece Preetam (Saima) and her possessive fiance Babar Ali. They all live at a haveli in Lahore where love blossoms between Preetam and Shamyl, a Pakistani lad. From the very beginning, the film is loud and obnoxious like any Lollywood production. But it is when Larki Punjaban goes into the intricacies of the inter-religious romance that it really falls flat on its face.

Preetam knows that there will be hell to pay for loving a Muslim boy so she decides to walk away. Shamyl doesn’t realize this; love has put blinkers on his eyes. So he confronts her in the woods asks her to proclaim her love for him. It starts raining and as a black bra peaks blatantly from under Saima’s white mulmul kurta, he grabs hold of a cobra which has miraculously crossed their path and threatens to poison himself. Saima walks by, the snake strikes and Shamyl (or Shamla as she calls him) goes into the deep sleep of unrequited love, only to awaken when she sets eyes on him again. From this moment on, things proceed from bad to worse.

A Sikh sees the two romancing. To get his back on Shamla, he tries to have his way with Shamla’s unsuspecting sister, only to be stopped by his father who chops off his molesting hand with an axe, wraps it in a cloth, lays it at the feet of Shamla’s father asks him for forgiveness. When the one handed son reveals that honour was behind his attempted rape, the Sardarjis want Shamla’s hand too. At which point a character straight out of Maula Jatt steps in and delivers a monologue about the necessity of humanity and the teachings of Islam. The Sardarjis see sense and head back to Chandigarh with an unwilling Preetam in tow pining for Shamla who has been locked in a room.

He manages to call her in Chandigarh, and as soon as her father discovers it, he attacks her with a sword. Her mother comes in the middle, so he hacks her neck instead, wounding her mortally, but not quite fatally. The lady has to live to the very end to reveal that Preetam is actually a Muslim girl she adopted from the hospital after giving birth to a still-born child!

This was probably the change made in the story when Sikhs objected to the inter-religious romance. Noor was so nervous about the film that he showed it to the Sikh community in London, whom this film is targeted towards. It’s a clever move that fails because Larki Punjaban shows Sikhs to be violent bunch of axe happy ruffians. However, it gives them meaty roles.

Indeed, the film revolves around Sikhs in the way that mainstream Hindi films never do. Sikhs are given side roles like the adorable little boy constantly counting stars in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Larki Punjaban gives them important roles but fails to etch them out, making them look like a bunch of village idiots.

Syed Noor saves one of the most ludicrous scenes for the very end. It takes place in a park in Manila when Shamla gets up on a rock and invokes the will of God Almighty to determine his and Preetam’s face. The skies thunder down as if in approval and when he throws a coin up to determine the will of God, you can sense that the heavens will want Preetam and Shamla to be together. Shamla wins the toss and Preetam is grateful that she has lost.

Now all that is left is to demonize Hindus and show them up for the conniving cowards that they are. Cut to a Hindu in a temple and a Brahmin telling him to kill the two lovebirds to create discord between Sikhs and Muslims. They cross Saima’s path as she heads up to the masjid for her nikah and her father steps in to save the day and her conversion by telling her that she is Muslim already. The Hindus attack him and in steps a horde of unlikely looking Pathans to fight alongside fellow Pakistani Shamyl.

If Punjabis had a bone to pick with Abrar over Nach Punjaban, then Noor should be publicly denounced for this. The icing on this very stale cake of romance, religion, blood and gore are Noor’s statements that Larki Punjaban was doing better business in London than Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Such statements are, like the films that they churn out, a lot of bluster.

After the visit of Urmila Matondkar and Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt, the Urdu press was rife with reports of reactions of various film personalities. They all insist that we don’t need anything from India, that our technicians, and indeed, our films are as good as theirs. Talk about living in a fool’s paradise. They would have us believe that all is well in Lollywood when it is painfully obvious that it is just the opposite. It is this head in the sand attitude that is contributing to the closing of cinemas and a reduction in the number of films being made in Pakistan every year.

Critics have often been accused of being too harsh on the Pakistan film industry. It is as if there is a conspiracy within the country to run Pakistani films down. They would have us believe that we should like the rubbish they come up with out of patriotism. If Larki Punjaban is patriotic, then Lollywood had better rethink the way it is serving the country.

These days, Lollywood wallahs are more aggressive against India than the Pakistan army is. And to top it all, it copies the very industry it vilifies but refuses to acknowledge that they can get technical support from across the border.

Lollywood is trying so hard to emulate the formula that Bollywood has perfected. It seems that its films rant and rave because they know they can’t come up to scratch. They try and make up for the lack of a story by excessive emotion. They cover up their lack of awareness by endless blood baths. Red is the most eye catching color so they spill lots of blood. They can’t outdo Bollywood, so they bash Hindus instead.

They can’t make a film on the Pakistani perspective of Kargil so they fit the conflict into the last half hour of Larki Punjaban, a film that should really have been called Aurat Punjaban.

Fear kills the mind, therefore Lollywood is dead – Muniba Kamal

Cast and Production Credits

Year – 2003, Genre – Drama, Country – Pakistan, Language – Urdu, Producer – Afzal M. Khan, Director – Syed Noor, Music Director – Zain, Cast – Saima, Shamyl Khan, Babar Ali, Rashid Mahmood, Rasheed Naz, Tariq Shah, Azhar Rangeela, Bahar Begum, Naghma Begum and Habib

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