The late documentary film maker Mushtaq Guzdar in his chronicle on Pakistan cinema noted that the cinema of Pakistan claimed distinction for itself with three factors: the number of songs Madame Noorjehan contributed; the number of stories writer Nasir Adeeb was credited with; and the number of films Sultan Rahi acted in. During his 28 years long career, Sultan acted in over 300 films and during a period in 1980’s almost monopolized Punjabi films with fellow cohorts Mustufa Qureshi and Anjuman who acted in about 80% of the punjabi films made. Madam Noor Jahan often lilted in the back ground. The chemistry between the trio virtually ruled the punjabi film scene for over a decade with absolute no competition, just as Nadeem, Shabnam and Babra Sharif ruled Urdu films. The 1980’s were actually marked by the rise of the gun-toting, law-defying ‘Sultan Rahi Phenomenon’ of punjabi films. These movies forever changed the face and timbre of Pakistani cinema.
The problem with Sultan Rahi era however, was that he dominated it absolutely. No other actor was allowed to exist while he was around; the only actresses who thrived were heroines he favored, with Anjuman heading the list with Saima, (who was rumored to be married to him,) coming a close second and Aasiya and Mumtaz appearing in his earlier films. Scripts were altered to suit him, and directors were fired if he didn’t like their vision. Critics also blame the demise of comedy in Pakistani cinema to Sultan.
Sultan didn’t understand the comedy and during his reign it gradually disappeared from Pakistani films. ‘The Tiger of Punjab’ began his career as an extra in the 50’s with mute roles, often standing still as a guard, toting a sword and a shield. These include roles in films like Baghawat, Shahi Mehal and Aadil. In the early 70’s he was noticed in the Punjabi film ‘Janj’ (literally Barat) but it was in Rangeela’s 1970’s Urdu film ‘Dil Aur Dunya’ where Sultan plays a Seraiki jailbird from Multan, that he made an impact. Real stardom came with Aslam Dar’s1974 massive hit, Basheera, where Sultan played a central role. Sikhs are still enamored of this film for it’s strong ethnic message. Sultan also made a quite impact in director M.A Rasheed’s mainstream film, ‘Rastay Ka Pathar’ (1976) with Waheed Murad and Nisho. However the film that literally rocked the nation and characterized Sultan’s persona was 1979’s ‘Maula jat’ which was released on February 11,1979 and immortalized Sultan as an icon. It was a bloody revenge saga of Maula Jat (Sultan Rahi) and Noori Nat (Mustufa Qureshi) that captured the imagination of the rural population who made up the majority of Punjabi films-goers. The movie opened in Punjab to a disastrous response and was soon shut. However Odeon cinema in Karachi decided to reshow the movie for a week. It was suddenly a huge hit and kept showing to great public demand. Perhaps the story of two warring men reflected the ire and frustration that the Pakistani populace felt towards General Zia’s April 1979 assassination of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Sultan also made some what bizarre Daliesque films such as 1980’s Hitler with Mustufa Qureshi, Anjuman, Bahar and Zamarrud. The premise of director Idrees Khan’s ridiculously kitschy film was that Hitler never died, but escaped to the Punjab heartland with an astonishingly dashing Titan like Sultan promising to battle against the forces of injustice and brutality that Hitler’s son’s regime perpetuates. Some sparks flew in the grueling scenes between Mustufa Qureshi and Sultan Rahi, but the film flopped.
The moderately successful Dum Mast Qalander with Anjuman, Sidra and Mohammed Ali was realized posthumously in 1997. One wonders what sort of roles Sultan would be offered today, if he were alive. Would he accept playing the guiding father to today’s leading action heroes, Shaan ,Moammar Rana, Babar Ali and Saud? One thinks he would still want to be a center stage, roaring his Punjabi expletives!