Zahoor Raja – Profile
There is something about the old guard that has wholesomeness to it. That’s not to decry the younger lot, but the old schooling taught you a lot more than what the best institutions teach you today. One of the seniors, who made a good impression on our cinema, despite relatively skimpy contribution, was Zahoor Raja, a man who was determined to experiment his way to success. And that he did, when he made one of the three horror movies of the 1960s, which are still talked about in hushed tones. He was the director of Diwana, which is still seen with awe and reverence amongst film enthusiasts, alongwith two other fascinating films, Zinda Lash and Street 77.
Zahoor Raja was a multi-dimensional person. Since the pre-Partition days, he was noticed as a man of original ideas and concepts, which he translated into reality in most of the cases. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, he remained in the frame for his fine efforts. He was a notable actor, a superb technician, and a brilliant director. Although he didn’t act as much as others of his ilk, yet his penchant for characterization made him try his hand at acting in a couple of movies. As for his technical prowess, his knowledge of processing and editing was much superior to most of the other directors of his category, who were content to leave the handling of the cumbersome technical side to the assistants and the lower hands. He would strive to learn and do the job in conjunction with his unit. That was the reason that he attempted difficult subjects and was considerably famous for his films.
Zahoor Raja began his career as the assistant to various famous Indian directors, and learned a lot due to his keenness to develop his knowledge. Money was not his main objective, art was. So, Zahoor, finally detached himself from small-time directors, in the early 1940s, and decided to make do with whatever he had learned in the late 1930s. From a young, enthusiastic technical hand, he publicized himself as the director of films. A known film company, Eastern Pictures contacted him for editing first, but seeing his all-round prowess, they signed Zahoor as the director. In 1942, their film, Badal was released, with Zahoor being the actor-director in the project; The cast of Badal was Radha Rani and Zahoor Raja doing the lead, while Urmila, Shakti, S. Nazeer, ,Jamshedjee, Radha Krishan and others did important roles. The film didn’t do well, but that wasn’t because of any basic flaw in direction of the film. Zahoor Raja was pitted against masters of the craft in 1942, whose films were awaited with great expectations. Amongst them, Deveki Bhos was a living legend, and his Apna Ghar was a social classic that was released just about the time Zahoor’s Badal was released. Then Kedar Sharma’s Arman, Rafiq Rizvi (Bapu)’s Awaz and Ramchandar Thakur’s Apna Paraya were also screened about the same juncture. This competition with the top-tier directors was really hard, and though he couldn’t earn that much from Badal, that was a priceless experience for him. Fortunately, for Zahoor, the Eastern Pictures liked what he made, and the press also appreciated his hard work. So, his publicity as a nice director in the making, provided a powerful leverage for him.
In 1943, Zahoor formed his own company, Raja Movietone, and completed a movie, Mazaq in quick time. His competitors thought that the joke would be on him, but Raja had understood the basic factor of success in the industry. He made Mazaq with a shoe-string budget and earned enough to stay afloat in the stormy waters. He had only spent money on the cast, which was a good one in those days, as Madhuri and Pahari Sanyal, who did the lead, were both popular artistes. Zahoor Raja, himself, was in the film, in an important role, and acquired his negative shades through this role. Now, things in the Street were going towards a revolution, both politically and economically, and Raja knew Muslims would be squirming in a hard place to keep in the race. So, he tried to get as much experience under his belt as possible. In 1944, he made O Panchi which had overtones of migrations in it. The film was liked for its social fabric and good songs. This gave heart to Zahoor, who made another film, Ghazal the next year, trying out a light mood this time, with Charlie and Leela Chitnis in a situational comedy, and Raja and Radha Rani in second pair. This film created ripples that made Raja a much-liked name in the market. Finally, his career was rising. In 1946, he made Dharkan, with a new cast and an arty subject. The film was liked for its technical finesse, making the above-mentioned makers notice this pugnacious young man.
Sadly, now the opposition to Muslims was increasing, and only the most influential Muslim makers were able to continue work in the industry. So, Zahoor packed his belongings and went to Lahore in 1950. Quietly, he started work on the subject of a film, Jihad, which was about the Pakistan Movement. He knew Lahore was a major film center, and professionals were already making films here. So, he laid low and took a new cast for his film. Zahoor was the leading artiste with Rufi, Zarina and Reshman in the film, which could not survive due to a small budget and lack of technical facilities in the studios. Raja was heartbroken, and went underground, so to say, biding his time and planning for the future. He began a shop and lost contact with films for a while. But, art is something you can’t divorce for a long time. Raja came back in 1961, with another ambitious historic project in August, Ghazi Bin Abbas, a film on a Muslim Mujahid. Husna and Ratan Kumar were the lead in the film, and it was a nice effort, but it didn’t earn him much. Immediately, he released his other film, in October, produced by the greatest name in the industry, Anwar Kamal Pasha, titled Gulfarosh, with Nayyar Sultana, Kamal, Meena Shori and himself, apart from Naeem Hashmi. It was, may be, Pasha Sahab’s name or Raja’s better work that Gulfarosh was liked in the circle of the arty crowd and senior critics. Good reviews made Raja continue in his effort to win more. This time, he picked a horror movie, after he had watched Street 77 with interest in 1960. Street 77 had a superior technical work, taking inspiration from the American hit, The Invisible Man. The villain in this film was a scientist, who disappears after drinking a special potion, and only his cigar travels in the air to give the hero, Habib, a private investigator in the film, some idea where the villain is traveling. The film had technical jugglery, and Raja was fascinated by the concept. So, he cooked up his own horror movie, Diwana, in 1964. In Diwana, he cast Sabiha in the role of an insomniac, while Ejaz was the hero. Deeba, Habib and Ilyas Kashmiri were the other artistes. The film had sufficient suspense and thrill, apart from technical perfection, and great tunes by Muslehuddin, to capture audience attention.
Zahoor’s good times were there now, and another of his adventurous movies, Baghi Sardar was a hit in 1966. With Mohammad Ali in great shape those days, he was the king of the industry, and the film did good business. Saloni, Adeeb and Zahoor Raja were other important stars of the film. It doesn’t make sense that Zahoor Raja just disappeared after two such successful movies. But, according to the insiders, he felt that he was not getting more takers, and was adamant that he would want to go to the foreign countries to learn more in latest film technology to make high-class movies. But, once he went to England he got into business and left his idols down memory lane – Zulqarnain Shahid