Art is seen differently by different people, including critics, artists, and viewers, not always mutually exclusive. It always tells us something about its time, creator and society. It is Pakistan’s misfortune that its popular cinema, despite being one of the country’s largest industries in the 1970s and perhaps even ’80s, has never been taught as a Humanities’ subject.
The French New Wave emerged by primarily criticising their own cinema which Godard and the other four called le cinema de papa. Hence a new, complicated cinematic feminism arrived, though still crafted by male directors willing to engage with current sexual politics, personal space, and female agency.
Aina (1977), directed by Nazrul Islam, too, arrived at an important juncture in Pakistan’s political history, as the country’s democratically elected, still popular prime minister was toppled. A little bit has been written about another landmark of Pakistani cinema, Maula Jat, which, like Aina, refused to die as it captured the collective frustration and anger of a nation. The Punjabi classic was released the year Bhutto was hanged. Maula Jat, however, was mainly expressed in a male chauvinist grammar. Analysed closely, its reception can be read as a textual and cinematic extension of Aina as a grave cultural shift took place between 1977 to 1979. Aina, instead, negotiates a feminine, perhaps even feminist, grammar.
It also deals with the emerging urban sensibility regarding markers of modernity, gender roles, and class tensions, resulting from Pakistani society’s progression from military rule to civilian government, clash of older and newer versions of patriarchy, keeping feminism under control, and class consciousness.
Aina may not be the only film that attempts that but it is the finest — within the constraints of the Pakistani filmmaking standards at the time — that ran for over 400 weeks.
On the surface, it is a simple story: two people from different socio-economic classes, falling in love, rebelling against parental tyranny, failing temporarily, and eventually succeeding. But it offers a more complex layer. It opens with Rita (her real name is Najma, played by Shabnam) arriving drunk in her sports model car at a hotel to rent a room for one night. Her car comes to a halt, knocking off a ‘No Parking’ sign (alerting the viewer that the movie is about women challenging rules and norms imposed by men). Next, as Rita negotiates the rental with the reception clerk, there’s an uncanny absence of moral judgment despite the light-hearted banter. True, Rita belongs to an upper crust and this sort of behaviour may not be acceptable if she were from a lower class.
Nazrul Islam is aware of entrenched patriarchal anxieties; he shows it by explaining that Rita had a cruel joke played upon her by friends who added liquor to her coke. The fact that the audience doesn’t view her in a negative light is pure directorial genius.
The choice of wardrobe is also remarkable. Rita’s longish dress is blue (read: feminine) and Iqbal, played by Nadeem, is wearing red (read: masculine); yet he’s wearing a blue tie (read: phallic but feminised). When Iqbal tells her that she needs help to get to the room, it signals the newer kind of patriarchy, gentler perhaps, less moralistic. The next scene is full of serious implications. As soon as Iqbal leaves, Rita takes off her clothes and, entering the bathtub, lets the water run to the point that it floods the bedroom. Iqbal encounters her conked out, naked, in the bathtub; he lugs Rita’s body to bed, wading through the waters unleashed by her powerful sexuality.
Sobered up, embarrassed but not ashamed, Rita thanks Iqbal for his generosity and professionalism. She hands him her business card which he rips into pieces as she leaves. She drives the car in reverse and confronts him; she had witnessed his act through the side mirror, hence the title Aina, offering a reflection of patriarchy’s way of rendering women insignificant, not worthy of self-identity. But she’s willing to give him another chance.
Rita represents a modern female sensibility which is willing to step down the economic ladder for social harmony. He, too, is a modern Pakistani urban male, flexible, nervous about self-respect, and without family. The dynamic suggests that the modern urban Pakistani man of the ’70s is less laden by familial obligations, and reduced obligations equal less patriarchy. The two meet a short time later at a friend couple’s wedding and Iqbal’s jacket has changed colour from red to blue, though Rita’s own dress is black, a premonition of things to come, the tragedy of separation, parental betrayal, and losing a child. Rita rebels, forces Iqbal to run away with her and the two marry as she makes clear to her father that she is an adult.
The film exposes the hypocrisy of both forms of patriarchies, new and old. Iqbal is humiliated by Rita’s father on learning he makes only 700 rupees per month. All this reflects a tension between urban reality vs imagined modernity. Just state can destroy innocent lives to preserve its status quo while societal forces don’t easily yield to the principles and desires of an individual. Just as deep state can make too week segments of a polity to turn against each other, Rita’s parents intervene in her married life and wreck it.
There is a classic moment in the history of South Asian cinema and I don’t believe it has been done before or after Aina. Rita confronts her father, she slaps him across the face! Her mother points out that the slaps in fact were on the face of tradition and society. Two years later, Maula Jat would open with a rape scene, in a movie where women act as tough as men and the price for falling in love with the villian’s gun-toting sister, is a broken leg. Zia’s Islamisation’s biggest victims were women. Shabnam, the slapper of patriarchy, would herself be humiliated by five criminals who despite death sentence roam free to this day.
Shabnam and Nadeem are probably Urdu cinema’s two finest actors. It is in Aina that Robin Ghosh created a fine synthesis of eastern melody and western harmonics. It was the first movie that proved that Pakistani cinema could compete with its Indian counterpart. It is in a song sung by Mehdi Hassan that the combined sensibilities of Kishore, Rafi and Mukesh’s voices were harnessed as one. ‘Mujhe dil se na bhulana’ is perhaps one of the best, if not the best, male song in the history of Urdu cinema.