It was the resurfacing of legendary cinema couple Shabnam and Nadeem, at the recently concluded eighth edition of Karachi Literary Festival, which got me thinking about the current state of the local film industry. Participating in a session dedicated to the challenges faced by cinema, both actors echoed a similar view as they both observed that ‘art’ and ‘sports’ should never be politicized. But I found myself in a fix after hearing Nadeem say: “We used to compete with India till the mid-70s.”
On February 13, which marks the 106th birthday of Urdu’s greatest poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, I unknowingly picked out ‘Mitti ke Putlay’ (MKP) from my old film collection. To contradict actor/producer Nadeem, I, on purpose, selected the first film he ever produced. I was smitten by the very first name of the acknowledgements, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the legendary progressive Urdu poet. I telephoned the leading man of Chakori, Aina and Bandish and bombarded him with questions about the film.
‘‘It was the film’s opening that Faiz sahab came to attend. We were recording the song, ‘Yeh Tootay Khilonay Yeh Mitti Ke Putlay’ in the voice of a debutant Akhlaq Ahmed,” Nadeem, the co-writer, protagonist and the producer of the film, told me in a bid to calm me down.
The idea of making MKP was conceived after newly elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, nationalized certain industries, and a month later, in February 1972, announced a new labour policy. On one hand, he laid out new benefits for the workers, but on the other hand, warned them of dire consequences if they took the law into their hands. The workers felt cheated when their demands were not met. They viewed themselves as the ones who fought successive dictatorships that enabled Bhutto to become the PM.
Unprecedented labour unity was nipped in the bud by the then-ZAB government. He used them to get into power, but then allegedly used ‘power’ against them. Although the first ever ‘Labour Day’ was observed in the country on May 1 1972, it was on June 7, the same year that the inevitable happened. Mill workers were busy protesting against the removal of their colleagues outside Feroz Textile Mills in SITE area when the police opened fire, in a bid to disperse them. As a result, a leader of the alliance of the workers of SITE industrial area, Muttahida Mazdoor Federation, was killed. Next day, about 5,000 workers from all industrial estates of Karachi, gathered at his funeral to protest against the uncalled-for police action. That was when the police again opened fire on the protesting workers, killing five more.
Captain Ihtisham, who had earlier launched Nadeem as a leading man in Chakori, saw a film in the news item. Considered one of the pioneers of the film industry in Dhaka, he shared the idea with his now son-in-law Nadeem, who was riding high on the success of films like Saughat, Baazi and Ehsaas. Before becoming a movie star, Nadeem used to pass his time in Paposh Nagar, Karachi which was not far from SITE area. The story appealed to him as he could relate to it. It could either be the influence of proximity or he knew the culture of the area far better which compelled him to make a feature film out of the idea.
The film featured the protagonist, a London-educated son of the mill owner who decides to take on ‘evil forces’ while he simultaneously tries to win the hearts of the workers. The qualified textile engineer had to face resistance from his egoist father (played by Afzaal Ahmed), an arrogant manager (Kamal Irani) as well as his reluctant ladylove (portrayed by Nisho). In the climax he succeeds in convincing the mob to stop the ‘jalao gharao’, sending a clear message to laborers of the country that ‘setting factories on fire won’t do them any good’, while asking the ‘owners’ to mend their ways.
MKP was scheduled to release in early 1973. Muslehuddin, the veteran musician who started his career from another progressive film, Aadmi in 1958, left the film after composing just the title track. M. Ashraf was roped in and did a decent job. ‘Nadaan Thay Hum Jo Aapki’, sung by Nadeem became a rage, as did the title track, which was penned by another legend, Akhtar Yousuf. A. Nayyar also made his debut with a song picturised on Qavi Khan. ‘Love, Love’, was rendered in a style mostly associated with the evergreen Ahmed Rushdi.
The two most notable villains of that era, Munawwar Saeed and Shahnawaz were cast as workers, who fought for their rights. Qasim Noori and Asghar Gorakhpuri were responsible for the powerful dialogues, while the story was penned by Ihtisham and Nadeem.
“Ihtisham sahab had a heart attack during the production of the film, and shooting was suspended for a year. The film got affected by this and was eventually released in 1974”, clarified Nadeem when asked about the gap between the film’s conception phase and its actual release.
Despite addressing a relevant topic, the film was not successful at the box office. It was released in February 1974, when Nadeem’s Dillagi and Do Badan were already running to packed houses. The flaw I saw in MKP was that it depicted class struggle in a mature way. How many films have succeeded when an ‘upper class’ lead pair is fighting for the cause of the working class?
“We tried to show what was happening in the country, in a less violent way, but that didn’t work. Hum ne shayad khoon kharaba nahi dikhaaya. We wanted to educate the labour class that what they were doing was not in their benefit. The only positive thing that came out from Mitti ke Putlay was that I got a Labour Union Award in Tashkent Film Festival for it,” Nadeem revealed candidly, recalling the glorious days. Nadeem perhaps underestimated the power of the award. It must be kept in mind that the award was delivered to him in Tashkent, which was then part of the USSR.
“I am a least political person as I think I don’t have political acumen in me,” Nadeem clarified, perhaps having sensed what was going through my mind. It’s interesting to know that Bhutto’s slogan ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makaan’, later became the title of a Manoj Kumar film in 1974.
Many years later, the seed sown by MKP and its influence could be found across the border. A case in point: Kaala Pathar. In December 1975, over 300 miners were killed in Chasnala mining disaster, in the Indian state of Jharkand. Javed Akhtar, a strong leftist, came up with the idea of making a film, like Ihtisham did, with three characters in mind: Vijay, Mangal and Ravi that would be played by Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Shashi Kapoor on the screen.
Although Mitti Ke Putlay and Kaala Pathar were from different genres, it’s still a mystery as to why the director /producer Yash Chopra selected Shashi Kapoor to play a role that was so similar to that of Nadeem. Shashi Kapoor got famous for his roles in Yash Chopra’s movies where he was mostly struggling between the classes such as Deewar, Trishul and Kaala Pathar, but they all came after Mitti ke Putlay.
I was compelled to agree with Nadeem sahab’s claim that Pakistani films, in the past, could compete with Indian films when I saw the end credits of MKP. It reminded me of Kaala Patthar, where instead of the regular ‘the end’, it had ‘Dawn of a new era’ emblazoned on screen whereas when MKP ends, the words ‘The Beginning’ were emblazoned on the screen. Mitti Ke Putlay was made well ahead of its time, as it was released five years before Kaala Pathar.
Lollywood, the Pakistan film industry as it is called now, is fighting for survival and should look to its glorious past when progressive movies like Mitti Ke Putlay were produced, to find inspiration.