Although director Pervaiz Malik’s film Armaan was made half a century ago, its songs and images remain much cherished. So it was wonderful to be able to see the film again at a recent screening in Karachi.
Written by and starring Pakistani cinema’s ‘Chocolate Hero’, Waheed Murad, Armaan was the first film to be shown in a new Mohatta Palace Museum initiative which aims to revisit classics from “the golden age” of the country’s film industry.
I happened to see a small mention of the screening in a newspaper on the same day and was delighted to be able to get a place at the show. And what a memorable evening it proved to be: a huge screen in a beautiful setting, cold drinks and popcorn available, a full moon on a lovely, cool Karachi night, and a considerate and enthusiastic audience responding not just to Sohail Rana’s wonderful music and songs but also to the screen glamour of the leads, Waheed Murad and Zeba.
Although the organisers spoke appreciatively of the print they were able to show, the truth is that the film remains in quite poor repair. It is spliced together in many awkward joins and mends and sadly a few crucial seconds are missing from the final, climactic moment when our heroine drops her crutch and rushes into the arms of our hero as his rendition of Akailay na Jana reaches frenzied heights.
That such a famous and popular film should be in such poor repair certainly does not augur well for the state of the country’s cinema archives.
Viewing the film was also very interesting from a social history point of view. The film gives insights into what life was like then: how society was depicted, what was considered humorous and what stereotypes prevailed. Obviously there are some aspects which today we would label as very politically incorrect. These non-PC aspects include the humour — the butt of the humour seem to be mainly the servants who are depicted as eccentric and ridiculous; and to some degree the ethnic stereotypes — the only person with a strong Pashtun accents is a lecherous rogue/taxi driver.
Sadly what remains unchanged is the idea that all morality and virtue must remain centred in the female of the species. The story is fairly simple: Najma, the heroine, is a Cinderella-like figure who is mistreated by the aunt she lives with, yet who will not tolerate any criticism of either her aunt or her two cousins. She helps one of the cousins, Seema, with the problem of an illegitimate baby and swears to keep her secret for her. Nasir, the hero, is a club-going, mischievous, handsome Karachi boy sent by his father to choose one of the two cousins as his bride but who falls in love with Najma instead. Najma is falsely accused but remains saintly and pure and after much trial and tribulation is finally reunited with Nasir.
Nasir is irresponsible, prone to alcoholic overindulgence, self-pity and self-absorption, yet he remains largely blameless while Najma gets to have a happy ending mainly because she is a paragon of virtue. The men get no blame at all for anything, and I noticed this particularly in this re-viewing because of the very bad deal the story gives cousin Seema, the unwed mother. Even though the love of her life eventually returns from his training in a foreign land and finds out about the baby and again professes his love for Seema, she does not get a second chance and has to be killed off to ensure the film’s moral balance.
But, on reflection, perhaps what is really noteworthy is that even within such strict moral parameters, the film manages to humanise Seema rather than just present her as a ‘fallen woman’.
It is really interesting to see such old films as Armaan because of their anthropological and social context: they depict a society and mindset of which many young people, with no knowledge of film or other history, know very little. They chronicle not just a social but also a physical and geographical landscape that is part of the past, part of the country’s history.
But talking of young people, it was a delight to see so many of them at this screening: enjoying not just the songs (Coco Coreena, Akailay na Jana) but the whole cinematic experience.
Mohatta Palace Museum’s Filmi Fridays series has started off on a wonderful note: with an iconic movie and its memorable songs, with a chocolate hero on a moonlit night…