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Punjabi Classic: Kartar Singh (1959)

January 31, 2010

So I was curious to see this Pakistani Punjabi movie called “Kartar Singh”, which was released in 1959. What made me interested in the said movie was not only some of the songs that I’ve heard of it, but also its’ theme about Partition. I was curious how the subject matter and the characters were handled, for a story based around partition of India of 1947, in a movie made just after a decade after it happened. It would be fascinating to see how the characters were made, and what kind of moral judgments were placed on these characters, based on their religion. You can read more about the movie here (in Urdu), and here. You can watch the movie, on youtube, here. (Thanks to “Pakmovies” channel on Youtube) or a 10 min summary of fim here.

The Film stars Sudhir as Umer, a young Musarrat Nazir as his love interest, Allauddin as Kartar Singh, and a rather petite looking Bahar, with Inayat Hussain Bhatti doing a Amitabh Bachchan in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. That is, he would come in randomly in the movie, and just croons one out. He looks so malang-funk as well.

(Left) Inayat with his Waris Shah, and (Right) Amitabh gets his funk on in a train station

The Synopsis is (I’m too lazy to write one on my own, so I’ll do what a good “researcher” does)

Kartar Singh is set in a village in Punjab, India; a ‘symbolic village’ inhabited by Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus who live in harmony. Prominent among the villagers are the vaid Prem Nath (Zarif), one of the most repected men in the village, Umer Din (Sudhir), a World War II veteran who fought in Burma and Kartar Singh (Allaudin), a Sikh character who is a petty criminal and occasionally could be quite a trouble maker. When India is partitioned, the Muslims of the village including Umer Din and his lady love (Mussarat Nazir) leave amidst the violence and rioting for their new home, Pakistan. Umer Din’s sister (Laila) is abducted by the Sikhs but she is protected by an elderly Sikh who gives her shelter and looks after her. When his son tries to force himself on her, the old man kills him. The old man sends Umer Din a letter that his sister is safe and unviolated and sends her safely to Pakistan. Kartar Singh on one of his raids has a scuffle with Umer Din, who works with the Border Police, at the border. Umer shoots him but just wounds him and lets him go. His life saved, Kartar Singh has a change of heart. In order to redeem himself, takes Umer’s younger brother, sheltered by Prem Nath, back to him in Pakistan. But he is killed at the border as Umer feels he has come on one of his raids again and shoots him down

Even though it is considered, a very important and great piece of Punjabi cinema, it’s not that great of a film with seemingly forced/sudden changes in narrative, weird acting, and some shady technical skills (But then it was the nascent Pakistani film industry of the 1950s). Having said that, it is much better than the contemporary Moammar Rana-Saud-Shaan-Badmash movies. The dialogues were pretty good, even though they were a bit melodramatic at times (but then, it’s a freaking movie about Partition, so that’s kind of what one should be expecting). Also, and we’ll go to that part soon, the music wasn’t that bad either.

My main interest in the movie was, as I said, the nature of characterizations of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs by a filmmaker, who also went through the ordeal of migration. I was not going to see the film to get a history lesson of why partition happened, and what happened during partition. It was just an exercise to get a glimpse of what was the psyche that was portrayed in the popular media, back in the day.

Surprisingly, the village the movie is set out in is very inclusive and secular. There was a Holi scene and everything.

For the characters in the movie, the Partition just happened, and then they had to deal with the consequences. The violence in the village was instigated by Kartar Singh and his goons.

Notice the Bhangras and the BrrRRRrrrs (Bhangra, Bister, Beer, Batair?)

However there was a rival Muslim gang as well, which also went on the rampage.

The scene in which Sudhir gets his ass kicked thoroughly saving the Hindu Hakeem of the village, from the Muslim gang.

The awesome village-burning scenes.

The important thing was that the film didn’t demonise Sikhs, which one expects from a contemporary jingoistic popular cinema offering. Even though, most of the baddies were Sikhs, especially Kartar, he was shown to be a bit of a handful little fellow even before the anarchy of post-partition uncertainty. He was a troublemaker who happened to be Sikh, and his main motivation against Umer was because of a personal grudge rather than a very overtly religious one, atleast initially. However, the Sikhs, as a community, were not demonized, as one of the Sikh family gave refuge to Umer’s kidnapped sister, and kept her safe.

Also, interestingly enough, the screenplay doesn’t reveal any desire, as such, for Pakistan in the village, prior to Partition. It was after the rioting and the killing, that the refugees became all patriotic about a homeland which would supposedly give them shelter and security. I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, it just might be lazy screenwriting.

One of the high points of this movie was, apart from the radiant (however very useless in general narration) Musarrat Nazir, the music of the film. The film had a number of memorable tracks, including  the traditonal“Bari Barsi”, and  the playful “Mahi Ne Teno Le Jaana”. However, the song sung by Inayat Hussain Bhatti, which was written by Amrita Pritam Singh “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Noon” takes the cake. The haunting lyrics just make one shiver.

You can hear this in Amrita’s own voice, here. Ofcourse, Mekaal Hasan Band also has the same poem in both their albums.

Another, famous song of the movie is sung by Zubeida Khanam, and is the classic “Desan Da Raja”, where Laila (Sakina, Umer’s Sister) is in a “dream sequence”, thinking about his brother’s marriage. Such a beautiful song, “yaaaaar”!

However, this isn’t the happiest of times in the movie, as Laila’s character is kidnapped and seeking refuge in a sikh household. She is separated from her family, her friends, and is generally depressed. She is essentially delusional, imagining her dead mother, a dead brother, and two lost brothers. The song also comes just before another rape attempt on her. So, um, go figure. Irony man, Irony!”Totally! *smokes funny stuff*

All in all, in terms of storyline, it tried to give a well balanced story of partition, and while it doesn’t account for what atrocities happened from both sides (or tries to ignore the bigger picture), it was very interesting to see popular cinema handling the topic with a bit of maturity. However, if you are not interested in watching how the dynamics pan out, or seen too many it-makes-no-difference-if-we-were-Hindus-or-Muslims themes in your movies, you can skip it.  One wouldn’t like the obnoxious and insolent brothers of Umer, Kartar’s sudden change in personality, and the obviously glued-on facial hair. I kind of liked it, though.

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