In The Friday Times, July 16th, 2010.
The youth of Lahore sits at Hotspot, sipping their espressos and picking the fruit out of their sundaes, and they marvel at the amazing posters of Urdu and Punjabi films of yore pasted on all walls of the eatery. But they will never be privy to what was so atomic about Mussarat Shaheen, the super-heroine of Haseena Atimbum (Atomic Beauty), even though they snigger at her poster every time they order a waffle.
In 1995, the Punjabi film Chaudhry Badshah (King Chaudhry) hit cinema screens across the nation. The film had an all star cast including Saima, Reema and Jan Rambo. But the most talented person on screen without a doubt was Sultan Rahi. In my house, there was one person who was most excited to see it. My comical cook Sarwar would go to see every Sultan Rahi movie ever made. This was quite a regular excursion as Sultan Rahi starred in over 700 films. He could never watch the whole film and would fall asleep near intermission, as the air conditioning at Regal Cinema cooled down his diabetic nerves.
This man, who made us chapati everyday so that we would have enough fibre in our system, was himself a lot like Mr Rahi; medium build with a mop of hair, and a moustache with an existence of its own. Added features included a portly belly, a constant grin and a love for anything that was fried in desi ghee. Since he himself was sadly diabetic and not allowed to have sugar, he made sure that he would make parathas and suji ka halwa for other people so that he could have the leftovers. Needless to say, growing up in my house in the 90’s was a very healthy experience.
I only knew Sultan Rahi from my cook’s rambles on the action in his movies and the occasional movie trailer on PTV. One thing was for sure, no one else could pull off cries for bloodlust the way he could. January 9, 1996, was a sad day. I remember my father picking me up from school which was on Mall Road opposite the GPO. On the way home we often drove though McLeod Road and Abbott Road, home of many of Lahore’s old cinemas. As I looked at the gigantic billboards with actresses in lachas of bright colors and actors with pitchforks and gandassas, my dad told me that Sultan Rahi had died.
Instead of an axe in his hand and cries for blood, Sarwar could be found walking in and out of the kitchen with his chimta, with cries of “Pakistan da shiaada aa gia” (the prince of Pakistan has arrived!), whenever he saw my little brother. My little brother found the statement preposterous, but was happy to shrug it away and eat the plate of biryani Sarwar put in front of him.
Most of the Punjabi I learnt was from Sarwar’s rants about the price of cinema tickets and his descriptions of the people he met on his trips to Pakpattan where he often went to the shrine of the sufi saint Baba Fariduddin GanjShakar. He also loved going to Mela Chiraghan (“The Festival of Lights”) every year on the outskirts of Lahore adjacent to the Shalimar Gardens.
Pakoray, kheer, sugarcane juice, doodh-pati (milk tea)… it was the food that attracted him to the festival. Entertainment there was often crazier than the action in Sultan Rahi’s movies. The entertainment used to include rides for kids, the ‘Maut Ka Kuwan’ (death well) with a dare devil on his bike doing stunts, curiosity exhibits with dancing roosters and double headed goats, and the famous Lucky Irani Circus. The festival was incomplete without a visit to the shrine of Saeen Madhu Lal Hussain to pay respects, as the festival celebrated his death anniversary. In the 90’s Angoori, Saher, Al-Riaz and Shabnam cinemas used to be nearby and people would go afterwards for a Punjabi flick. Saher, Al-Riaz and Shabnam have now closed down.
Times are fast fleeing us when calories didn’t scare us into submission and roadside fruit chat didn’t give us nightmares during the day and teenagers didn’t scoff at locally produced films. Since 1913, out of 72 cinemas in Lahore, 42 have closed down.
His idol had passed away much before him, and Sarwar followed in 2007. My youngest brother does not get to hear much Punjabi in the house and laughs at Punjabi and Urdu movies when my parents nostalgically find them on random cable channels.
Mussarat Shaheen created her own political party called Musawat, which has disappeared into oblivion. Sultan Sahibs movies can be found on YouTube, and so can the music from Haseena Atimbum, sung by none other than Madam Noor Jehan. Mela Chiragan is alive and well and will be held next year near in March to welcome spring.