Monday, December 7, 2009

Changhezah (Pakistan, 1989)

To the Western viewer not conversant in Punjabi, a film like Changhezah might beg the following question: Of what importance to a film are the details of plot when you already have plenty of shouting, punching and shooting to carry you through the action? After all, genre movies, at their heart, are really just about the observance of ritual, aren’t they?

This may especially be the case when it comes to the films of Sultan Rahi. The man starred in literally hundreds of movies and, from what I can gather, most of them covered pretty much the same ground. It seems that, as long as there was a wrong to be avenged, a righteous hero to avenge it, and a suitably despicable villain to be on the receiving end, the storytelling particulars were fairly incidental. Changhezah goes some way toward confirming this by dusting off once again the old “lost and found” plot, replete with babies switched at birth and confused issues of parentage, which seems to be a sort of default mode when it comes to the storylines of South Asian action films.

I’m currently reading Mushtaq Gazdar’s essential Pakistan Cinema: 1947 – 1997, which has provided me with some much needed context regarding Rahi’s films. As mentioned in my review of Faqeeria, Rahi’s career defining role came in the 1979 film Maula Jat, which was released during the martial law rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. This was a time of increased visibility for Punjabi films, thanks to Zial-ul-Haq’s board of censorship, in honor of its newly created guidelines, repealing the certificates of every film approved before the institution of the regime. This move effectively took a huge number of films out of circulation, and opened the way for the typically cheaper and more quickly made Punjabi and Pushto language films to fill the gaps between releases from the mainstream film center in Lahore.

The months prior to Maula Jat’s release had also seen the trial and execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the democratically elected Prime Minister who was unseated in the coup that brought Zial-ul-Haq to power. Events such as these lead portions of the audience to see special significance in Maula Jat’s tale of a righteous everyman’s triumph over a tyrannical clan leader, and the film did particularly well in those areas that had shown strong support for Bhutto in the elections.

Just as in Maula Jat, Rahi finds himself, in Changhezah, loudly challenging the authority of a despotic villain. This time it’s a tittering madman by the name of Mangal, who is for once not played by Mustafa Qureshi, Rahi’s adversary in Maula Jat and countless subsequent films (including the deservedly notorious Hitlar). The film also pits Rahi’s character, Changhezah, against a dogged police inspector who believes himself to be the son of an older, also dogged police inspector. However, he is in reality the son -- thanks to the aforementioned baby switching -- of the man whom Changhezah believes to be his father, who is amusingly shown in flashback sporting, not only the same wig and bounteous fake mustache worn by Rahi throughout the film, but also the exact same outfit that Changhezah is wearing when we first see him. (Clearly Changhezah comes down on the side of nurture over nature.)

Sultan Rahi’s frequent leading lady Anjuman is also on hand, mainly just to have the movie’s songs picturized on her and to act sassy. She carries every one of the film’s musical numbers, but for one notable exception; that being a sequence showing a group of uniformed schoolboys singing a patriotic song about Pakistan, punctuated by bits of newsreel footage of the country’s armed forces in battle, shots of the Koran, and images of citizens in prayer. At the end of the song, the kids release a flock of doves into the sky, one of which falls to the ground, bloodied. As the children’s pretty young teacher takes the wounded bird in her hands, the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the sound of gunfire, charging horses and hollering male voices. A gang of rowdy thugs on horseback then appears on the scene and starts to terrorize the group, but, fortunately, Changhezah is within earshot. It’s very tempting to speculate upon just what or whom these peace-hating hooligans are meant to represent, but, given the lack of translation, I’m afraid to do so would be overly presumptuous.

Though Rahi gets a good many opportunities to display his unique personal brand of kung fu throughout the film, one gets the sense that these scuffles are all but warning shots, and that Changhezah’s righteous fury is like a volcano that’s slowly building up toward a major blow-out. Thus it’s no surprise when the movie’s final melee comes to have something of an orgasmic quality, with Changhezah frenziedly hacking, slashing, slicing, dicing, shooting and stomping his way through his enemies, and finally driving a sword repeatedly through the heart of a prostrate Mangal. Even Anjuman and the prim young school teacher get in on the shooting and punching action at this point, which might provide some catharsis for female viewers who have watched their characters simper from the sidelines and get treated as punching bags throughout the previous two hours. This to me seemed very similar to the end of Faqeeria, during which the female captive, who had throughout the film been depicted as a helpless victim, was abruptly transformed by the prevailing spirit of wrathfulness into a back-flipping, high-kicking she-devil.

And wrath, thy name is indeed Sultan Rahi. The perpetual mien of indignant fury, compulsive accusatory hand gestures, and constant, throaty, echo-plexed yelling all start to make a lot of sense when you realize that he’s not just portraying rage as an emotional state. The man simply is rage. Sure, you might think that there are corollaries to this type of character in Western cinema, but you get the sense that even Bronson and Eastwood’s most vengeance crazed characters at least occasionally took time out to watch the game or enjoy a beer. Not so with Rahi. Ire is his game and fury is his beer. And, that my friends, is one aspect of these films that needs no translation whatsoever.


sunil said...

Cool! What is your source for the movies? I once contacted hotspotonline, but I think he was afraid of being picked up the ISI if he started parcelling stuff to India. :)

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

That must be the best film poster I have seen this month.
Sultan Rahi is no fan of cats, I presume?

Todd said...

Sunil: I got both this and Faqeeria through eBay from a dealer called Bollywood Zone UK ( They have a fairly decent selection of older Punjabi movies. Be forewarned, though, that, from what I've seen, Pakistani DVDs are even worse in quality than Indian ones. Lots of skipping and freezing. My one attempt to purchase movies directly from Pakistan involved me ordering Maula Jat and receiving in return some random contemporary romantic comedy. I probably won't be doing that again.

House: In all honesty, I don't think that that's a poster for this particular film, but I just couldn't resist posting it. I mean, Sultan Rahi is simultaneously stabbing two lions in the head! You just know that he's next going to tear out their brains and devour them raw. Even an animal lover like myself has to bow before the majesty of such an image.

This might be a good place to mention something that I forgot to in the review. There's a scene in this movie where Sultan Rahi ambushes a gang of thugs by bursting out, guns a-blazing, from underneath a giant pile of money.

Vinayak Razdan said...

Awesome post! Observations about Maula Jat are right on and provide a much needed explanation for Rahi's anger. Must get my hands on that book.

And what an incredible poster!

sunil said...

yeah, Tarzan can kiss Sultan Rahi's ass.

Todd said...

Yeah, and Dr. Dolittle too!

Vinayak: Glad you liked the post! The book is out of print, but I had no trouble finding it through one of the secondary sellers on Amazon. It gets a bit pricey, but it's still well worth it.

memsaab said...

I got the book thanks to you, and really have enjoyed reading it (although I didn't much enjoy the one Pakistani film I've managed to get through as you know) :) I think all that uncontained testosterone onscreen is simply too much for my frail female sensibilities.

Todd said...

The great thing about the book is how it shows you the diversity of the country's cinema, that it's far from being all about Sultan Rahi yelling and crotch cams. Though, admittedly, if your only source for information about Pakistani films was this blog, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.