Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Maula Jat (Pakistan, 1979)

It could be said that I sort of backed my way into Maula Jat. I’ve reviewed a few of Pakistani superstar Sultan Rahi’s films in the past, but all of those were merely trying to recapture the magic of this, one of the most popular films -- if not the most popular -- in the history of Pakistani cinema, and certainly the most popular in the Punjabi language.

In my review of Changhezah, I touched upon a few of the things that contributed to Maula Jat becoming the extraordinary phenomenon that it was, and to Rahi becoming something much more than a mere movie star. True, the actor was already a known quantity by the time of making the film, and had in fact already played the title character in a previous movie, 1975’s Wehshi Jatt. But while Wehshi Jatt met with a considerable amount of success, it was Maula Jat -- arriving at a time when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Hag’s repressive martial law rule had instilled a sense of powerlessness in much of the country’s populace -- that found an audience hungry for exactly the type of righteous and ferociously masculine hero that Rahi so ably personified. As a result, Rahi came to carry the burden of not only portraying the outrage and wrath of the common man, but also of being their living, breathing -- and, most importantly, yelling -- embodiment.

In keeping with that, Maula Jat maintains an almost absurd level of intensity from its very first frame to its very last -- even more so than in those already quite fevered Rahi vehicles that I’ve reviewed before, if you can believe it. Between its ceaseless, thundering soundtrack, shouted dialogue, pushed-into-the-red sound effects (Thunderclaps! Sirens! Face slaps that sound like thunderclaps!), restless camera work, aggressively stylized performances, and furious violence, it’s enough to blow your hair back just watching it. While all of this -- as well as the film’s suffocatingly narrow conception of masculinity -- might sound as if it would invite easy mockery, in aggregate it speaks to a level of rage too deep to be so glibly dismissed.

The film hits the ground running -- literally -- as we watch a young woman desperately fleeing on foot from a leering bandit on horseback whose intentions couldn’t be any more obvious. This chase goes on for quite some time, and as the woman runs through street after street, she cries out for help, only to go unanswered by the many bystanders who are too intimidated to raise a hand. That is, until she arrives in the village where Maula Jat (Rahi) lives with his mom and best buddy. (The Jatt, by the way, are a Punjabi tribal group with a historical rep for fierceness in battle.) Maula and his pal give the rascal -- who, it turns out, is a member of the notorious Nath clan -- the thumping of his life, after which he goes scurrying home to his sister, Daro (played with some serious crazy eye by Chakori), who summarily executes him for shaming the family with his unsuccessful rape attempt. Her attacker vanquished, the young woman then begins doing a frenzied, triumphal dance, one that she continues even as her feet begin to spurt blood everywhere, and which eventually results in her collapsing dead from her exertions.

After this bucolic and low-key little prologue, we are introduced to the Nath clan’s leader, Nuri Nath, who’s played with googly-eyed menace by Mustafa Qureshi. It’s a portrayal that’s every bit as iconic as Rahi’s, which spurred producers to pair Qureshi off against Rahi in literally hundreds of films afterward. Another frequent screen partner of Rahi’s present here is leading lady Aasia, who, thanks to the tendency among Pakistani actresses of disappearing from the screen after marriage, was later replaced by Anjuman as the actor’s female co-star of choice. I guess that Aasia could be said to be playing Maula Jat’s love interest here, though, in truth, Maula has less than no time in his schedule for romance. The closest approximation that these two do of pitching woo is in those scenes in which Aasia sings to Maula -- scenes in which he stands by impatiently, looking as if he’s waiting for her to finish so that he can go kill some more people.

In his history of Pakistani Cinema, author Mushtaq Gazedar seems to suggest that the ensuing battle between Maula Jat and Nuri Nath is a clear cut one of good versus evil, resulting in a triumph of the oppressed against the forces of tyranny, represented in this case by the marauding Nath clan. Hampered as I am by a lack of fluency in Punjabi, I am in no position to disagree with him, but it did appear to me that there might be more than that going on. Maula and Nuri’s ongoing clashes are periodically interrupted by the police, who, clearly making no moral or legal distinction between the two of them, keep either throwing them in jail, or, worse yet, riddling them with bullets and causing them to spend forced down-time simmering in adjacent hospital beds. At the same time, the two men’s fierce tribal affiliations, as well as their identical obsessions with proving their manliness, certainly put them at equal odds with the authorities, and, as such, in relative alignment with each other. Again, I am probably misinterpreting, but it seemed at times that, in between the bouts of savage brawling, there were moments in which you could see an at least grudging sort of camaraderie between them.

Beyond my own linguistically blinded maulings of the text, an even more compelling argument for not judging Maula Jat without the benefit of translation is the fact that, like so many of Rahi’s films, it relies very heavily on those screaming verbal sparring matches known colloquially as barrak. Consisting largely of colorful threats, extravagant boasts, and bloodcurdling oaths, these dialogs -- best delivered with finger pointed accusingly, and in a voice that sounds like a methed-up Rottweiler strangling on a bone -- usually serve as the prelude to a physical fight, even though they end up taking up much more screen time than the fights themselves. It is, reportedly, the particular pithy-ness of these exchanges in Maula Jat that accounts for a lot of the film’s enduring appeal. Much as Indian film fans over the years have delighted in quoting Amjad Khan’s lines from Sholay (and, hey, Americans in quoting Al Pacino’s from Scarface, for that matter), it is not uncommon for Pakistani filmgoers to be able to recite these heated exchanges between Rahi and Qureshi verbatim.

All of this is not to say that a lack of translation will prevent you from enjoying the film. After all, it works on such a visceral -- perhaps even primal -- level that it’s difficult to resist getting drawn in. However, you should keep in mind that the rigors of the experience might leave you trembling like a Chihuahua who’s had someone angrily yelling into his ear for two-plus hours. This is filmmaking at its most rough and raw, and anyone hoping for moments of meditative beauty or transporting flights of lyricism should probably run very far away.

At Maula Jat’s conclusion, our hero faces off against Nuri Nath and a dozen of his men, armed only with his Gandaasa, a gnarly looking farming implement that is his character’s signature weapon (basically comprised of a long staff with a razor sharp, cleaver-like blade on the end). The rapid-fire carnage that follows -- with Maula bloodily slicing, dicing and chopping his way through the lot until his shirt is transformed from white to deep red -- is awe inspiring, but apparently not as much so in the currently available cut as could have been. Omar Khan over at the Hotspot Online provides an account of attending a screening of the pre-censor-approved, original cut of the film, with producer Sarwar Bhatti in attendance, and confirms that that version contains enough tossing around of viscera and severed appendages to please even the most bloodthirsty gorehound.

Even with the aforementioned offending footage excised at the censor’s request, it was Maula Jat’s violence that provided the Zia government with the excuse to attempt a ban on it. Fortunately, producer Bhatti succeeded in winning a court ordered, two-and-a-half year stay on that ban, during which Maula Jat played in theaters continuously, ceasing it’s monumental run only after the prints were forcibly removed by authorities. Meanwhile, Sultan Rahi had already embarked upon the hard work of being the personification of righteous fury for an entire, apparently pretty pissed off populace, keeping a staggering schedule that had him working on up to thirty-five films at a time -- among the fruits of which would eventually be two official sequels to Maula Jat. Certainly, numbers like that don’t frequently produce art, but, as Maula Jat demonstrates, with the right ingredients, they can still produce works of undeniable, raw power.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

She dances to death out of relief/triumph of not being raped? And she's not even anyone's sister or cousin or friend? Whoa. I wonder if that's some sort of really sinister condemnation of a woman who has had the misfortune to be a victim - I feel like we see that in the rape-ier (not rapier, obviously) Indian films of the 80s and early 90s.

I would love to see this with people who could 1) translate (both linguistically and culturally) and 2) were around at its initial release and remember some of the goings-on around that time. Though as you say, some things are clear without words.

Todd said...

I do think that there's an element of "preserving the family honor" to her self inflicted death, but I can't say conclusively without translation. I think it's probably also important to note that the first thing that Maula Jat does when she comes to him, before he thrashes her pursuer, is cover her hair with a white cloth.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Ah yes. That would do it. Very interesting re: the cloth! Yet another reason to watch this with someone with massive cultural knowledge.

leeqa said...

Found your blog because of Beth! Just wrote something on Maula Jatt as well, and it is pale by comparison by your piece. Bravo, and assuming you didn't have the translation of the said movie.

Few very quick things! First the disco death scene! Okay there is nothing in the dialogues that determine the motivation behind the would-be-rapee to start dancing! I suppose it was achieved to reach a particular goal, which was not to have a single woman with attempted rape in her history, given her would-be-rapist would be killed in the next scene by his sister.

As for Maula vs. Noori! I thought they were more similar than different. They both are ruthless, vicious, and ultimately driven by ego! The only difference was the filmakers motivated the audience to root for one of the characters (the one who saved the raped vs. the one who's brother tried to rape).

As for the message in the movie which might have been aimed at the military rule: I do not really think so thats a plausible scenario (and given i was born in 86, i might be totally wrong as well). Yes, one must concede that a message can be construed from the movie which calls for individuals, esp in the rural setting, to take matter in their own hands when they are dealing with corrupt and/or unjust social institutions. How much the filmakers intended this target to be the military rule, one cannot say, but certainly it might have targeted the gentry and the landlords that always are in cohort with any govt that is in power - civilian or military. By an extension, the govt might have felt threatened, but perhaps the film makers never tried to aim for the govt.

I shall read more of your Pakistani cinema material, soon!

Todd said...

Thanks, Leeqa. I'm glad to have your input on Maula Jat!.

The whole idea about the connection between Maula Jat's success and the Zia-ul-Hag regime came from Mushtaq Gazedar's history of Pakistani cinema. And I think that the point -- which I'm sure I failed miserably to convey -- was not that the film itself contained any kind of intentional message about the current political situation, but that public frustration about that political situation was a contributing factor to the film's popularity. In other words, Maula Jat, with all his throaty righteousness and thirst for frontier justice, just happened to come along at the right time to benefit from popular feelings of powerlesness and outrage. Of course, the overwhelming mystery of a phenomenon like that of Maula Jatt makes it tempting for an outsider like myself to grasp onto such a sweeping explanation, while, at the same time, I have no idea independent of what I've read whether it's true or not.

It seems like you and I are of the same mind regarding the similarities between Maula and Nuri, which indeed makes Maula seem like something of an arbitrary choice for a hero. Interestingly, your review seems to go on to suggest that there is an undercurrent of bromance to their relationship, which is something I sort of thought I saw, but didn't feel secure enough about to put forward, given my inability to understand the dialog.

Anyway, I really enjoyed your review. Mine was definitely lacking an infographic!