Saad Khan had a conversation with Omar Ali Khan, who is based in Islamabad and runs an ice cream shop The Hotspot as well as being an independent archivist. This is a summary of their conversation.
Listen to the full episode above:
Omar Ali Khan is a big fan of Lollywood, the Pakistani film industry. In the Khajistan podcast titled L for Lollywood, released on August 21, 2021, Saad Khan, who started Khajistan, talked to Omar about the history of Pakistani movies, the music made for those films, and the actresses who worked in them. They also talked about the long-standing link between politics and the cinema of Pakistan, hidden stories, and censored bits of history that people might not know about.
Omar Ali Khan has a love for Pakistani cinema that goes beyond the popular Urdu films that follow a state culture. Omar cherishes the 1960s and 1970s genres within the Urdu film repertoire, also called the Golden Era of Lollywood: The classic Eastern values versus Western values films, the virtuous Eastern girl in contrast to the nefarious Western girl, films with wayward sisters, socialite mothers, seductive vamps, aunties, and witches in the lead.
Omar developed a love for Bollywood and Lollywood B-movies in school and college, particularly horror films. In the early 1990s, he opened The Hotspot, an ice cream shop housed in a trailer in Islamabad with its walls holding kilograms of Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, and good and bad horror movie tin signs.
Despite the often overlooked status of regional Punjabi and Pashto films, dismissed by Urdu journalists due to their perceived low quality, Omar saw value in these productions and started documenting everything about them. He became a frequent visitor to cinemas in Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Karachi, watching films and writing about them on the now-defunct website, the hotspot online named after his ice cream shop. His writing, especially on these films, serves as a vital record of these underappreciated gems and ensures that their legacy will not be lost to history.
When Saad asks Omar about the films he liked as a kid. Omar recalls his interest in characters who live double lives to get what they want because they can't do it any other way. He touches on the feeling of living a double life in Pakistan. Pretending to be different from who you are because of the rules in society. Omar said that living in a place where people have to be constantly fake can make you forget what is real. Sometimes, it takes someone from outside to tell you that. People in Pakistan have to follow many rules that stop them from being who they are. Movies can show what it's like to be in this kind of society, and they do; we judge them or ignore them.
Omar recounts the political landscape of Pakistan during General Ayub and General Yahya's reign. He mentions how these powerful men were also involved with Lollywood actresses and singers and how the city walls were covered in graffiti about their love affairs.
A story from Eastern Film magazine (unknown issue).
The affair between Noor Jehan and Yahya Khan, in particular, is infamous but has not been documented in official histories due to the resistance from Noor Jehan's family to allow anyone to write a book on her life. However, during her lifetime, Noor Jehan was quite open about her non-conservative lifestyle, which included multiple love affairs. Although her personal life was overshadowed by her artistry, she slowly edged out of the Urdu industry and was replaced by singers like Runa Leila and Mala. This was perhaps because Noor Jehan's flamboyance was better suited to singing Punjabi numbers, and she later sang dramatic final numbers and sexy songs in Punjabi films. Despite her dominance in the music industry, not much was said about her after her death, as our culture tends to protect the "sanctity" of the deceased.
Omar further discusses the story of Noor Jehan ruining the career of fellow actress Firdous Begum, who was rumored to have had an affair with Noor Jehan's husband and co-star at the time, Ijaz Durrani. When Noor Jehan discovered the alleged infidelity, she ensured Firdous's career was over. She refused to sing for Firdose's characters in movies and made it clear that she wouldn't work with any music producer who worked with Firdose. Sadly, Firdous, a gifted actress, was not seen much in the films after this episode, which was a significant loss for the audience. Despite this, she was still remembered through Firdose Market in Lahore, which she owned until her demise in 2020.
Omar recalls that during those days, in the 1960s and 1970s, all top 20 numbers used to belong to Noor Jehan. Her single-handed dominance of the music industry was unmatched, but then one summer, there came Naheed Akhtar, who changed the entire scene with her song ‘Akh Larray Tay Larrayi Ja Chup Kar K,’ which was produced by the brilliant composer M Ashraf. For the first time in many years, Noor Jehan had a competitor who not only toppled her off the charts but announced that she was there to stay. It goes without saying how Noor Jehan must have felt about that.
Babra Sharif shined bright in the 1970s and 1980s along with Shabnam. Neeli dominated the industry in the 1990s. This is when Saima, Reema, Sahiba, Shahida Minni, and Madiha Shah also appeared. Musarrat Shaheen and Shehnaz Khan were the main girls on the Pashto front.
Omar Ali Khan also sheds light on the censored and hidden histories within the Pakistani film industry, mostly saved and reported on by Urdu "showbiz" journalists. These stories are often known only by insiders and are not widely disclosed to the public. One such example is found in the book "True Colors of Filmstar Fairies" by Khurshid Alam, a film historian, and Urdu "showbiz" journalist. The book includes sensational claims about the background of many famous Lollywood actresses, including Babra Sharif, alleging that she came from an impoverished family and was sex-trafficked by her father for money. However, these claims lack concrete evidence. Omar and Saad also briefly mention a disturbing story about actress Shabnam but choose not to delve into it due to its distressing nature.
In the episode, Omar Ali Khan and Saad delve into the need to archive and preserve overlooked films. They highlight the difficulty of finding materials from films that were considered "cheap" or "sleazy" and did not align with societal expectations at the time. They acknowledge that social conditioning significantly influences our tendency to ignore, lose or disassociate ourselves from certain forms of art.
Unfortunately, some material gets lost in history, making the archiving process even more challenging. For example, when Saad attempted to include the song "Koi asli chor, koi naqli chor" in his documentary "Showgirls of Pakistan," the record label, EMI, did not have the song. The song used in the film was obtained from Omar's personal vinyl collection, highlighting the broader challenges facing the archiving process in Pakistan.
The episode also delves into the world of Lollywood music composers. One such name that stands out is Master Tafu, a versatile producer who played the tabla and experimented with different musical styles. He rose to fame with "Sun Ve Balori Akh Walya," sung by Noor Jehan in the film "Anwara," and produced some memorable pop hits with his signature drum machine beats. Omar describes Tafu as a master of producing "chaalu songs," the kind you can play on repeat and dance to with abandon. Another song that holds a special place in Omar's heart is "Dilbar Dilbara," composed by M. Ashraf and sung by Naheed Akhtar. Omar vividly remembers waking up to the tune during the politically charged year of 1977 and being mesmerized by it. He recalls that certain songs stick with you from the first listen, and "Dilbar Dilbara" was one of those songs for him.
During General Zia ul Haque's reign in the 1980s, the state narrowly defined who was a true Pakistani and Muslim. Inappropriate films were halted mid-production, and "bold" content controls increased. Due to social restraints, these years also churned the most exposed, debauched, and lecherous cinema. Zia's regime controlled cinema, much like the rest of society, and even after his reign, many internalized the ideology he imported into the Pakistani public sphere to date. Saad Khan reflects on the aftermath and lingering effects, saying that even in the 1990s, his parents were still traumatized and embraced Zia's teachings. Taboo topics had to be addressed under a guise, and fears of persecution loomed. Despite these challenges that persist, through modern information technology, people have learned to fight for their right to express themselves and learn what authorities have been hiding from them.
In the early 2000s, Omar hosted a radio show called Mondo Bizarro in Pakistan, where he played R&B tunes mixed with Lollywood and Bollywood film dialogues and ripped Lollywood soundtracks. Now the show is back on Khajistan Radio. In the episode, Omar also talks about the club music scene in Pakistan, which followed Western trends. In the 1970s, dance hits with blonde wigs and all the razzmatazz featured famous club dancers Tarraana and Panna. The 1980s brought disco to the scene, while the 1990s introduced the Jhankar remixes that ruined every original song.
Saad and Omar further discuss the people who distributed Lollywood films. Labels like Imran Video, Sadaf Shop, and Tooting Video were saving old Lollywood movies and posters. Teeto Malik, one of the brothers who ran the Tooting shop, had also produced some Lollywood films, which gave his family access to the closest-to master prints of the films. Musafir Video in Peshawar was another place that similarly archived work. However, not much remains today because only so much can be done by individuals. They discussed how the systems in place do not make serious efforts to archive the lost histories of Lollywood, and only a select few have been archived, with a lot deliberately erased through a concerted effort.
Most Pashto movies that were shown in the UAE or UK had a lot of long cuts. In the UAE, many films produced for immigrant laborers were also banned. Omar talks about banned films like 'Khatarnaak,' which was banned five times, and how in a society like ours, getting banned five times is no less than winning an award. They also discussed the films by Sangeeta, who had produced acclaimed hits like Wehshi Haseena, Khilona, and Society Girl and made more feature films than any other woman in Lollywood and probably anywhere else.
Omar talked about his film 'Zibahkhana' (The Slaughterhouse) and how the idea rolled to him when he was on the jury in 2003 at a sci-fi horror film festival, Stiges, in Spain. Finally, Saad and Omar ended the episode by recalling a famous dialogue they both loved from the Lollywood film 'Saima' (1980), starring Nadeem and Babara Sharif: "Don’t call me straight. I am educated now. I know how to sign, and I know how to dress up."
Khajistan Press is releasing "Loose Canons" by Omar Ali Khan and two accompanying books: "500 Posters of Pakistani Cinema" and "True Colors of Filmstar Fairies" by Khurshid Alam. Pre-orders will open soon.