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Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s, Badge of honour

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Badge of honour incisive documentary helps reignite the debate on honour killings in Pakistan.

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won the second Oscar for a short documentary that brings international attention to an endemic evil in Pakistan (and India for that matter) known as honour killings. Officially, there are a thousand victims of honour killings every year but the actual number may be much higher. Aside from Sharmeen’s recognition by Hollywood, which by itself is a big win, the Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a victory for Pakistan’s long list of activists who have been advocating to end this heinous practice. Days before the Oscars ceremony, a special screening of the movie was held at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house. The Pakistan PM issued a statement saying he would bring changes to the legislation to end the curse of honour killings. Sharif’s recent overtures to causes such as minority rights and talking about a liberal Pakistan have come as a surprise, given his conservative politics, and his party’s attempts to prevent progressive legislation during the 1990s. Or it is a sign of Pakistan’s drift into extremism that even centrist politicians like Sharif are worried about the future of the country.



Meena Kumari, the poet

After my earlier article on the life of Meena Kumari, I explored the iconic actor’s prowess in an entirely different area of personal expression – poetry

Meena KumariMeena Kumari

My heart wonders incessantly
If this is life, what is it that they call death?
Love was a dream?
Ask not about the fate of this dream?
Ask not about the punishment
I received for the crime of loyalty.
(This is Life)


Meena Kumari, the iconic actor, will perhaps be better remembered by posterity as a poet of unique sensibility. For three decades she ruled Indian cinema – now referred to as Bollywood; and even after her tragic death due to alcoholism in 1972 her film Pakeezah continued to fascinate cinegoers. In a relatively short life, Meena achieved a place on the silver screen that few can match. Unlike the current trend of actors staying in business beyond their welcome, Meena died at her peak when she was barely thirty nine years old.

A few months ago I had reviewed Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography) and wondered why her poetry had not been widely published. Within a few weeks, I was delighted to receive a copy of Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema – a collection of her poems translated by Noorul Hasan, a competent translator and a former Professor of English. The book has a thought provoking introduction by Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan and a few other gems that have been rescued from the anonymity of film journalism.

Meena Kumari2

Meena Kumari3

Meena Kumari’s lasting friendship with the poet Gulzar is well known. In fact, Gulzar was even present in the hospital when Meena struggled for her life and finally gave up. It was Gulzar who published her poems after her death. In Pakistan, pirated copies of this orginal publication were available everywhere during my childhood. At railway junctions with small bookstalls, on the pavements where old books were sold and all other places where popular literature was bought and sold. However, this collection gradually faded into oblivion and today the English readers in India and Pakistan may not even know about the poetry of Meena Kumari, which by all standards is formidable. Hasan, the translator tells us in the preface: […]

The Real Meena Kumari

The soulfulness of India’s greatest tragedienne was born of an abiding love for reading and writing. 

Raza Rumi reviews a biography of the alluring star

The real Meena Kumari

Barri Bechari Hai
Meena Kumari
Jisko Lagi Hai

Dil ki Bimari Meena Kumari ruled the world of Indian cinema until her death in 1972 due to liver cirrhosis. Since her death her popular image has been that of a suffering tragic heroine who died of loneliness and excessive drinking. However, the story of Mahjabeen (Meena Kumari’s real name) is neither as simple nor stereotypical as painted by her panegyrists and detractors alike. I recall the days in my childhood when Meena Kumari’s last film Pakeeezah was scheduled to be shown on Doordarshan. The excitement was incredible and everyone I knew anticipated watching it via (illegal) TV signals from across the border. Such was her magic and appeal. And needless to state, sheer beauty.

Harper Collins have republished well known Indian editor, Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography). This is a fine introduction to a larger-than-life person and performer. By no means authoritative it does give a fairly detailed account of her life, achievements and travails. As Mehta mentions at the start of the book, in 1972 he was a struggling ad copywriter “going nowhere. With false bravado which comes easily to a person who has achieved little, I accepted the commission and duly delivered the finished manuscript” in a few months. Mehta was “embarrassed at the effort” because the subject of his biography was not available for interviews, and Dharmendra — “the man who had callously used and discarded her” never gave him the time to hold detailed interviews. Having said that, the biography is fairly well-researched and brings forth lesser known facets of this exceptionally talented woman who remains a bit of an enigma to date. […]

Reclaiming melody

Labourers of love: Mushtaq Soofi, Izzat Majeed & Christoph Bracher

Mian Yusaf Salahuddin’s Haveli, where Tarang was launched

Christoph Bracher testing equipment at Sachal Studios

Revival of the orchestra by Sachal Studios is a landmark in Pakistan’s music industry

Izzat Majeed: patron of music

Singers and musicians showcasing their skills at Sachal Studios

Humaira Channa

Izzat Majeed was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. Mian Abdul Majeed was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Izzat to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities

It was a mellow, moonlit evening of Lahore’s glorious spring when Sachal Studios released their album ‘Tarang’. It could not have been at a more fitting venue. Amid the decaying environs of Old Lahore stands the Haveli of Mian Yusaf Salahuddin, refurbished into a little planet of conservation as a courageous effort to protect and rejuvenate Lahore’s cultural soul. Mian Yusuf is the one denizen who has done this good deed for posterity, along with Syed Babar Ali who has conserved his ancestral Mubarak Begum Haveli in Bhaati Gate. Of course, the state has been abject in its failure to conserve Lahore’s majestic heritage.Sachal Studios is the brainchild of international businessman Izzat Majeed and man of letters Mushtaq Soofi, an exceptionally motivated duo. Sachal has infused the local music scene with innovation and energy. It is promoting a hybrid orchestra – once an integral part of the subcontinent’s film music tradition. Since 2003, Majeed, an activist and radical intellectual in a previous avatar, has devoted his time and money to this passion – to create Pakistani melodies in sync with the imperatives of contemporary musical sensibilities.

Started as a labour of love, Sachal Studios has released ‘Tarang,’ a collection of music that brings together the best musicians from all over Pakistan, and Humaira Channa’s competent voice. Of late, Channa has been a victim of commercial success and the quality compromises that define Pakistan’s derelict film music. Sachal’s production is a relief; a fresh departure from the usual, and the melodic results are impressive.

At the Old Lahore Haveli, Channa with her family and associates were accorded the respect they deserve. In a similar vein, immensely talented artists, such as the tabla maestro Billoo Khan and Pakistan’s leading sitar player, Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan also attracted the attention of the star-studded guest list and Lahore’s usual chatterati. It was on a dimly lit terrace of the Haveli that I was introduced to Izzat Majeed, who looked pleased with himself and his Sachal partners as notes from the latest album mixed with the spring air.

Inspired by the Abbey Road Studios in London, Majeed and Soofi have been working for the last six years with Christoph Bracher, a scion of a German musicians’ family, to design and set up Sachal Studios. A state of the art music studio in Lahore is a landmark, for it heralds a new trend of post-production finesse that has hitherto been missing from the Pakistani music production process. A major contribution of Majeed is his introduction of the concept of ‘music-producers’. The norms of the industry have tragically reduced the role of a producer to an investor, from that of someone who drives the quality, provides technical inputs and steers the overall aesthetic of a musical experience.

Majeed related to me how he was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. His father was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Majeed to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities.

As he reminisced about the lost eras, Majeed told me how Jazz captured his imagination in his youth. “Believe it or not, great performers such as Louis Armstrong visited Lahore, and played fabulous music at the United States Information Services office on Queen’s Road,” he recalled. But he laments the fact that the vacuum that the local music scene is trapped in is gigantic. Ustad Mehdi Hasan does not sing any more, Madame Noor Jehan is dead and the great golden voices are getting lost in the onslaught of new trends in the music industry. He conceded that the pop scene is vibrant, but a bulk of those productions are “pure electronic noise”. Majeed is right, because the Pakistani state has demolished, brick by brick, the secular, composite culture of the Indus Valley and replaced it with a crippling “ideology” where no flowers bloom, where no bulbul sings.

This is why Sachal Studios is such an important intervention. It flies in the face of the state’s enforced desertification of culture; it seeks to encourage younger singers like Feriha Pervaiz, Ali Raza and Zaheer Abbas amongst others, to become heirs of the traditions that have historically defined musical consciousness in the popular domain. Izzat Majeed is also a poet in Punjabi and English, and so is Mushtaq Soofi. The two music aficionados have lent their verse to the myriad compositions of Sachal Studios.

Sachal’s efforts to build an orchestra have been rewarding. There is joy and unabashed triumph in Majeed’s tone when he says that in 2003 only 10 violinists were available in Lahore; the number has now increased to 30, providing extraordinary ground to the Sachal orchestra on which it can expand and deepen its range. The glorious sub-continental tradition of employing grand orchestras to enhance melodies, used by legends such as Naushad Ali, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, Shankar Jaikishen and Salil Chaudhry has become extinct except perhaps in the works of the genius, A R Rehman. In Pakistan, Majeed has picked up the tradition of serious film music of yesteryear, and has revitalised it; one hears the endangered violin instead of the plain electronic synthesiser in works produced by Sachal Studios.

But Majeed makes no grand claims. “I am not a crusader; I create music for the pleasure of music itself,” he says. This is an unusual statement in a country where bragging is a national pastime. It is easy to understand why Majeed’s partnership with Mushtaq Soofi has been fruitful. Soofi, a notable Punjabi poet, with vast experience in music production at Pakistan Television (PTV), is as self-effacing as Majeed. I met Soofi at the Sachal Studios premises, where he talked to me about his passion for music, sitting at his desk, chain-smoking, books with subjects ranging from pre-Islamic Persia to sources of the English language lying on his lacquered table. Like Majeed, he has also been immersed in music for the better part of his life. And after a long stint at PTV he has devoted his energies to Sachal. The prospect of pursuing music unencumbered by bureaucratic obstacles has set Soofi free.

Earlier, my visit to Sachal was quite an experience. Amid the ramshackle automobile workshops and Warris Road limits, which are constantly shrinking due to encroachments, stood the refurbished building, not too high yet modern in character. Like its vision, the environs and facilities of the studios were also ground-breaking. The state-of-the-art arrangements and impeccable acoustics have led to high quality results. I recalled […]

Noor Jehan & Khurshid Anwar

I loved Fawad’s post “A Divine Musical Collaboration – Noor Jehan & Khurshid Anwar” and here it is:

In the wake of Khalid Hasan’s death, the great Pakistani songstress Noor Jehan (Wikipedia) has been much on my mind. Khalid Hasan was a great admirer of the late Madam and wrote a much quoted tribute essay on Noor Jehan. Perhaps more importantly he translated Saadat Hasan Manto’s great portrait of Noor Jehan’s early years as a rising diva in pre-partition Bombay under the title “Nur Jehan: One in a Million” (unfortunately this link is to a scan of the essay and hard to read but the essay is included in the collection “Stars from Another Sky”). “Stars from Another Sky” includes other translations of Manto’s brilliant Urdu sketches published in “Ganjay Farishtay” and “Loudspeaker” on film industry icons like Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Naseem Bano (Dilip Kumar’s wife, Saira Bano’s mother) and Shyam. […]

March 3rd, 2009|Cinema, Music, South Asian Art|2 Comments

Three Pakistani film songs

Jab Koi Piyar se Bulaye ga


October 1st, 2008|Cinema, Music, Pakistan, Personal, Urdu, video|7 Comments

A Wild Lover Of God – Rumi

A Wild Lover Of God

Bureau Report, “‘Rumi’s a bridge between east & west'” – The Times Of India – India
The maker of the all-time classic Umrao Jaan is all set to end his over-a-decade-long hiatus from filmmaking.
August 5th, 2008|Cinema, Rumi, Sufism|5 Comments