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The mythopoeia of a machete

Two vigilante revenge dramas, one set in rural Punjab and the other somewhere in the Hindi heartland, released within four years of each other. Both went on to blaze a long trail. Both made their way into the popular consciousness during a period of national emergency. And both, with their oft-quoted dialogues and consequential characters, spawned a succession of rip-offs, spin-offs and remakes. One remark here: the two — Sholay (1975) and Maula Jatt (1979) — despite their remarkably similar feudal background and shared elements, were conceived in the two conjoined nations on either side of the Radcliffe line. And now, The Legend of Maula Jatt, a big-budget remake directed by Bilal Lashari , is set to hit screens this Eid.

The present spell of sabre-rattling between the two nuclear-armed neighbours only presents another ripe opportunity to reflect on the one factor that unites more than divides the arch-rivals: our common cultural past. And, given the failure of hard power to lead to any lasting solution, the cul-de-sac only strengthens the argument for both sides to make an uninterrupted — and uninterruptible — soft power push. This can, as scholar Alyssa Ayres has documented, begin with a re-discovery of ‘Punjabiyat’, as happened in the middle of the last decade, a few years after the 2001 Parliament attack.

Maula Jatt and its precursor Wehshi Jatt (1975) act sometimes as the mirror image, sometimes the alter-ego of Sholay. Their eponymous, stentorian-toned lead character straddles the protagonist-antagonist binary, imbibing the traits of Thakur as well as Gabbar Singh. His nemesis in the second film, Noori Nutt, is a conniving, masochistic version of Gabbar. The background score accompanying Noori is surely a throwback to Gabbar.

Humanising the beast

The two Sultan Rahi-starrers have their roots in progressive writer Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s short story Gandasa, a study of the psychological transformation of the lead character from a weapon-toting wehshi (beast) — one whose moniker and machete (gandasa) strike terror in the hearts of children — to a considerate mortal. However, the films change the thrust of Qasmi’s story by externalising, rather than internalising, Maula’s existential angst. Writer Nasir Adeeb is not interested in the character’s animus coming in touch with his anima, which happens in Qasmi’s Gandasa through the introduction of Rajo, a woman from his enemy Ranga’s family.

Poster of Wehshi Jatt (1975)

Poster of Wehshi Jatt (1975)
 

Instead, Adeeb, in both films, focuses on giving full play to the rivalries of the feuding clans. It is a mediaeval set-up, albeit one with modern elements like the existence of a dysfunctional law-and-order machinery, where caste loyalties trump those of nation.

In the first film, the lead vows not just to destroy the family of Ranga, who has murdered his father, but his entire Malik tribe. In the second film, Maula also acts as a jurist, administering kangaroo justice — when he is not sparring with his bête noire Noori Nutt, that is.

Manly men and the deep state

As documented by historian Iqbal Sevea, Maula’s character was the archetype of the ideal Punjabi onscreen male — fierce, masculine and steeped in notions of pride and honour. Maula’s ascent, he says, represented the backlash of the Punjabi-speaking Jatt proletariat against the domination of the Urdu-speaking elite, whose patois and paraphernalia were ascendant till the 70s in Pakistani films.

The masculinity of Maula and Noori, and their desire to prove it at every step, can be also seen as representative of the bigger crisis of identity faced by the Pakistani state. Though the characters’ pursuit of extra-constitutional violence was in parallel to the state machinery, their perpetual proclivity to assert their power and create adversaries was reflective of the heavily militarised apparatus of Pakistan’s deep state, a behemoth whose existence is predicated on the country’s perceived enmity with its neighbour. Noori’s amputation at the end, which signifies the end of the two warlords’ race to the bottom, can be seen as a marker of Pakistan’s partition in 1971. Pakistan’s identity crisis only became more acute during the aggressive Islamisation of Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, when the long arm of the state was used to suppress dissent and keep women in a state of subservience.

Unlike Sholay, where the caste equations between Gabbar and Thakur are kept muted, caste identity is front and centre in Maula Jatt. The battle between Maula and Noori is not just a battle of two families, it is a Gramscian War of Position, at the end of which the dominant Jatt identity emerges triumphant, and through it, a notion of the ideal Punjabi male is congealed.

Historian John Tosh argues that masculinity has both a psychic and a social dimension. In the case of Maula, the psychic dimension reflects in his status as the ‘protector’ of the honour of the village, including its women, while the social is seen in the implicit ‘gandasa’ code through which the villagers act in his presence.

Rebel phenomenon

The Punjabi film industry in Pakistan expanded massively in the 80s following Maula Jatt’s success; more than 8,000 Pakistani Punjabi films have been made till date, more than four times the number of Indian Punjabi movies. In contrast, the equivalent industry in India struggled until the mid 2000s. This difference is partly due toLahore, one of the film capitals of pre-Partition India, being in their Punjab. However, a second factor here is that while the best Punjabi talent migrated en masse to Bombay, the crème de la crème of expertise there remained in Punjab. Hence, while more than 8,000 Pakistani Punjabi films have been made thus far, the output on the Indian side is just one-fourth of that number.

Maula Jatt went on to develop cult status, which can also be understood through a reading of the numerous academic texts on it. Cinema and Society, an anthology on Pakistani cinema, says the film became a signifier of “rebellious masculinity” for Punjab’s men. Its dialogues became a staple of conversations and speeches. Sindh leader Altaf Hussain’s mimicking of Sultan Rahi while attacking the Punjabi political elite is one example. Incidentally, Hussain belongs to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party that represents mohajirs — those who migrated from India during Partition. His appropriation of a Punjabi masculine symbol cannot but be seen as a rebellion against the dominance of the Punjabi upper-caste elite in politics, giving the film’s allegorical aspect a new dimension.

Maula Jatt… didn’t start off as a phenomenon, but simmered and then exploded,” says Ali Khan, co-editor of Cinema and Society. “[One] reason it became so popular was that General Zia [ul-Haq] sought to ban the film because it had what he felt were elements of rebellion in it… Nasir Adeeb [the writer] stated that audiences cheered whenever a policeman was beaten in the film or when authority was challenged…” Khan adds that “whenever [Maula Jatt] gets a small showing, you will find audiences flocking to the theatre, many of whom know every dialogue and repeat it as the film proceeds. People feel an affinity for it.”

Still from The Legend of Maula Jatt (2019)

Still from The Legend of Maula Jatt (2019)
 

Masculinity, vitality, vigour. These are the words that pop out of the screen when you see The Legend of Maula Jatt’s trailer. Starring Fawad Khan — known for his romantic roles — as Maula, the film promises to make the Maula-Noori contest not just adversarial, but gladiatorial. Will it achieve Maula Jatt’s cult status? Or will it be crucified, as many wannabe Sholays were? Will it be a harbinger of better times for the Punjabi film industry in Pakistan, currently experiencing recession? Or will it trigger an increase in quantity but regression in quality, as the original Maula Jatt did? These are some of the questions being asked ahead of the film’s wide-scale release across the border.

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