Punjabi cinema during Partition: Cameras did not roll for two years

Punjabi cinema during Partition: Cameras did not roll for two years

Back to roots: Chaman, first Punjabi film made after Partition, was released at Lahore’s Ratan Cinema.

Bhim Raj Garg

The deadly virus has wrapped its tentacles around Indian films and regional cinema. Closer home, Punjabi cinema is seeing tough times. Shooting schedules of several big-ticket films have gone haywire. Movies like Galwakdi, Television, Gol Gappe, Kabootar, Jagga 7/51, etc. remain unreleased. Though such total closure of Pollywood is unprecedented, Punjabi cinema has been through bad times earlier too. Partition of India was a big blow and then came wars and terrorism.

Worst of times

On August 15, 1947, India was subjected to a bloody division, resulting in the exodus of nearly 14 million people and killing of more than a million. Unrest had, however, begun a few years in the run-up. Sporadic incidences of ethnic violence were reported in parts of Punjab from time to time, forcing filmmakers to shy away from producing Punjabi films. Even big stars like Nurjehan, Manorama and Shamshad Begum changed the tracks from Punjabi to Hindi movies, shifting base to Mumbai.

Such were the times that none of the biggies in Punjabi film arena liked to venture into Punjabi movies. Just one movie per year was produced between 1943 and 1946, most of them by first timers. Satish Batra had started making Gul Baloch in 1942. It came to the editing table as late as 1943 and, for reasons still a mystery, it slipped from his hands to Mushtaq Ahmed and Gul Zaman and released only in 1945. Kamli (1946) was the last Punjabi movie to be made in Lahore.

The year of the great divide, 1947, saw no release. The first Punjabi movie of independent India was Chaman (1948) directed by Roop K. Shorey, whose Lahore studio was burnt down by rioters.

Shutters down

During the pre-independence days, four full-fledged studios catered to the needs of the Punjabi film industry in Lahore. During Partition, out of these four studios, one was burnt down during the riots, one was sealed as its owner had migrated to India and the other two, Pancholi No.1 and No. 2, remained under the custody of Dewan Sardari Lal. The Pancholi Studios were later named as Punjab Art Studio.

During the riot, most cinemas and film production/distribution offices in Lahore were sealed. Ratan Cinema had just been built, but its Hindu owner had fled to India without seeing its formal launch. The sealed cinema houses were allotted to Muslim refugees in Lahore, Karachi and Dhaka. Dewan Sardari Lal produced Pakistan’s first film Teri Yaad (1948) with Nasir Khan and Asha Posley in the romantic lead. It proved to be a big flop in front of Indian films. The Shahnoor Studios, built on the vandalised remains of Shorey Studios, was taken over by Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi and Noor Jehan.

The communal strife dealt a crushing blow to Punjabi cinema and Lahore became a ghost town. Most of the displaced Punjabi filmmakers, artistes and musicians — Roop K. Shorey, DM Pancholi, Pran Sukand, Om Prakash, Vinod and Kuldip Kaur — landed in Bombay empty handed, but rich in experience. Pancholi could not even bring the negatives of his films, leaving his two modern studios and many cinema halls in the care of his associate Dewan Sardari Lal. The relocated Punjabi film industry tried to recreate another Lahore in Bombay. Shot in Bombay, the first Punjabi film of post-Independence India, Chaman, bore the stamp of Lahori culture; it was released in 1948. Other notable films of the era were Lachhi, Chhai, Posti and Bhangra, etc.

Second wave

The wounds of bloody Partition were still fresh in the minds of Punjabis when the second shock came in the form of a partial ban on Indian films by Pakistan in 1952. This led to no production of Punjabi films that year. The rest of the decade saw just 11 Punjabi films being produced. However, the mega success of Bhangra (1959) ushered in an era of hit Punjabi movies like Do Lachhian, Guddi, Jeejaji, Chaudhary Karnail Singh, Pind Di Kuri, Kiklee and Sutlej De Kande, etc. Although India faced the 1962 war with China and two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, these did not affect the production of Punjabi movies. Rather, these wars provided the filmmakers with new plots/storylines for films like Dharti Veeran Di (1965), Aeh Dharti Punjab Di (1966), Gabroo Desh Punjab De (1966), etc. The cinema halls, however, did not screen evening and night shows during the blackout period for a month or so.

The next onslaught for Punjabi cinema came from terrorism in the early 1980s and lasted till the late 1990s. Punjabi cinema witnessed occasional stoppage of film shootings due to terror attacks on film units and screenings due to bombing of cinema halls. Punjabi film star Veerendra was assassinated while he was shooting for the film Jatt Tey Zameen near Ludhiana in 1987. This cold-blooded murder came as a bolt from the blue for Punjabi cinema and all film production activities came to a grinding halt.

Counting the losses

With the dawn of the new millennium, Punjabi cinema started making new strides with production of extravagant movies and establishing of production facilities in Chandigarh and Mohali. However, Covid-19 has dealt an unprecedented blow, stifling the growth of the film industry. The last few months of crisis are going to have a long-term impact.

However, this is for the first time in the history of the country that the box offices are shut across India. Filmmakers have now begun exploring OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., but may yet not be able to make the kind of money multiplex releases brought them.

The Punjabi movie industry that emerges after the pandemic will necessarily be altered. The public, even though starved of entertainment, will not start thronging theatres immediately. Their movie-watching habits will have to be recultivated. ‘Pent-up demand’ works well and whenever a big Punjabi film releases, people would surely lap it up. There is always a silver lining in the dark cloud. Covid-19 will usher in a new era of hope, opportunities and progress.

— The writer is a film historian

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