Sohni dharti: From Heer Ranjha to the gandasa

The rise of the Lollywood Goonda did not go unchallenged.

Khurram Ali Shafique November 25, 2012

“This is our misfortune: we are giving birth to a society where courage has come to be understood as being a goonda, and the nobility of character is seen as cowardice. Today, a blood-dripping gandasa has become the icon of our culture and civilisation, instead of the reed pipe emanating the melodies of love. Please think, what have we made of this beautiful land (sohni dharti) of Heer and Ranjha?”

This question was raised thirty-two years ago by Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar — members of the same team that had given the country its immortal national song, “Sohni Dharti”.

The glorification of crime and the presence of outlaws in the world of literature and cinema may have started much earlier, but it reached unprecedented height when the character created by writer and poet Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi appeared on screen in Wahshi Jatt (1975) and Maula Jatt (1979). Hence the visionaries of the Sohni Dharti school of thought were compelled to raise a question, and they did that through the movie Rishta, released on September 5, 1980. The lines translated above are taken from a dialogue of the protagonist in that movie, and constitute the central idea of the film.

Of course, an obvious answer to the question could be that the blood-dripping gandasa is a legitimate icon of our culture and civilisation because it depicts our social reality more than the reed of Rumi and Ranjha. Qasmi, students of literature and the creators of goonda movies would perhaps unanimously agree on this point in spite of any differences in their respective social backgrounds.

It is therefore important to remember those who dared to differ from this point of view. These visionaries believed that it was not sufficient to depict a problem but to also suggest the possible solutions. Through Rishta and a series of subsequent movies culminating in the blockbuster Ghareebon Ka Badshah (1988), Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar evolved and depicted a coherent social philosophy, addressing the relevant issues from a holistic point of view.

Rishta was a story about family vendetta but ended in a climax which incorporated motifs from the incident of Karbala. The heroine of the story was an old woman (played by Sabiha Khanum), whose husband had been assassinated by Shahbaz Khan (Mehboob Alam) due to a family feud. Shahbaz had also sworn to eliminate his enemy’s entire bloodline (just like Maula in Qasmi’s short story). This eventually leads to a head-on clash between the well-armed mercenaries of Shahbaz and the poorly equipped supporters of the old woman and her son, Rahat (played by Nadeem). The woman tries to stop the battle, and gets mortally wounded by Shahbaz. At this point, a few minutes before the ending, the audience learns the first name of this woman, who has been addressed throughout the movie by her title. Her name is Zainab.

Mortally wounded, Zainab announces forgiveness for her assassin. “Neither do I want retribution in the Hereafter,” she declares. “I forgive you in both worlds.” In a dying speech, she explains to Shahbaz that a better world cannot be created for future generations unless we are prepared to offer some sacrifice today. What she has sacrificed is her life and what she succeeds in eliciting from her enemy is the matching sacrifice of the enemy’s base instinct and false ego. Zainab’s son Rahat and Shahbaz’s daughter Saira, who love each other secretly, now receive the consent of Shahbaz to be united in marriage. This vindicates the belief of Zainab that forgiveness and sacrifice on part of one generation leads to happiness and prosperity for the next generation.

Qasmi had depicted the mother of Maula as the instigator of hatred and vendetta, who never stopped nagging her son to spill more blood and demanding that the entire bloodline of their enemy should be eliminated from the face of the earth (and this was the “literary” origin of the famous “mother” of Punjabi movies, whose shout is loud enough to be heard by her son miles away). Hence, the mother in Qasmi’s story becomes the proverbial “temptress” who causes man to commit the “original sin”. Perhaps as a conscious rebuttal of this theory, Rishta offers three motherly characters (played by Sabiha Khanum, Nayyar Sultana and Najma Mehboob), whose circumstances are very different from each other but they all define motherhood in terms of love, sacrifice and social responsibility.

The fundamental difference boils down to the fact that Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar depict the human being as capable of making choices based on principles. On the other hand, Qasmi and the creators of goonda films agree, implicitly and explicitly, that the human being is the prisoner of instinct and social conditioning. In the short story Gandasa, Maula is a creature of instinct. In the climax of the story, he temporarily stops taking revenge but that is because his instinct for revenge has been overcome by some other instinct (and, once again, this new instinct is stirred in him by yet another woman, who has no other function in the story).

Divided by instinct and social conditioning, the educated and the unschooled live in two parallels worlds in the imagination of Qasmi. One of these is the world of the unschooled, to which Maula belongs together with his friends, family and enemies. The other is the world of public servants, of which we are given brief glimpses through the police and judiciary. The unschooled world of Maula seems to be alive with base instinct and various kinds of lust, and the distant world of the educated ones appears to be impotent and lacking in any purpose. Creatures from these two universes never unite and their interaction is based on apathy and mutual suspicion.

The world of Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar is fundamentally opposed to this conception of the human beings. Regardless of education, characters can rise above instinct. They can embrace principles, choose values, and by the virtue of these traits they may transcend the artificial divisions of social and educational backgrounds. Ultimately, they can become masters of destiny, and not only change hearts but also alter the course of the future through the conscious sacrifice of personal interest.

This, then, is the conception of human being famously incorporated into the second line of Sohni Dharti: “As long as the world is there, may we see you prosper” (Jab tak hai yeh duniya baaqi, hum dekhain aabad tujhay).

Whether we choose the philosophy of gandasa or the world of Sohni Dharti is up to us. However, the choice cannot be made until we have learnt about both. It seems that every one of us has happily, willingly and consciously adopted the national song ‘Sohni Dharti’ as our collective identity. Yet, we have never bothered to find out anything about the poet who wrote it, the stories he told, and the school of thought to which he belonged. This, perhaps, is the correct answer to the question which he asked in 1980: Why has a blood-dripping gandasa become the icon of our culture and civilisation, instead of the reed pipe emanating the melodies of love?

Khurram Ali Shafique is the author of Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006) and offers online courses in Iqbal Studies for Iqbal Academy Pakistan. [email protected]

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 25th, 2012.

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Robert | 8 years ago | Reply Greetings, Thank you for this most interesting article. I find "Rishta" to be a great example of media that portrays the highest in humanity. I find it, as it's described here, to be empowering, pointing to an immense capacity for humans, while the gooda films can be taken to imply that a human is a victim of his/her circumstances, and reacts, like a victim, from base instincts. The films of Pervez Malik and Masroor Anwar clearly depict something grand about people, while the other films connote something small and fearful. Why would we not, as people, love what is best about us *all*, instead of parading about the most ignoble instincts? Why not give our youth, and indeed all people, something that is good, something that the most noble parts of us will recognize, and something toward which we can all aspire? This is a great article which highlights these points so well. All good wishes, robert
ranu802 | 8 years ago | Reply

It is quite an interesting story.This is the first time I read it. I think the movie is worth watching.I hope someone will upload it on YouTube. Thank you., Ranu

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