The establishment of the Lahore film industry 

Ishtiaq Ahmed American actress, Iris Crawford, also acted in the film. It is indicative of cosmopolitanism being an attractive feature of the Lahore that developed into a beautiful city under enlightened British administrators

When was the first film theatre built in Lahore? A reliable answer eludes us, but we can say with certainty that by the early 1920s there were nine cinemas in Lahore. It was the era of silent films. Films made in Hollywood, London, Bombay and Calcutta attracted eager crowds as Punjabis have proverbially been among the first to respond when it comes to entertainment. A very interesting feature of the silent films era was live background music accompanying the film. A group of musicians was in the cinema hall who played the piano, tabla and other instruments to provide dramatic effects to the story being told. So, it was a semi-live performance to which the audiences related in a more animated manner than when the talkies arrived and no intermediary between the film being shown on the screen and the people watching it existed. 

The first silent film made in Lahore was The Daughters of Today, released in 1924. A former officer of the North-Western Railway, G. K. Mehta, produced it. He had imported a camera from London. The future legendary Bombay filmmaker, Mian Abdur Rashid Kardar, famously known as A R Kardar, worked with Mehta as assistant director and also as the lead actor. According to veteran writer A Hameed, The Daughters of Today was produced largely in the open air as there was no studio in Lahore at that time. Kardar and his fellow artist and calligraphist, M Ismail, later a noted character actor in post-partition Pakistani films, sold their properties and in 1928 established a studio on Ravi Road, near Bhaati Gate where they lived. The lighting facilities in the studios were not very good and shooting was possible only in the daylight. The choice of Ravi Road was partly dictated by the fact that at that time thick forest existed along the banks of the River Ravi while the mausoleums of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan were just across the bridge. These provided excellent locations for shooting action packed melodramas. 

The first film produced at the Ravi Road Studios was Husn ka Daku or Mysterious Eagle. This time, Kardar was the director himself as well as the leading male actor oppositie Gulzar Begum. Ismail played a supporting role. An American actress, Iris Crawford, also acted in the film. It is indicative of cosmopolitanism being an attractive feature of the Lahore that developed into a beautiful city under enlightened British administrators. The film did quite well, but Kardar decided to not act in films and instead concentrate on direction. Kardar also produced Sarfarosh or Braveheart with Gul Hameed playing the lead role. Hameed was reportedly one of the handsomest men to grace the silver screen. Sarfarosh was noticed by the film pundits in Bombay and Calcutta and Lahore's reputation as an up and coming film-making centre began to receive greater attention. 

In 1932, Kardar produced the first talkie from Lahore, Heer Ranjha. That must have been quite an achievement because the first Bombay talkie, Alam Ara, was released only a year earlier. Punjab's contribution to romance ? the passion it arouses and the pain it causes ? has a very long pedigree. In that pedigree, the legend of Heer in particular has always been the most fascinating. It is the Punjabi variant of Romeo and Juliet. 

Down the ages, Damodar Das Arora, Mukbaz and Ahmed Gujjar have told the story but the most famous rendition is by the sufi-scholar Waris Shah (1722-1798). Ranjha romances with Heer initially in the typical Krishna model: A god playing the flute, herding cattle and attracting young girls. Later, Ranjha joins the Order of Gorakhnathi yogis to express his protest and rejection of an unkind world as Heer is married off to Saida Khera. 

No wonder the legend of Heer continues to fascinate Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike as it is a blend of several layers of the subcontinent's religious mythology and folklore. It continues to be told on the silver screen over and over again in Bombay, though in Lahore the last attempt in 1970 became a great musical of Khawaja Khurshid Anwar. In any event, by launching Heer Ranjha as the first talking movie from Lahore in 1932, Kardar made a landmark contribution to the history of the Lahore film industry. I hope film historians will take note of it. 

Now, the intriguing point to consider is that Waris Shah called his epic only Heer. According to my very learned senior friend Mr Bhisham Kumar Bakshi, there was a feminist rationale behind it. Waris Shah wanted to expose male chauvinism that characterised the powerful Jatt caste of Jhang in western Punjab to which Heer belonged. Ownership of women was and still is a very strong indicator of the hegemony of male chauvinism, and in the agricultural order such possession and control of females is an integral part of the possession of land and other factors. That we are still stuck in it or rather have sunk deeper into it through honour killings and acid throwing is something to consider. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has used cinematography to highlight that and has won a most coveted Oscar in 2012. But, of that later.

Two other individuals played a pioneering role in the development of the nascent film industry in Lahore. Roop Lal Shori, a resident of Brandreth Road, Lahore, produced several films that found eager audiences outside Punjab. In particular, Qismat ke Her Pher, aka Life After Death, firmly established the new industry's reputation as being in line with other film industries of the time. Later, a Gujrati, DM Pancholi, set up a studio in Lahore and with it the Lahore industry had firmly established its credentials. 

In the beginning, films produced in Lahore were mainly in the Punjabi language, which till 1947 were shown in the whole of undivided Punjab as well as in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Kanpur where Punjabis had been settling in significant numbers since the early 20th century.

After the partition of Punjab in 1947, no comparable Punjabi-language film industry came up in the Indian Punjab. Some Punjabi films continued to be made in Bombay, but as a whole the partition of Punjab was a major blow to regional-language cinema in India.

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at

Daily Times, Sunday, March 25, 2012