Three years ago, when I decided to look for old Urdu film magazines to trace memoirs that I intended to translate into English, I had no clue what lay in store. Having seen them all through childhood, I was perplexed that no one seemed to know about them any more.
As it turned out, no one knew because these publications were nowhere to be found. In a very unfortunate turn of events, which directly reflects the marginalisation of Urdu in the country, almost the entire bunch of Urdu film journals has all but vanished. Popular within the country and beyond for a considerable period — some seven decades — what survive now are some sporadic fragments. Urdu film magazines were largely not archived institutionally and it is a monumental loss.
A relentless pursuit of two years did yield some results and from whatever little I could retrieve, it comes across as a heritage that should certainly have been conserved. The remarkably high quality of the content, including the priceless images, gives a clear indication that the pages contained valuable records that documented the evolution of Hindi cinema through the ages.
In the absence of any definitive study on the subject, the exact origins of Urdu film journalism are hazy. Available sources point
to Cinema , published from Lahore in 1925 and edited by R.L. Seth and S.A. Rasheed, as the first Urdu magazine dedicated exclusively to films.
The 30s saw an abundance of Urdu film publications originating from all parts of the country. Film Art (Delhi), Shabistaan (Lahore) and Film Stage (Kolkata) were among the many visible ones in the fray. Then there was Musavvir (Mumbai), guided to prominence by its editor Sa’adat Hasan Manto.
The milestone mag
In his essay ‘Urdu Sahaafat Aur Film’ ( Aaj Kal , November-December 1983), poet Manmohan Talkh recounts an interesting anecdote narrated by publicist-turned-film columnist K. Razdan: “I worked as a publicist for Guru Dutt Films. One day I was reading Chitra in my office when Guru Dutt walked into the room. He pointed to the magazine and asked, ‘Do you have a complete collection of this?’ When I told him that I didn’t, he was very surprised, ‘But why not? Each Tuesday I see it with every producer. Such an important paper! Make a file of this.’”
Guru Dutt was talking about Chitra , an Urdu film magazine that began from Lahore in 1934 and gained wild fame in no time.
Lahore had a thriving film industry in those days and the likes of Dalsukh Pancholi, A.R. Kardar and Roop K. Shourie were shaping the course of Indian cinema. Urdu was the dominant language of the region and the city quickly became a springboard for the launch of a host of film publications such as Shabistaan , Filmkaar , Tasveer , Star and, of course, Chitra .
However, it was Delhi that went on to produce the major film magazines in the later years, including the one that is unanimously acknowledged as a milestone.
Yusuf Dehlvi launched Shama in 1939 and the monthly went on to rule the roost for the next six decades. Urdu film magazines had developed a unique structure that combined film and literary writing and this format reached the zenith of popularity with Shama .
Aarzoo Lakhnavi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander and many others — a list of its frequent contributors reads
like a roll call of modern greats. Enjoying a virtually unchallenged stay at the top for its entire course of existence, Shama was a household name and much in demand among Urdu readers around the globe.
Ruby was another publication that made a mark. Founded in 1966 by Rehman Nayyar, a former Shama employee, it was inclined towards glamour and had a good run till it shutdown in the late 80s.
Having tested the waters on a modest scale with Nirali Duniya a few years earlier, Anees Dehlvi took another shot at publishing a film magazine with Filmy Sitaarey in 1972 and met with reasonable success.
The last major Urdu film periodical was Gulfaam , owned and edited by Sultan Akhtar. Making its first appearance in 1981, it was soon to earn the patronage of Dilip Kumar and would subsequently carry pieces written by the star and also exclusive interviews with him. Video arrived and swept the film-crazy nation off its feet. It was a steady decline for the magazines from that point onwards, as readership kept shrinking.
The 90s unleashed a blitz of satellite channels — movies and stars were available round the clock at the flick of a button and film magazines, in general, lost their charm. While the repercussions were harsh for all the glossies across languages, they were particularly severe on Urdu, forcing a number of publishers to shut shop.
However, the unkindest cut was yet to come. There was barely any effort to archive these publications, once the toast of film and literary circles. Library officials ascribe varying reasons to this — some unequivocally call it a prejudice against Urdu while others blame it on plain indifference.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that today there are very few institutions where one can find Urdu film magazines — the few that did keep some don’t have the resources to preserve them well.
Fortunately, with technology becoming more accessible, some efforts are being made to digitalise the surviving content. A little support from authorities could provide great impetus to this endeavour.
The writer is an independent cinematographer and author of Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends .