The mythopoeia of a machete

March 10, 2019 12:00 am | Updated 04:45 am IST

Maula Jattis to Pakistan whatSholayis to India, and this Eid a new remake is all set to release across the border

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. The two — Sholay (1975) and Maula Jatt (1979) — were conceived in the two conjoined nations on either side of the Radcliffe line.

The Legend of Maula Jatt , a remake directed by Bilal Lashari , is set to hit screens this Eid. 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 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.

Instead, Adeeb focuses on giving full play to the rivalries of the feuding clans — a mediaeval set-up in modern times — where caste loyalties trump those of nation, blood feuds extend to whole tribes, and the protagonist administers kangaroo justice.

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 dominant till the 70s in Pakistani films. 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.This was also because while the best Punjabi talent migrated en masse to Bombay, the crème de la crème of talent on the Pakistani side remained in Punjab.

Maula Jatt went on to develop cult status. 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.

Male and macho

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...”

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 Sholay s 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 questions being asked ahead of the film’s wide-scale release across the border.

A film where caste loyalties trump those of nation, blood feuds extend to whole tribes, and the protagonist administers kangaroo justice

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