By M. Ali Kapadia
Since its inception, Pakistani Cinema was always known for its sentimental, romantic films. But in 1979, the theatrical release of a violent film about feudal vengeance called Maula Jatt changed it all. Released two years into the dictatorial Zia-Islamization era (1977) that imposed censorship policies against displays of affection but not violence, it dominated cinema houses for 310 weeks, while the sentimental films remained crushed under restrictions.
This phenomenal success made Maula Jatt the poster child for success under the new rules. For decades, studios copied Maula Jatt’s rage-ridden storylines instead of getting creative with the rules, ultimately alienating the regular family cinema-goers and appealing only to a male demographic in rural parts of the country. Talented actors and technicians eventually left out of alienation, deteriorating the industry further.
The Jatt World
Maula Jatt (1979) is actually an unofficial sequel to the lesser known black-and-white film Weshshi Jatt (1975). We’ll take a deeper look at both of these films, and explore why the sequel was so much more influential than its own predecessor.
The Jatt stories take place in a Punjabi village. They revolve around Maula, an embodiment of raging machismo. With great pride in his strength and ironically, an out-of-shape body, his demeanor is a grand celebration of his own being. What makes him even bigger, is his ego. Walking with his chest out, arms swinging sideways, in his mind, he is like a greek god. The eighth wonder. A legend that Punjab will remember.
What drives Maula’s ego is a furious thirst for vengeance. Cutting the guts out of anyone who dares to dispute his imagined self-importance. That big mustache, territorial nature, and loud temper are blatant endorsements of a single concept: fire-pumping masculinity.
The writers are saying… look at him, he’s a man.
The Role of Women
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright once said, “Women put the civil in civilization.” They keep men in check. They sway them away from violence.
That said, the more a society suppresses the female voice, the more chaos it finds itself in. Afghanistan is a living example.
But unlike the reality of Punjabi villages, the Jatt franchise is set in a strange utopian village. Here, women are not suppressed, but live by entirely different values. Instead of being forced to cover themselves up, they roam around without restrictions. Instead of keeping men away from violence, they dare them to it. They choose men by a different criteria too. In one instance, our heroine (a milkwoman) falls in love with Maula not when she meets him, or sees him, but only when she hears that he has committed murder in public.
Some might interpret this as women empowerment. That’s not the film’s intention. Here, women are defined by caveman standards. For example, lets look at the character Malkani in Wehshi Jatt, the villain’s raging sister who roams around carrying a whip and calling for death to her enemies; probably the most empowered woman in the franchise.
A good portion of the film is spent with a humorous supporting character named Bala Gadi, who constantly hits on her. His advances are meant to be funny because this deadly woman rejects him with threats every time. So at one point, when Malkani furiously rejects yet another of Bala Gadi’s sleazy pickup lines, out of nowhere, Bala Gadi slaps her hard across the face.
With a loud thunder clap, she rolls, loses her balance, and falls on Bala’s gadi. Then, we get to look at Malkani’s face. To our surprise, instead of rage, we see a shy and lovestruck nimble lady breathing deeply, and softly.
A subservient Lollywood heroine emerges. Barely able to look Bala in the eyes, she poetically whispers her love for him, and thanks him for breaking her pride. She then spends the rest of the film inseparably in love with him.
Wehshi Jatt (1975)
Surprisingly, Wehshi Jatt, the first film in this series, begins with a monologue rejecting violence. The narrator cries out that humanity is lost at the hands of men who kill other men over “honor.” The film then spends the rest of its time following men who cut men over “honor.”
For instance, Maula wants to avenge his father’s murder, and everyone is calling for each other’s blood. The police, being ever-so-responsible in this franchise, captures his father’s killers, but Maula lies in court to release the murderers so that he can kill the entire clan himself.
In contrast to all this bloodlust is Maula’s friend Roshan — a level-headed individual who appears every now and then begging Maula to stop his madness for revenge. Roshan is probably the only major character in the entire franchise who is against spilling blood. More on him in a bit.
I’m a fan of Korean thrillers. In these films, though violence by the protagonist is often committed for survival, most of the times, it is committed exclusively for vengeance. Two hours of that in a Pakistani film is fine by me, but I don’t think it was for Wehshi Jatt’s filmmakers.
Again, Pakistani films before the 1970s were internationally popular for their family-friendly love stories depicting high virtues. But in Wehshi Jatt’s case, a hero lies under oath to get an opportunity to murder other human beings. This idea of deriving entertainment out of a protagonist’s behaving like an antagonist was a new frontier for Pakistani cinema, and Wehshi Jatt’s filmmakers seem reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace it.
They do spend most of the film creating entertainment out of Maula’s ferocity, but before every one of Maula’s vengeful endeavors, Rohsan appears out of nowhere trying to lecture him out of violence, only to fail at it every time. Rohsan mostly serves as the story’s moral compass, reminding audiences that vengeance is wrong—ironically, just before said audience is entertained by glorified acts of vengeance!
To understand this moral tic-tac-toe a little better, let’s examine the scene where the most surprising thing of all happens. Maula finally swears to give up vengeance, puts down his blade, and renounces violence. What is significant about this scene, is that it happens with just 30 seconds remaining in the film — right after Maula has cut up and killed every villager from the enemy clan, leaving only a brutally slashed open villain drenched in his blood and guts, painfully breathing what may be his last breaths.
See, grandeur of violence in action scenes is Wehshi Jatt’s commercial value proposition — the bang for your buck, if you will.
However, rejection of violence is its intended ideological position. Such convoluted choices with no clever play inbetween left only awkward moments to assert an imagined moral standing that appears half-hearted at best, and confused at worst.
Three key emotions are worth tracking in the film: rage, humor, and sentimentalism. The following chart tracks the value of these emotions in every scene from a scale of 0–100 (based on my personal impression) over the film’s two-hour timeline.
Notice how sentimentalism appears consistently. This is Roshan’s begging Maula to stop.
The humor is a combination of things, but mostly either Bala Gadi’s failed attempts to woo Malkani, or our milkwoman’s failed attempts to woo Maula.
The take-away is how rage and violence are employed; first introduced to show violent capacities of the protagonist and antagonist, and then used for its anticipation value, building it up till the end where we have climactic battles.
Maula Jatt (1979)
One way Maula Jatt (1979), the unoffficial sequel to Wehshi Jatt, is particularly different from its predecessor is that it conveniently omits Roshan’s moral message(s).
Roshan was killed before the last battle of Wehshi Jatt, but the filmmakers don’t attempt to replace him with some other voice of morality. This is because for the first time, Maula is being accepted by the writer for what he is: an instrument of vengeance.
No one asks Maula to stop in this sequel. And Maula rages like never before. This fixes a lot of the moral confusion and half-hearted ideology that perplexed Wehshi Jatt. The result: a no-holds-barred punjabi can of whoop-ass with gandasa-slashing-blood-lust, interrupted only by punjabi songs.
In another chart, we can examine the same three emotions distributed in Maula Jatt: rage, humor, and sentimentalism.
Notice how sentimentalism is almost non-existent. A higher degree of humor is present. But most prominent, is how rage occurs frequently and at a higher intensity. Rage is also employed purposefully as the definitive “bang for your buck,” instead of Wehshi Jatt’s reserved approach. And if you’re wondering about those empty gaps with no rage or violence present, they’re of course punjabi songs.
Here, we see Maula Jatt’s rage mapped over Wehshi Jatt’s rage.
From a story-progression standpoint, Maula Jatt is almost exclusively about the conflict between Maula and an interesting character named Noori Natt. Noori is newly out of prison and finds out that his brother got insulted by Maula for harrassing a woman from Maula’s village. Maula and Noori, two ferocious men, both seek out each other to settle matters.
When actor Mustafa Qureshi was tasked to be an overpowering villain against Maula, played by the (famously loud) actor Rahi, Qureshi did something ingenious. He could have done what the villain in Wehshi Jatt did, but instead of being fatter and louder than Maula, Qureshi decided to be fitter and softer. This made Noori Natt an exquisitely entertaining villain to watch. Maula would rage and rage at the top of his lungs, and Noori would turn with a light chuckle, and deliver a short eloquent comeback spoken with so much love, you wondered whether it was sarcastic or psychotic.
This counter-intuitive uncertainty made Noori appear more dangerous than Maula. Where most villains are unwelcoming to the hero’s intervention, Noori seems to crave it.
At one instance, when Noori receives a cut on his chest from a brief fight with Maula, he continues to re-cut it with an axe every day, just to keep the injury fresh as a memory of Maula until he fights him again. It is such complex traits and an obsession with Maula that makes Noori seem like a dangerously psychotic monster.
Although I think Noori is dangerous, I don’t think he is aimlessly chaotic. In fact, he is one of the most interesting and purpose-driven idealist characters in all of Pakistani cinema.
To understand this, one must understand the ideals of German thinker Frederick Neitzche (another man with an elaborate mustache, btw).
Neitzche spent most of his writing trying to address the simple, yet difficult questions of human existence. The two biggest being why do I live? and why do I suffer? His answer to these is his eloquent super-man ideology where he asserts that we must actually live to suffer.
According to Neitzche, suffering is a means to endure and overcome it, hence making us stronger and ready for even greater suffering. In fact, Neitzche vehemently advocates the active seeking out of suffering, going to great lengths rationally to prove that the pursuit to become this super-man (or übermensch) is the most logical purpose of life.
“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” — Neitzche
In Maula Jatt, Noori Natt embodies Neitzsche’s ideas. He has gone from prison to prison looking for someone who’ll make him suffer, all to his disappointment. We see prisoners scramble when they hear he is coming. He has become all too strong, all too much of a super-man that he feels a sad void in his life. He’ll be ever so delighted if someone had the guts to stand up to him, as all he craves is to be even stronger, to be greater.
This is why Maula — a man blocking his path, ferociously waving a blade at him, threatening to murder him — thoroughly fascinates him.
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force, meets an immovable object” — The Joker
Maula Jatt is popular because of Noori, just as The Dark Knight is because of the Joker (Heath Ledger). In fact, The Dark Knight and Maula Jatt have much in common. Both depict an orphan vigilante fighting to bring justice to his hometown. Both are about two eccentric misfits pushing their psychosis to out-do each other. Just like Noori is fascinated by Maula, the Joker too is obsessed with the Batman. He considers him a freak like himself — a worthy opponent who’ll make him even greater. To put it in the Joker’s terms…
Noori is not a monster, he’s just ahead of the curve.
Here’s a video I created to demonstrate these similarities.
Beauty is a perception. It occurs when something is admired by someone who finds it extraordinary. Where Wehshi Jatt was about one extraordinary man, Maula Jatt is about two. Before they meet, Maula and Noori know of each other through hearsay. Having their lethal intentions aimed at one another, they spend half the film just looking for each other. It is kind of romantic. They even meet once not knowing who the other person is — admiring each other’s extraordinariness with fondling glances.
Finally, when they do meet again, knowing that the other is who they seek, the police keeps them from being together. Some might argue that this struggle to be with one another makes Maula Jutt the Romeo and Juliet of Punjabi action films.
There is a scene in which Maula and Noori, vastly separated, ride on horses towards each other — to kill one another. The Police being so responsive, chases each of them in groups and shoots them. Although both get shot countless times, they still keep riding.
Eventually, the men fall off their horses. So they pick themselves up and start running towards each other. The police continue to shoot them. They both reach close, but fall again. Still, they muster strength and start crawling towards each other instead.
They get close, and finally touch each other’s fists. They hold hands, caressing each other, crawling in dirt like two psychotic lovers. The police finally catches up and takes them into custody, yet again, separate them. It is tragic.
Of course, the two recover from the gunshots the next day and live to fight at their final climactic battle. A battle where Maula defeats Noori, leaving his friend/enemy cut up and drenched in blood.
At the end of the film, Maula renounces violence… again. This time a whopping three minutes before the end, after killing like, a fuck ton of villagers.
That’s a phenomenal 600% improvement over Wehshi Jatt’s 30 seconds.
The Impact (Post 1970s)
Successful films give birth to similar films. Following are the posters to some of the violent vengeful films that followed the phenomenal success of Maula Jatt, transforming the face of Pakistani cinema. This phenomenon will later be known as the Gandasa Culture.
As Pakistan‘s films fostered vengeance, so did its society.
When I see Maula Jatt’s poster, however, what I find most striking is Noori Natt’s pose. We see him pointing upwards. It reminds me of Raphael’s mural School of Athens where we see Plato pointing upwards.
One may think that they are pointing to god. But Noori is not a religious character, and neither is religion the reason for Plato’s gesture. Instead, Plato is pointing upwards to the concept of higher ideals, which is a part of his philosophy.
We tend to raise our fingers too when we are passionately stating an idealistic principle. Plato is the father of idealistic principles and utopian thinking. He is famous for imagining a utopian Sparta where instead of flawless warriors, the city would produce flawless citizens. He strongly believed in pursuing ideals.
Noori is not all that different. His pursuit of Maula is out of his own ideals of greatness. Maula, too, is fighting out of his idealistic principle of honor and justice. Birds-eye view, the entire Maula Jatt film is set in a utopian village propagating idealistic principles of what a man should be. So the key questions to ask here is: Why was this idealism so attractive to the Pakistani audiences?
After all, this attractiveness is responsible for the impact to the film industry that followed. Here, again, Plato has an answer…
We find things beautiful when we sense in them qualities we need, but are missing in our lives.
Plato suggests our desires are problems born out of our particular deficiencies, and we find those things beautiful that alleviate these deficiencies. By that rule, stories we find attractive, are about what we miss in our own lives.
For example, Bollywood movies in the 1980s had mass appeal for their exclusive focus on romance between unmarried couples. This is not because India was an extremely romantic society. It was because in the Indian culture, romance outside of marriage was taboo.
However, to feel loved is a basic human need. This culture-induced suppression led to desires on a mass scale. Hence, it is obvious why the solution in question had mass appeal: tales of beautiful women and men falling in love, with songs and locations far fancier than the simple lives of the audiences vicariously living through them.
Commercially successful stories don’t reflect culture, they relieve us of it. Their value proposition is escape, and we are all escapists. This doesn’t mean they eliminate the source of the problem (i.e., culture). They only help alleviate resulting desires by allowing us to be in solidarity with the message (e.g., boy and girl live happily ever after).
We crave stories of people doing exciting things, heroes we can vicariously live through. These heroes don’t just save fictional characters from fictional villains in fictional stories, they save us from our real lives. They are literally our heroes. You might ask then…
What is a Pakistani Hero?
He is who alleviates Pakistani emotional deficiencies. Look at the villages where Maula was most popular. At a time when a common man is crushed under poverty, when his children sleep hungry, when odds in life are stacked against him, when he’s chained up in fears and bullets — here was a man… and bullets didn’t stop him.
A man who broke chains and roared like a lion. A man who stood up for his ideals against all odds. A mighty man. An empowered man. A man of men. Even women fell for him, but he was too hot to care. A man who is everything the men in the audience will sadly never be. The immovable object, to their unstoppable forces. Justified resilience, in an unjust world.
The world kicked him, stabbed him, riddled him with bullets, but he just wouldn’t die! That — my friends, brothers & sisters — is a Pakistani hero.
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