A period movie is a daunting undertaking, even for experienced and accomplished directors and financially profitable production houses. In Laaj, former civil servant Rauf Khalid has ambitiously selected a true story from British India (1936) for his debut as a producer, writer and director. That made the production a multiple challenge. The film starts with love blossoming between a rich Hindu girl and a poor Muslim boy, which culminates in an armed clash between the British colonial rulers and the Pathans. How has he fared?
It is an offbeat movie, but nothing should detract from the fact that it is an important effort that tries to break fresh and extremely difficult ground. In our times of absurd local cinema, distinct from cinema of the absurd, Laaj should be welcomed as a breath of fresh air.
The film is built around the Faqir of Ippi, a legendary figure that is regarded by many as a fictitious character. Khalid brings him to life, not just as an individual featuring in a page from history, but very much a man who symbolizes integrity, valour and principles. The Faqir may appear to be defending a girl who willingly converts to Islam and a boy who is in love with her, but he is actually grace and values personified.
The theme Khalid takes up in Laaj is relevant, as international political developments have devastated the world with a new denomination of colonialism and turned Pakistan into a state under intense pressure. Thus, the movie may be seen as a response identifying the way out of the quagmire that is sucking the country deeper into disaster.
The British combine forces with influential Hindus to punish the boy, Nur Ali (Imran) and revert Ram Kori (Zara Sheikh), daughter of a rich Hindu who had eloped with Nur Ali, to her scheming uncle’s charge. He has already struck a bargain to wed her to a villainous Hindu (Nayyar Aijaz). They transport her to Rajasthan and keep her in heavy irons, waiting for the girl to submit to their designs. But she remains steadfast in love.
So does Nur Ali. Released on bail, he tracks her down, but only to be jailed. He breaks out of jail and escapes with Ram Kori, now going by the name of Nur Jehan and a Muslim again. The Faqir takes on the British on their behalf because a principle is involved. He wins the day but not the war because of treachery by people from within his community.
While Laaj is based on historical events, its value as a comment on present day conditions is very obvious. The British officials’ arm-twisting of subservient Maliks can be compared with the imperial and impervious manner with which US leaders deal with spineless leaders of third world countries.
Another relevant note is presented in the commentary at the end, narrating the fate of some central characters. Gulraiz Khan, whose greed makes him a toady of the colonial rulers, is treated contemptuously, but he persists in his ways and eventually brings death and destruction to his own people.
The commentary informs the viewers that his sons became ministers in federal and provincial cabinets after the creation of Pakistan. The country is full of such individuals and their descendents who prospered serving the foreigners and multiplied their material gains after independence.
Talat Hussain returns to the big screen after a long time and displays the range of his brilliant talent in the pivotal role of the Faqir. One wishes there was more of him and the character he renders. That would have imparted a focal point to the movie that Laaj misses, meandering through romance, courtrooms, chases and footage aimed at providing entertainment. The Buz Kushi fight, for instance, is extraneous. The process of establishing other characters deprives Talat Hussain of becoming the man around whom the film is built, which, if it were the other way round, would have enhanced the impact of Laaj.
Other performers fit their roles and play them well but Asif Khan stands out as an unprincipled, self-serving, scheming Malik who is willing to sell his soul for material advantage. Nayyar Aijaz is effectively fiendish. Resham looks good in a brief appearance and the romantic leads, Imran and Zara, prove that they are promising artists. Nirma benefits from guidance by Khanu Samrat and Hameed Choudhry, a master choreographer of the past. Amjad Bobby’s music is pleasant and the film features a good background score.
Khalid selects locales that are both picturesque and relevant to the story while cinematographer Waqar Bokhari brings them to life with imaginative work, but it is surprising that the camera is mainly used as static equipment for recording developments and not as a participant in the events. Editor Zulfi adds to the cinematography’s impact.
All in all, Laaj is of the top technical quality and Rauf Khalid should be congratulated for producing a different movie. It would have become more absorbing if the characters had more clearly been drawn and focus was kept on the theme and the Faqir. Khalid courageously selected a subject that is unusual for local cinema but has not been able to do full justice to it. The result is lack of viewer support for Laaj at some points and reasonably satisfying reception at others. It is a good effort but needed to be more precisely knit for winning the battle of the box office.