Riaz Shahid. That name will forever ring out when we speak of Pakistan’s film industry. His son, the decorated Armaghan Shahid or “Shaan” is one of the biggest stars the industry has ever seen.
The screenwriter and director carved out a niche for himself that no one has really tapped into since. While other directors focused on romantic films, social films, or comedies, Riaz Shahid tackled problems like the Palestine-Israel issue, democracy and dictatorship, and the Kashmir issue. On his 47th death anniversary, let’s recount his most iconic and important contributions to Pakistani cinema.
Riaz Shahid wrote the screenplay for this award winning feature that made the great Mohammad Ali a household name.
The story revolved around a brothel which served the elite. Mohammad Ali played a man who would marry young girls and then bring them to the brothel for sexual slavery. Throughout the majority of the film, he remained silent (thus the title of the film). The film also starred Deeba and Yousuf Khan. The film featured Habib Jalib’s master work “Main Nahin Maanta” in the voice of the sublime Ahmed Rushdi in the climactic scene. It was remarkable that the film was released at all within the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, especially because it was a scathing criticism of the government just beneath the surface.
Released in 1964, “Khamosh Raho” bagged several Nigar Awards including ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for Mohammad Ali, and ‘Best Script’ for Riaz Shahid.
What’s incredible about Khamosh Raho is that it predicted two things about Pakistan’s history before they were to happen. It showed a war with India one year before the 1965 Kashmir conflict and it showed a brothel which the elite frequented before ‘General Rani’ became Yahya Khan’s ‘madam’ during his rule. It seems that Riaz Shahid was not only a great script writer but a prophesier.
“Shaheed” & “Zerqa”
Both won “Best film” awards, both were written by Riaz Shahid, both centered on the issue of Palestine, and both featured strong female leads which took the box office by storm. Let’s begin with “Shaheed”.
Released in 1962, this film featured a traveler, simply called ‘Ajnabi’ who arrives in a desert city named “Al-Watan”. While his primary goal seems to be that of mineral exploration, more nefarious purposes come to light later. At the center of all, there is a dancer named ‘Laila’ played by the iridescent ‘Musarrat Nazeer’. Before long the city loses its way and falls prey to vice after vice.
While the film never says it out loud, the city’s descent into madness is an allegory for Palestine’s destruction at the hands of Israel.
The film featured great actors like Taalish and Allauddeen, and poetry by the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Nasir Kazmi out to music. Some notable songs include “Uss Bewafa ka Shehr Hai” and “Nisar Main Teri Galiyon Ke”.
“Zerqa” more pointedly focused on Palestine than Shaheed. Released in 1969, it featured Neelo as the protagonist and titular ‘Zerqa”. The Late Agha Taalish played an Israeli General who looked eerily like Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator in those days. The Late Allauddin played a character reminiscent of Al-Fatah leader Yasser Arafat in the film. It is he who recruits Zerqa for a mission to infiltrate the ranks of Israeli Generals, disguised as a dancer.
In the film’s most iconic scene, Neelo dances to Habib Jalib’s “Raqs Zanjeer Pehen Kar Bhi Kiya Jaata Hai” while Taalish repeatedly burns her skin with his cigar. The scene was reminiscent of a real life traumatic incident that Neelo went through where she was forcefully asked to dance in front of the Nawab of Kalabagh, yet she refused. After hearing of her bravery, Riaz Shahid married her.
What was to be Riaz Shahid’s final feature was an examination of the Kashmir issue. The film showed the exploitation of the region by opposing forces and a struggle for freedom. Released in 1972, Yeh Amn featured Nisho, Shahid, Allauddeen, and Talish.
While the film did receive a lot of acclaims when it was released, it was heavily censored by the Bhutto government. At the time, Pakistan had just begun recovering from the disastrous 1971 war and had also bartered with India for the return of 90,000 troops. “Yeh Amn” was a rallying cry to stop the injustices in Kashmir at a time when the focus of the government was on avoiding conflict at all costs.
Yeh Amn is perhaps most relevant today when Kashmir has been under lockdown for over a month.
Riaz Shahid died in 1972 from Leukemia, yet whispers of “Riaz Shahid ko Cancer ne nahin Censor ne maara” were exchanged, remarking on the filmmaker’s disappointment that his film was so heavily cut down.
Riaz Shahid’s work will always remain an asset for Pakistan’s film industry. Not only did he show that a film on important issues could be made in Pakistan during the harshest of government rule, but that they could be wildly successful.
He was perhaps the most important filmmaker we’ve ever had, and since no one in the world, even today, dares to fully explore subjects like Palestine or Kashmir on film except with violent war films, he remains unique. Though, something tells me he would not wish it to remain that way were he alive today.
Today’s filmmakers have a duty to live up to his legacy, to at least make an effort to make films on the most important issues plaguing Pakistan and the world at large.