It was perhaps 15 years ago when I was visiting my maternal grandmother in Lahore. One cold evening my father came back from the markets, excited. Held in his hand was a pirated copy of an old Pakistani film called Maula Jatt. My father proclaimed that this was one of his favourite films, even though he was born in Calcutta and could barely understand the Punjabi spoken in the film.
That was the first time I saw bits and pieces of the film which I would later see in completion. Even back then the film’s tone, its villain and its dialogues left a lasting impression. Released in 1979, this was to Pakistani film fans what Sholay was perhaps to Indians. It is no surprise that at some places the background score for the villain Noori Natt, played by a deliciously evil Mustafa Qureshi, resembles that of the score from when Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh is introduced on screen.
The 1979 version of the film does not stand the test of time. Its production quality is poor and the filmmaking is weak. It is no wonder that the film, released in the Zia-ul-Haq era, would be a signal of the demise of Pakistan’s film industry.
What Bilal Lashari does with his adaptation of The Legend of Maula Jatt is smoothen some of the edges of the original. He also provides hope to the burgeoning film-consuming audience in Pakistan, who now have multiple multiplexes in their big cities, to demand more films.
The new film, already touted to be Pakistan’s highest-grossing film worldwide, is intrinsically a Punjabi potboiler. In a lot of ways, it resembles many of the 1970s Bollywood flicks like Zanjeer, where revenge is the central theme. Much like Zanjeer, this film has an angry young man who is haunted by disturbing visions from his past. Lashari uses his previous knowledge of directing music videos for famous Pakistani bands like 'Jal' in setting up the ambience of the film. There are beautiful set pieces and a glimpse of rural Punjab of a bygone era.
Unlike the original, the film has a rather period setting, allowing for the absence of guns and a focus on sticks and the all-important weapon: the axe or the ‘Gandasa’. The weapon’s presence in the film and its wielder are what connects the film to the original and to many other films under what is called the 'Gandasa' genre in Pakistan – Punjabi films centres around a Jatt badmaash (hoodlum) who uses violence to mete out justice. This genre owes its origins to the great Urdu writer Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and his short story Gandasa, where the character of Maula is introduced. But Maula the film character arrives on the screen as Wehsi Jatt (1975), a film written by Nasir Adeeb. In this film, it is Sultan Rahi who plays the axe-wielding Punjabi hoodlum with an obsession for justice and a lust for blood. It was his 1975 film’s success which lead to Maula Jatt, followed by a series of Gandasa films.
In the Lashari version, taking the mantle of the titular character is Fawad Khan in perhaps his toughest role yet, a far cry from his popular persona.
A naturally handsome actor, Fawad had to morph into what a village prize fighter should look like. Battle scars, darkness under his eyes and mangled bear-like hair makes him a little more menacing than the usual refined characters of Pakistani films. Distinguishing his Maula Jatt from that of Sultan Rahi's, Fawad does not shout his way through every scene, and at times shows his mischievous smile to subvert expectations from what Maula Jatt should be. It helps that Maula is adopted by a woman who forbids him from fighting beyond the ‘well of death’ arena in the village fair – a deviation from Qasmi’s short story where it is the mother who pushes Maula for violence and revenge. Maula also has a brother in Mooda in this film, played brilliantly by rapper Faris Shafi. Initially seemingly there for comic relief, he becomes the reason for Maula’s renewed pledge for revenge.
While the film clearly deviates from the original, what it does not shy away from is violence. The action choreography is smart, with a focus on how each character’s weapons correspond with their personality. There are some gory shots edited intelligently delivering plenty of shock factor but stopping shy of inducing nausea.
While the film’s central theme is revenge, it also warns of how revenge is so often the downfall of those who seek it. No one seems to understand this better than the main antagonist Noori Natt, played by a fantastic Hamza Ali Abbasi, who, it appears, greatly enjoyed the freedom that the role allowed him to explore. When Abbasi mouthed the famous line - “Nawa aaya hai, Soneya (You must be new here, beautiful),” a couple of people in the West London theatre where I watched the film chuckled and appreciated Abbasi for making Pakistan’s most famous film dialogue his own, complete with a crooked smile and a hiss that would accompany him throughout the film.
Natt is a stellar villain: evil personified with his presence filling the screen with dread. When asked what he wants, he replies that he wants to be killed and be beaten. He is a masochist and an egomaniac who spends his time in prison waiting for a worthy fighter to challenge him. His obsession with looking for a worthy opponent is consistently used as an explanation for his bloodlust. It helps that most of his scenes are shot in comparatively dark lighting.
Interesting is Noori’s relationship with his sister Daro, played by an amazing Humaima Mallick, who displays a rare cunning sexual energy even though almost all of her dialogues are expositions extolling the virtues of her clan or her own pride.
While most actors’ attempts at mastering the rustic Punjabi dialogues is decent, Mahira Khan as Mukkho is not as convincing when it comes to her delivery. But dialogues aside, her chemistry with Fawad is excellent, reminding many of their Humsafar days.
Worth mentioning is that this contemporary adaptation, just like almost all masala flicks of the last century, is still essentially male-led, with female roles limited to that of the mother, romantic interest and bad woman. However, it was refreshing to see Daro, the bad woman in this case - who is arguably as villainous as her brother, having some impact on the plot aside from merely serving as a cautionary tale about morality.
The film’s pacing is good but at times the sudden editing may feel jarring and so will some of the drone shots. All in all, it’s an action-filled ride with a strong revenge drama that will keep you hooked to the seat.
Sadly, there is no news of it releasing in India, which is a shame for this kind of film is ideal for the Indian audience who have an appetite for action potboilers with massy punchlines. The kind of films many complain that Bollywood has stopped making.