The movie Armaan was released on Friday, March 18, 1966. The country was echoing with protests against the Tashkent Agreement signed by President Ayub Khan and the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. It was said that a war “won” on the front had been “lost” on the table. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the dissident foreign minister who was generally identified with a hard line stance against India, had just received an overwhelming ovation at Lahore Railway Station from a multitude of his admirers.
Then, as the film opened in Naz Cinema, Karachi, and other theatres in West and East Pakistan, it captured the imagination of the entire society at once. Did the masses recognize, unconsciously, their deepest ideals in the fantasy about an educated and principle-centered aristocrat stepping down from his ranks for courting an orphaned girl of humble background and himself getting transformed in the process? At least that was the gist of the hero’s journey from the festive ‘Ko ko korina’ to the mature ‘Jab pyar mien do dil miltay hain’ and from the light-hearted rendition of ‘Akele na jana’ by Ahmad Rushdi to the symphonic and cataclysmic orchestra accompanying the voice of Mala, at the end. In retrospect one may say that this was not very unlike the expectations the people were beginning to develop from Bhutto around the same time — whether or not the politician lived up to the ideals given by poets.
The movie was the first Pakistani release to become a “Platinum Jubilee” (running for 75 cumulative weeks). The middle classes, usually reluctant about visiting a cinema, got attracted in large numbers (in some ways this shift had already started with Saheli four years earlier and Naela the last year but it reached its climax with Armaan). The hair style of the writer, producer and actor Waheed Murad became the default for that generation. Conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, educated and the illiterate were equally mesmerized.
The legends spawned by Armaan spread wide and were going to prove lasting. Fellow filmmaker Nazrul Islam, in his greatest film Aina (1977) eleven year later, named the heroine Najma (played by Shabnam) after the role played by Zeba in Armaan. In a subsequent movie Nahin Abhi Nahin (1980), Nazrul not only named the main character Armaan, but even persuaded the lead actor Faisal Rehman to use this as real name (recently, Faisal has directed a television sequel to Nahin Abhi Nahin where the protagonist Armaan, now grown up and teaching in a college, confronts the spirit of Allama Iqbal and seeks answers to questions about the existence and destiny of Pakistan).
In Armaan is one of the pegs around which threads of our collective consciousness are tied then it very well deserves that prestige. It was an offering from well-educated and imaginative youth who respected their culture and wanted to bring a healthy change through the unity of imagination. Waheed had an M.A. degree in English Literature from Karachi University and his obsessions included James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Henry James (one of his dreams was to make a stream of consciousness film and he arguably achieved it three year later in one of his productions). In developing the story of Armaan, he drew upon Cinderella, She Stoops to Conquer, The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but used his sources ingenuously for creating a brevity that effectively conveyed the messages ingrained the greatest cultural movements of recent history (attachment to Iqbal ran in Waheed’s family, since his grandfather Manzur Ilahi Murad was an acquaintance of the poet-philosopher in Sialkot).
The director Pervez Malik, who also wrote the screenplay, had a masters’ degree in filmmaking from California. Camera work, imagery and symbolism were at par with some of the best masterpieces of that time: one could identify allusions to La Dolce Vita and Hiroshima Mon Amor. Later, Pervez was going to win a pride of performance for his patriotic films, including a trilogy about the awakening of masses through the power of love: Anmol (1972), Dushman (1974) and Pehchan (1975). The second of these is also significant because a year before India discovered “the angry young man” in Deewar (1975), Pervez Malik created the icon here and articulated its social context with much more clarity and boldness than elsewhere.
Masroor Anwar, who wrote dialogue and lyrics, had received a fresh impetus from his work in the recent war. A fascinating aspect of the poetry of Armaan is that each song from this movie, although so moving as an expression of ordinary love, can also be interpreted as a national song. Consider, for instance, ‘Akele na jana’. The Ahmad Rushdi version is probably what every Pakistani may like to say to Pakistan: “Diya hosla jis nay jeenay ka hum ko….” (“You are a beautiful feeling that gave us courage to live. You are the certainty that never leaves the heart; you are the hope that lasts forever”). It should surprise no one that the same Masroor Anwar later gave such national songs like ‘Sohni Dharti’ and ‘Vatan ki Mitti Gawah Rehna’.
Sohail Rana, who gave music to Armaan, came from a literary family. His father, Rana Akbarabadi, was a renowned poet and had approved of his son’s passion only on condition that the talent should be used for perpetuating noble values. Sohail not only composed music for memorable national songs including ‘Apni jaan nazr karoon’, ‘Sohni Dharti’ and ‘Jeevay Pakistan’ but was also destined to set music to ‘Hum Mustafavi Hain’ by Jamiluddin Aali, which was adopted as the national anthem of the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974 (it retains that status and is played wherever the summit is held). In the 1970s and the 1980s, Sohail was best known to the youth in Pakistan through his popular television programs in which he taught music and good manners. Armaan, in a way, had started with him. One night in 1963 or 1964 he heard a melody in his dream. He woke up and wrote it down. The words that were given to it eventually were, “Akele na jana…” The rest is film history, though sadly unwritten for the most part.