Episode 5: Punjabi Mud

This is the first of two episodes aimed at answering the question: why Lahore? Why did Lahore become a major movie making city? Not just in South Asia but in the world?   On the surface there was no obvious reason for this to happen. In fact, there were a lot of circumstances working against Lahore.   This episode and the next, which are both focused on discussing the cultural context and history of Lahore and the wider region known as Punjab, will help answer that important and fundamental question. 

To truly appreciate the deep roots of Pakistani films it is essential to have an understanding of the shared culture of language, song, theatre, poetry, storytelling and visual art that has distinguished this part of South Asia for millennia. It is from this deep tradition that Pakistani films initially took inspiration and upon which they continue to draw.  And why, despite the many attempts to legislate against and neglect the industry or even blow cinema halls up, Pakistanis keep making and watching movies. 

This Episode provides a very concise survey of 5000 years of cultural history in the area that we know refer to Punjab. Starting with the Indus Valley civilisations through Vedic/Aryan India through the arrival of Alexander/Sikandar and the Muslim period.

The beautifully crafted soapstone seals with the as yet undeciphered Indus Valley language constitute the very first Indian story which was added to when around 1900 BCE Punjab was occupied by nomads from Central Asia who called themselves Aryans.

The Rg Veda told stories of Gods and demons as well as moral instruction in the form of pithy tales like the young gambler who loses everything to the dice.

In later centuries the Hindu epic, Mahabharata told in great detail and a cast of thousands the battled of various Punjabi clans for supremacy. Many of these early Indian stories, like one about Alexander and Poisoned Maiden, travelled across the world but were forgotten in their homeland of India. But in the 20th century filmmakers in Lahore were able to draw on the deep folk traditions which had kept many similar stories alive as inspiration for their films.

During the times of the Mughals, Persian tales such as Dastan-i-Amir Hamza which told stories of the Prophet’s (PBUH) uncle Hamza, were very popular.

The Episode provides details of more similar literary, music and dramatic traditions which all formed a rich shared culture that the film makers of Lahore drew on for inspiration to create what eventually came to referred to as Lollywood.

Some of the key references I used in preparing this episode are listed below.

Music Issue. (n.d.). Journal of Punjab Studies, 18. Immensely informative number on many aspects of Punjab’s musical culture.

Richardson, Edmund (2021), Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City, Bloomsbury. Recent biography of Charles Masson the Company deserter who is credited as being the pioneer of Afghan archaelogy.

Schrefller, S. G. (n.d.). Vernacular Music and Dance of Punjab. Journal of Punjab Studies, 11(2).

Doniger, Wendy (2010) The Hindus: An Alternative History, Penguin. Sweeping (and controversial to some) history of India’s greatest and most popular religion.

Whiterridge, Gordon (2002) Charles Masson Of Afghanistan: Explorer, Archaeologist, Numismatist and Intelligence Agent, Orchid Press

Joseph, Tony (2018). Early Indians : The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, Juggernaut Publications. Excellent survey of the human settlement of the Indian subcontinent.

Mir, Farina (2010). The social space of language: Vernacular culture in British colonial Punjab. University of California Press. Farina Mir asks how qisse, a vibrant genre of epics and romances, flourished in colonial Punjab despite British efforts to marginalize the Punjabi language. 

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