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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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The 1979 Pakistani film Aurat Raj is a cult movie for several reasons. Directed by Saeed Khan Rangeela, a well-known actor, singer and writer in the Pakistani film industry, it centres around the absurd premise of a "sex bomb" which reverses gender roles if it explodes. The "explosive" falls into the hands of a group of oppressed women who set it off and become more powerful than their male tormentors. The men are still men but they now dress and behave like women, and the women dress like men and brandish machine-guns.
The film is a cult movie not only because of its bizarre plotline, but also because it had Sultan Rahi, known for his roles as the macho farmer with a heart of gold in Punjabi-Urdu cinema, swaying his hips and dressed in drag. The director, Rangeela, was an erstwhile bodybuilder and why he chose to make a twisted gender bender like Aurat Raj remains something of a mystery.
Aurat Raj (The Reign Of Women) is among the three Pakistani horror movies that will be shown at the Khoj Studio in Delhi next Friday along with Zinda Laash and Zibahkhana. An organisation that promotes art and artists in the subcontinent, Khoj will be screening the movies as a part of its (Re)Building Project. "Under the initiative, the studio, currently under renovation, is thrown open to artistic pursuits inspired by the broken down setting. The stage of construction the building is now in lends itself perfectly to horror films, " says director Pooja Sood.
The films are part of a collection owned by Bangalore-based Achal Prabhala. An activist and writer, Prabhala says the three films being shown are among the best in the Pakistani B-movie and shlock horror genre. "Aurat Raj wasn't made with the intention of getting people to treat women better. It is not selfrighteous in any way. It plays out to every thought and fantasy of the viewer and is a crazy entertainer. It is one of the most slickly subversive movies I have ever seen, " he says.
The oldest of the three is Zinda Laash (The Living Corpse, 1967), a dark, brooding, sensual movie inspired by the 1958 British film, Horror of Dracula. The first film in Pakistan to be X-rated, it was almost banned soon after its release. Adds Prabhala: "Made at a time when nightclubs were legal, it portrays a very different Pakistan. It was a subtle, black-and-white mainstream film, made in an era where subtlety was understood and appreciated. "
Zibahkhana (Hell's Ground, 2007), a horror movie set in Islamabad with cannibalistic midgets and sari-wearing zombies, was made as a tribute of sorts to the shlock horror films of yesteryear. "Made by a director who has a genuine appreciation of shlock horror, it is intelligent and beautifully shot, " says Prabhala. "Most of the characters come from a background that is oppressed, but the genius of the film lies in the fact that it doesn't allow people to view them as sympathisers. It is refreshingly shorn of self-righteousness and pretension. It is a formula film made in the tradition of the horror-thriller mould that works wonderfully. "
Prabhala's tryst with Pakistani shlock horror began four years ago when he went to Pakistan to write an article on Omar Ali Khan and the B-movie scene there. Khan, a shlock horror enthusiast, was also the director of Zibahkhana and runs a successful portal called Thehotspotonline. com dedicated to 'lowbrow' movies. Prabhala watched quite a few of them in Urdu and Pashtu during the course of writing his article. He singles out Pashto movies as being particularly vulgar. "Most of them have rural-historical plotlines, which acts as an excuse for women to wear an Islamic bikini of some kind. Some of the films are actually quite disturbing. This is the hotbed of the Taliban. And this is not fringe, this is mainstream Pashto cinema, " he says.
"The schlock horror films made in Pakistan have crazy, convoluted plotlines. They have a weird fascination with sex, horror and gender that is manifested in a way similar to titillation. The Urdu movies of Lahore are generally cautionary tales where the women are not the heroes and rarely live through most of the films. At the same time, it allows for plenty of skin show that satisfies the impulses of moviegoers. There are, of course, a few movies that break the mould like Supergirl (1989), which showed a female criminal mastermind terrorising others. "
International Gorrilay came out in 1990, at the height of The Satanic Verses controversy. The objective of the villain, called Salman Rushdie, was to destroy Islam by opening liquor, gambling and dancing dens with the help of the Israeli Mossad.
Films like these tell more about a country than mainstream social cinema or even parallel films. "Weird films are experiments that give the reviewer a chance of an honest engagement with a culture, " says Prabhala. "They usually succeed in this even more than the sometimes too-well-intentioned parallel films. "
Zinda Laash, Zibahkhana and Aurat Raaj"will be screened at different parts of the broken down Khoj Studios in Delhi on July 6
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