Song of Lahore is one of the movies that I chose to watch at the Dubai International Film Festival and I am glad that I did that. Ever since this beautiful feature documentary has stayed in my heart and mind. I was keen to watch it because it talked about a musical journey and its triumph. Honestly, it was not the musical note that got me interested but ‘Lahore’ to be precise. I have always been curious around our neighborhood country. The reason lies in the bitter-sweet relationship that we have had for years and our existence as one before the partition.
If it had not been this film, I would not have virtually traveled through the lanes and streets of Lahore. I would not have learnt that the city of Lahore was once globally renowned for its music but later it lost its brilliance and sheen. I would not have known that the strict Islamic government had led to this in 1970’s. The accomplished and the celebrated musicians were forced to take up other odd jobs or sit back home. The city that thrived with world-class performers was forced to bury the talent of its artists. Everyone who had a musical connect was stifled.
The documentary talks about the late ’70s when Islam rose under the regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. This was the worse time for the musicians and artists of Lahore because they were forced to give up their love for music. They were shunned, they were banned from playing and overall they were declared lower caste. Most of the professional musicians had to take up odd jobs and some had to live with a heavy heart fearing the loss of the cultural heritage. None could play or perform in the public, thus it was no more a source of income. Movie theaters were shut down. And Lahore’s film industry that was called Lollywood went into decline. Those who had invested 25 to 30 years in music, films had no work now. One of the directors of the movie who hails from Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of Karachi, tells us that she has heard of stories when large orchestras created soundtracks and musicians played in the streets and nightclubs of Lahore. But now its all lost.
But its been rightly said, creative people never lose their creative expression. Talent can never be killed.
When the normalcy arrived, in 1990s, businessman Izzat Majeed, Lahore-born philanthropist who is fond of music went around inviting and collecting a group of master musicians. He brought them all to a sound-proof space (Sachal Studio) and gave them complete freedom to practice and relive the old charm of their music. The oldies who were experts in their art united and brought in their sons too whom they had trained. The film introduces us to these musicians, shows us their families, their everyday life and their struggles of passing the talent to their children and grand-children because they dint want the culture to be lost. And by the time we know them, we can easily conclude that music is their life, music gives them the strength to live, it revives happiness in their life, also gives them the strength to overcome fear from the extremists who hate music.
While we see the life of these Sachal Studio players, we also travel through the city where the streets of Lahore look so similar to ours in India. Just then I turn and tell my friend who was watching the movie with me, ‘These tea stalls, rickshaws, kiosks, carts on the road and the car repair shops in this part of Lahore make it look so similar to Kanpur in India.
While the film moves slow and steady till now, none can predict its ends. We do not know that we are yet to see an interesting twist in the story-line. So while Sachal Studios was happily thriving, one day Izzat Majeed comes up with the idea of fusion. He wants to give something new to the audience to bring them closer to the folk. He talks about jazz to the team and tells them how their traditional Eastern sound could go well in tandem with Western jazz. They start practicing, making videos and sharing on internet. The ensemble’s fame grows and when they take on ‘ Take Five’, it goes viral. In fact Dave Brubeck, even sent a note saying that he absolutely loved it. (David Warren was an American jazz pianist and composer, considered to be one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz.)
And one day after this much deserved fame, the unexpected happens at the Sachal Studio. Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center Orchestra invites them to New York. Sachal’s key player are supposed to fly to United States to play with Wynton Marsalis and his band. As an audience, I would say this was the most thrilling moment of the movie. The excitement takes over when the film takes us from Pakistan to New York City to a scintillating performance at Lincoln Center. But I have given in too early. The movie builds on beautifully by showing us how the musicians prepare to go for the journey. They talk to their family members, open their hearts, express gratitude, tell them how big this invite is and how this could be a turning point of their lives. There are some hilarious moments too till they reach there. But once they are in New York, the technical and cultural challenges are too many. At one point of time, it looks like an impossible things because they are not able to match up with each other but these masters in their art knew how to excel and they shine gloriously.
This Pakistani film is a wonderful tribute to the folk musicians for reviving the dying art. Initially when the director started working on the movie they only wanted to showcase the live and work of the musicians and Sachal Studios. But while they were at it, suddenly the invite knocked at their doors and they were chosen ones to outshine the obscurity and play alongside American jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis. Though there were budget constraints but the director continued to go ahead and capture it in the movie as it happened. I know of all this becauseit was a privilege to meet one of the directors ‘Andy Schocken’ who watched the movie with us and then answered our queries too. It was a lovely experience to hear him talk after the movie.
I must congratulate Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of Karachi, Pakistan, and Oscar-nominated director Andy Schocken of Brooklyn for coming up with this film. The Sachal band performed at DIFF too but I could not catch up with the live show. After watching the movie, I regret missing it.
#Live: Andy Schocken and Academy award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on the stage to discuss @SongOfLahore @dubaifilm pic.twitter.com/EySSKNaQME
— THE BEACH (@TheBeachDubai) December 14, 2015
Best dialogue from the movie….
God willing, the entire world will see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.
– Nijat Ali