Jamil Dehlavi – The Blood of Hussain (1981)

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This is a landmark film in Pakistani cinema. First and foremost, it was one of the few occasions where filmmakers attempted to do something off-beat and high-brow (not unlike the ‘parallel’ cinema of India, that had just started to show its presence amidst the typical ‘Bollywood’ fare. We’re talking about late 1970s, when the average Pakistani film roughly resembled its Indian counterpart, if a bit more gaudy). Secondly, it is notable for being one of the country’s very few (probably the first) English language film. And finally, it is a controversial film for being banned and remaining largely unseen (except on bootleg VHS) in Pakistan. That last factor certainly helped it gain cult status. Unfortunately, that also meant that to date, nobody has attempted to rescue the film from obscurity (unlike in USA, where Blue Underground, NoShame, Something Weird and other companies regularly restore and release cult classics).

The film was originally financed by NAFDEC, Pakistan’s official film development corporation. By 1977, while the film was close to completion or in post-production, Martial law was imposed in the country, and the late General Zia-ul-Haq became president of the new regime, imprisoning and ultimately hanging the deposed prime-minister Zulfiqar Bhutto. Zia got wind of the film and its anti-military stance (ironically, the film was about a fictional martial law regime…but eventually life imitated art), and tried confiscating it. Luckily, the negative had been sent to a film lab in UK, so it was safe. The director, Jamil Dehlavi, also managed to escape capture by the Pakistani authorities, living in exile from that time onwards. He managed to produce a final cut of the film, but since it was banned in Pakistan, it became something of a hot potato. Eventually, Channel 4 did air it on British TV, if only once. And it was a recording of this TV broadcast that began life as an under-the-counter bootleg tape in select video stores across Pakistan.

My copy of the film is derived from such a time-worn dupe of the original recording (which originally included British adverts), and it shows. Still, it was the best (indeed, only) copy I could find, and isn’t too bad (aside from some bad tracking near the beginning), all things considered. The color is still there, the dialog is audible enough, and overall it is watchable enough. Still, if someone out there has a better copy, please feel free to share. The film was shown in international film festivals, so there may be other copies. Also, Mr. Dehlavi supposedly has a pristine original 35mm print, as well as the negatives (however, my attempts to contact him have proved fruitless).

The plot of the film is simple enough to follow, on the surface. However, the whole story alludes to a crucial and famous incident in Islamic history that non-Muslim viewers may be unaware of:

Briefly, in the 7th century AD, Imam Hussain (grandson of the prophet Muhammad) refused to offer allegiance to the ruthless usurper caliph Yazid, and paid the price with his own blood as well as the lives of his family at Karbala (in Iraq), where Yazid’s army laid siege to his defenseless caravan. The incident became a symbol of steadfast integrity and faith in the face of overpowering odds and certain death. It is remembered with much emotion, reverence and fervor every year by Muslims, more so amongst the Shia community (glimpses of which can be seen in the film).

Jamil Dehlavi worked with a mix of Pakistani and international crew on this film, featuring the British actress Kika Markham, and plays a key role himself (the General’s chief henchman). The cinematography, music, make-up and effects are extremely professional (and easily discernable despite the poor print). If your only point of reference for Pakistani cinema is the likes of Maula Jat or International Gorillay, you are in for a surprise. This is closer to Tarkovsky or Pontecorvo, and it was not a fluke, either; Dehlavi has proved to be a filmmaker with a unique vision in other films like Born Of Fire, Immaculate Conception, Jinnah (for which he returned to Pakistan, and a film that garnered its own controversies), etc.

What the critics say

• ‘A multi-talented filmmaker, he has created an extraordinary Arabian Nights
documentary-fantasy which has few parallels in the cinema.’ The Sunday Times

• ‘Dehlavi has a remarkable eye for the telling image.’ The Times

• ‘One of the strongest films from the Third World… a powerful and imaginative plea for
freedom.’ The Guardian

• ‘I was affected by the film’s sheer force and beauty. It’s the story of romance and
political intrigue, shot on breathtakingly beautiful Pakistani locations, with images that
make politics into poetry.’ Chicago Sun-Times

• ‘A skilled, fascinating movie.’ Los Angeles Times

• ‘A well-made film, lush lensing, played with forthright ability.’ Variety, New York

• ‘A very beautiful film.’ Le Monde, Paris

• ‘A very dramatic film in which the heroic-mystical tradition of Islam relives with
powerful symbolism and spectacular impetus. A rousing song of freedom for all
oppressed people.’ II Messagero, Rome

• ‘An admirable work, both from an aesthetic and political viewpoint.’ La Presse, Montreal

• ‘An important film.’ El Pais, Madrid

• ‘A masterpiece from Pakistan.’ Anoreymatinh, Athens

• ‘A gripping, moving film.’ South China Morning Post

• ‘Galvanising cinema. What distinguishes it is not just its sophisticated blend of politics,
drama and mythology, but also its shatteringly beautiful imagery.’ Asiaweek

• ‘A bold universal statement embracing the embodiment of revolution and the imbalance
of power. Dehlavi brings a modern interpretation of the parallel metaphor of the
martyred Imam Hussain, who fought against the tyranny of Yazid, the most notorious
despot in the history of Islam, and whose blood became a powerful weapon in the fight
for freedom.’ The Natal Mercury









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