Zerqa (1969)


Zerqa (1969)
Cast: Neelo Shahid, Ejaz, Allaudin, Saqi, Nasira and Talish
Director: Riaz Shahid
Synopsis: Ambitious and resoundingly successful tale of Palestinian martyrdom


Zerqa was a thundering success when it was released, not only with the public who turned out in their multitudes and made the film a box office champion, but also the critics who cheered the film as being a prime example of how far the local film industry had progressed. Riaz Shahid’s ambitious attempt to provide something different to the norm provided a much needed breath of fresh air to filmgoers.

The film is set following 1949 at a time Palestinians were discovering that they had been stabbed in the back by their Anglo-American friends and found that their beloved land had suddenly been seized by shiploads of settlers from the jewish exodus. Through no fault of their own, the Palestinians had their homeland carved up and suddenly found themselves to be aliens within their own land. This is the background within which the story of Zerqa is set.

She is a simple village girl, feisty and strong willed, but largely unconcerned with the struggle for freedom that is going on around her. Her father is avidly involved in the liberation movement and is brutally slaughtered by the marauding Israeli security on a search for “terrorists”. As he dies in the arms of his daughter, he tells her what her mission in life should be. At first Zerqa is shunned by the Liberation movement for being a mere woman who could hardly withstand the rigours of guerrilla warfare but soon Zerqa proves her detractors wrong and gains respect within the group of dedicated freedom fighters led by Allaudin.

Later, in a moment of naivety, Zerqa and Ejaz become responsible for the capture of their comrades. This has a devastating effect on Zerqa who seems to slip into a trancelike state after the event with only one goal in mind, the liberation of her homeland. It was a masterstroke by director Riaz Shahid to silence his wife Neelo, as her dialogue delivery in the early parts of the movie is simply horrid. The moment Zerqa lapses into her vengeance filled trance, the film moves up a dramatic gear or two.

The murderous Israeli’s are represented by Talish in a knockout performance as Major David and Nasira as his wife Angela is as fascinating a character as any in the movie. Their exchanges, in front of their large portrait of Lenin, make for very interesting viewing. Why Riaz Shahid used a portrait of Lenin to decorate the home of the devout Zionist Major David remains one of the unexplained mysteries of the movie. Perhaps the film makers didn’t want to miss out on a chance to trash communism while they were at it, even if the chances of Lenin appearing on the walls of a devoted Zionist are really pretty miniscule.

The film picks up after interval with some of the most dramatic sequences filmed in Pakistani cinema history. The sequence when Zerqa is forced to dance by the sadistic Talish to Mehdi Hassan’s anthemic “Raqs-e-Zanjeer” is one of the most memorable scenes in the history of Pakistani cinema and inspired by an incident that actually involved Neelo in real life.* It may not be subtle cinema but it is highly charged, compelling and manages to convey a sense of sheer raw emotion. The torture scenes that follow are also similarly chargedand manage arouse passion, which is exactly what they intended to do. The film builds to a rousing climax and one that is drenched with emotion.

Riaz Shahid manages to end his movie on a tremendous emotional high, arousing the audience to an emotional crescendo. There’s not a dry eye in the house as the movie’s credits start to roll. Its not a brilliant movie by any means and may have numerous technical shortcomings. Where it does succeed is that it manages to entertain and involve and delivers a massive emotional punch to the gut that is difficult to resist.

Its not the greatest movie ever made, not by a long shot, but it is certainly one of the few Pakistani films that the Lollywood industry can feel proud about and with good reason. Zerqa was showered with 8 Nigar Awards for 1968 including Best Film and Actress.

* The event that inspired the Raqs-e-Zanjeer scenario was based on a factual incident when Neelo was summoned by the government to perform for the visiting Shah of Iran. Neelo, to her eternal credit, refused to perform and took sleeping pills instead in the face of ugly threats from the government. However, she didn’t give in and her husband Riaz Shahid used the incident as inspiration for the rousing song from Zerqa.

ZERQA (1969) reviewed by Film Historian & Journalist, Yaseen Hameed