When Veerendra, famous Punjabi actor and cousin of legendary actor Dharmendra, was gunned down on the set of Jatt Te Zameen on December 6, 1988, the Punjab insurgency was at its peak.
Although his murder remains a mystery to this day, Preeti Sapru, a Mumbai-based actress, director and producer who co-starred the slain actor, recalls the incident shocking Punjabi filmmakers.
Undeterred, Sapru ensured that the Punjabi film industry did not die at the hands of militancy. She mortgaged her jewelry to raise money for Qurbani Jatt Di released in 1990. Besides writing and directing, she played dual roles in the film. While the featured cast included Dharmendra, Raj Babbar, Gurdas Mann, Yograj Singh, and Mehar Mittal, famed singer Sukhwinder Singh provided the music.
Almost 23 years later, Sapru is thrilled with the worldwide release of her next film Teri Meri Gall Ban Gai but seems preoccupied with a strange paradox. “There is still an overflow of films. We need to learn from Telugu cinema and produce quality films,” Sapru told Outlook.
Although this great lady of Punjabi cinema with a few Hindi films under her belt was the first to introduce singers as protagonists in Punjabi films, she says monopolies of a few singers have started to dominate the industry. The actor-director had cast Hans Raj Hans, a BJP parliamentarian, and Malkiat Singh in Mehndi Shagna Di (1992).
Sapru observes, “Now what’s happening is singers are promoting themselves through their film companies instead of helping the medium evolve into a vibrant industry. Right now, what is needed are collaborative efforts between well-meaning filmmakers, producers, distributors and actors.
Punjab cinema, which dates back to British rule in India, produced the first sound film, Heer Ranjha, in 1932. Since then, several Punjabi films have gained international recognition and the industry has even endowed Bollywood with notable talent. While the industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, Sapru and many other new age filmmakers are hopeful that the industry will rebound soon.
Before becoming a parliamentarian and then chief minister, Bhagwant Mann worked in the Punjab entertainment industry. Mann recently warned Punjabi singers who glorify gun culture and drugs. But it was not the first time that a chief minister in Punjab had expressed concern about people in industry’s alleged obsession with underworld traits. His predecessors such as Charanjit Singh Channi and Captain Amrinder Singh had also raised such concerns.
While Channi was proposing a law to stop this music and movies, Captain Singh ordered a special player to check these video and audio clips. During such a trip in 2020, 509 public buses were checked and 212 were challenged. Incidentally, it was during Singh’s tenure that Punjabi singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu (Sidhu Moose Wala) was booked for encouraging violence and screening the movie Shooter, which was said to be a biopic about the notorious mobster that was later banned. In the last state assembly election, Sidhu unsuccessfully contested a ticket to Congress.
However, Paramjit Singh Judge, former president of Indian Sociological Society and professor at Guru Nank Dev University, rants against politicians and ‘moral guardians of society’ for stereotyping Punjab’s film and music industry .
He adds: “Artists have every right to express themselves as long as they don’t violate the law of the land. But there is nothing unusual shown in Punjabi that is not part of the popular culture of the rest of the country. How to ignore violence in the name of religion? Marijuana is considered Shiv ji ka prasad. Why isolate Punjab on this account? We have 600-year-old literature that glorifies violence and nash (intoxicants)”.
He asks: “If the depiction of violence were to be prohibited, how would one avoid Sarbloh Granth, which includes the cult of the sword? There is a sect in Sikhism that glorifies him. There is a whole singing tradition in Punjab called ‘Vir Gatha’. In almost all Indian societies, there is a tradition of singing about war, bravery, bravery and a particular tradition of violence.
Saying that violence and bravery are universal in nature just like sensuality, Judge asserts that Punjab should not be excluded and shamed.
“These politicians should stay away from the cultural sphere,” he says, citing the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. He adds: “Some people have started talking about proletarian culture and proletarian worship. Lenin had to intervene and stop him. But we have totalitarian regimes that dictate what to do and what not to do.
He further points out, “Watch groups of Hindutva dig up stories of warriors. When we talk about this on a micro level, we are talking about domination and conflict. »
On whether violent songs and movies make people violent, the professor points the finger at Japan, saying, “This country produces more violent movies, but their society is largely peaceful.”
Pali Bhupinder Singh, director and professor at Panjab University, called Chief Minister Mann’s comments “unfortunate and misplaced”.
Quoting the lyrics of a Punjabi song, Jailan from Bichchon Phone Aange, Singh said, “You can’t blame the songwriter or the singer for such a song. The song does not advocate violence. This only speaks to a larger problem that prison authorities should be concerned about. Unfortunately, artists are always easy targets. When a great political leader walks down the road, he is always surrounded by 30 to 40 armed men. I think this practice promotes violence because it inspires fear in people.
Arguing that there was nothing unusual about Punjabi films compared to Hindi films, Singh goes on to say, “We usually make films about marriages, relationships or slapstick comedies.”
Both Sapru and Singh believe that Punjab’s entertainment industry has the potential to generate massive jobs and revenue for the state government. According to them, the state government should develop a film city and encourage the film and music industry of Punjab in every possible way through a concrete policy.
Discussing the successive apathy of the Punjab state government towards film artists, Sapru adds, “Except for Dara Singh, the Punjab government could not bring Padma Shri to any other reputable artist working for Punjabi cinema. It’s really painful for us. »
While praising Chief Minister Mann’s association with the Punjab film industry, Singh, whose film Gurmukh: the eyewitness is scheduled to be released worldwide in two months, says, “We sincerely expect it to promote the Punjabi entertainment industry. Immediate steps that need to be taken with government support include the development of Mohali, already home to over 50 studios, as a film town.
“We need a separate censorship board in Chandigarh just like other South Indian film industries. We have to evacuate our films from Mumbai and they are civil servants who don’t speak Punjabi. The Punjabi Filmmakers Union is to be granted quasi-judicial status. In many states like Maharashtra, cinemas have to assign a show to a regional film daily. This needs to become a norm in Punjab, as well as greater efforts to promote Punjabi films.
Many industry insiders believe that thoughtless adherence to outdated ideas plagues Punjab cinema.
“There is no doubt that the industry has seen tremendous improvement in the quality of production and the expansion of distribution networks in recent years. But most of the films still revolve around old topics that reinforce the regressive value system,” says Daljit Ami, a renowned writer-filmmaker and director of the Educational Multimedia Research Center at Punjabi University, Patiala.
While comedy is the mainstay of Punjabi cinema, Ami says most films bring out a brand of comedy “previously confined to male cocktail gatherings”. Such comedy promotes “inequality” in society.
Ami notes, “The argument we hear is that audiences only want this kind of content. But there’s another side to the problem. The cinema is mainly for young people who experiment with all kinds of intoxicants and have several misadventures. But society takes responsibility in every possible way, so their argument only shows a lack of social commitment on their part.
On the other side, Ami adds that national award-winning filmmakers like Rajeev Kumar have tackled socially relevant issues, saying, “Right before the pandemic, he shot Cham (2017) which highlights the life of the tanners. Although the film was made on a shoestring budget, he screened it alone in the villages of Punjab to create awareness in the society.
Ami specifically mentions filmmaker Jatinder Mauhar. Prior to Udta Punjab (2016) which highlighted the problem of drug abuse in Punjab, Mauhar had made Qissa Punjab (2015) on the same subject.
“Although there is no comparison between the successes of two films, we always manage to recoup the money we invest in our films,” says Ami, who has to his credit documentaries like Karze Haith (2001) on the fate of agricultural workers.
Friend co-wrote Sadde Aale with Jatinder Mauhar, director of the film released on April 29. The film happens to be the last completed film by the late actor Deep Sidhu, who died in a car crash earlier in February. The film shows how agricultural distress has weakened farming families in Punjab.
Ami says that Punjabi society is plagued with issues like drugs, violence, casteism and patriarchy and filmmakers need to feel socially responsible to address these issues.
“Art should challenge social ills instead of condoning them. If your movies celebrate all of these issues, you might make a lot of money, but you’ll fail as an artist,” he says, before asking, “The question remains whether cinema, as business entity, whether or not it wants to humanize society. ”