What does it mean to be an action hero? Is it not just saving the world via a great many well-choreographed fight scenes? Or is it enough that you’ve changed the course of history, silently, sneakily? What about if you’ve spent your time making sure kids don’t get typhoid? Does that count? And what if you’ve been an actual action hero - a stuntman? Because Pakistan has had each of these, each celebrated locally and, for some, internationally too. And no, they’re not all men. They are, however, exceedingly camp. Because you wouldn’t want them any other way.
A true action hero. And by "true action", I mean In Real Life. Like Evil Knieval, only third world and so probably facing more danger with every stunt. Sultan Golden was Pakistan’s premier stuntman, known for his elaborate and death defying stunts involving a variety of automobiles, motorbikes, fire and a curly mullet. A CURLY MULLET. In Pakistan. The man defied reason in every way.
Sultan Golden, dressed in a snazzy gold jumpsuit would ‘jump’ a golden Datsun (that’s right - a Datsun. Pakistan’s been big on Japanese cars for decades) over a string of a dozen parked cars. He’d ‘fly’ a motorbike through a ring of fire. He’d drive through three burning wooden walls. He’d speed through a sixty foot tunnel of flames. As if this wasn’t enough, in 1984, he broke world records by ‘jumping’ his motorbike over 22 cars. In 1990 he performed a reverse motorbike jump over 15 cars. It wasn’t enough to jump over cars and risk death facing the front - he had to do it backwards. All of this with only home-made ramps, a leather jumpsuit, and a helmet to protect his fantastic hair. I mean head.
In Mingora in 2013, Sultan Golden attempted to break the record of a French driver by jumping a car over 13 cars. Upon landing, the ramp that had been hurriedly constructed gave way a little and his jump didn’t completely clear - no records broken, but another reminder that he really was doing all this with no real safety protocol, random carpenters making his ramps, presumably no safety, health or life insurance and a will of steel. In newspaper interviews, Sultan Golden clearly stated that he was never even paid to do what he did, or even offered any support by the Pakistani government. He financed his own cars, his own staff and, even though he was offered buckets of cash to come break records in Dubai, he refused, stating that he did what he did for his country to be recognised worldwide. Evil Knieval’s got nothing on this guy. Rumour (and by that I mean Twitter) has it that, after Sultan Golden lost a friend in a bike jump gone wrong, he became a proselytiser and now owns a pizza place in Lahore.
Here’s a clip of a stunt performance by Sultan Golden in the dark days of Pakistan under the military rule of General Zia ul Haq. I won’t go into politics here, but the fact that the chief guest is a Saudi sheikh who is all chummy with General Zia ul Haq basically explains a whole lot about What Went Wrong with Pakistan.
Anjuman Shaheen is a Pakistani cinema legend. With a 20-year career as a leading actress and over 300 films to her name, Anjuman could dance, she could heave, she could emote and, man, could she fight. Often paired with Sultan Rahi (see below), Anjuman ruled Lollywood for decades, primarily in Punjabi films but with the occasional foray into Urdu too. Playing every cliche from mild mannered, demure little village girls to sexy, violent police officers, Anjuman’s image is ingrained into the minds of a great many of us who grew up with the limited films on state-run TV, even if we didn’t watch regional films in the cinema.
The iconic image here is from one of her last films, Jatti da Vair (Jatti’s Enmity), an attempted comeback that failed miserably, though that image is now ingrained in the minds of many: Anjuman as bloody avenger, as portrayed by the Pakistani artists who painted cinema billboards until just a few years ago. This is Anjuman in pure revenge mode, Kalashnikov in hand, handbag slung over shoulder (for…extra ammo? Who knows! Lara Croft has a backpack, doesn’t she?), legs askance and covered with the blood of her victims - all of whom, rest assured, deserved whatever they got.
Anjuman played a great many action roles, challenging the Lollywood stereotype of actresses only playing roles of victims, romantic interests, lovers or appearing as ‘item girls’. While most of her action films centred around standard revenge tropes, she once played a female don* too. Her action films had some fantastic titles - Nangi Talwar (Naked Sword), Qatil Haseena (Murderous Beauty), Insaniyat ke Dushman (Humanity’s Enemies). My favourite is probably her as the lead in 1990’s Daku Haseena (Dacoit Beauty or Beautiful Bandit, if you want to be less literal).
Female don* = gangsta ladyboss, yo!
I personally really like this clip, which shows her dramatic transformation (lightning! thunder! wardrobe change!) in a sort of showreel of Daku Haseena’s greatest moments, like the ones where she laughs maniacally, fires her giant weapon and then laughs maniacally some more. She also steals from the rich to give to the poor, but mainly I liked her laugh, her braids and her leather outfit with the shoulder-ridge action.
This one is cool too, from Lady Don, I presume. Stylish Anjuman with her fancy side-angled updo rides up in a Jackie O yacht, wearing her bigass Jackie O sunglasses to go with her her coral suit, is pissed off by what seems to be a group of shady b-grade lawers, kills them all and calmly heads back to her yacht, hair still in place. Sadly this clip has no audio so I’ve got no clue what she’s saying, but rest assured, it’s probably really badass. Once she’s done with the killing, she lady-skips back to her swanky yacht. Because, she’s a lady too, obviously.
I could go on and on about Anjuman. But I’m just going to tell you that there’s an entire YouTube channel called ‘action queen anjuman’. That is all. Oh and apparently she now lives in Knightsbridge, London. Of course she does.
Some say Punjabi actor Sultan Rahi is the Pakistani Chuck Norris. I say Chuck Norris should be so lucky. Did Chuck Norris ever destroy’s Hitler’s secret violent legacy by hunting down his son, Hitlar? Did Chuck Norris star in over 800 films? Did Chuck Norris win over 150 film awards? I don’t think so. Sultan Rahi did. The dude walked on air, even when he was in chains. Example:
Sultan Rahi was best known for playing Maula Jat, a ferocious village hero whose mighty machete dripped continuously with the blood of the oppressor. He prevented rapes, saved innocent people, helped the poor and was always good to his mother (who was often pretty badass too). When not using his machete as Maula Jat, Sultan Rahi also used knives, sometimes skewering two lions at the same time in films like Dharti Sheraan Di (Land of the Lions).
The strangest of Sultan Rahi’s films was probably the 1980 movie Hitler, in which it is revealed that Adolf Hitler survived the war and escaped to live a life in Punjab. But his evil spawn can not be contained by the lush landscape, and his son Hitlar spends his time ravaging the rural society and beating the local villagers into submission. He does all this while standing out in an dirty orange wifebeater, a leather jacket, a long moustache and ringlet curls, living in his massive house with posters of his dear old dad everywhere. There’s only one person strong enough to take him down - bad audio-synced Sultan Rahi of course.
Sultan Rahi and Anjuman were practically the only lead actors in Lollywood for decades, often paired together as lovers, fighters, comrades - you name it, they’ve played it. Here they are in action together in a lengthy, stunningly choreographed fight scene. And this time she keeps her hat on.
Sultan Rahi was shot dead in 1996 on the Grand Trunk Road, near Gujranwalla, Punjab. There is yet to be an official statement released explaining who shot him and why.
Jane Bond, 008: Operation Karachi
A female James Bond from 1971 starring a film called Operation Karachi. Why isn’t this a pulp novel yet? I’m going to write it next week. Played by part Burmese, part Pathan model Rakshanda Khattak who was reputed to be fluent in 5 languages and a black belt in jujitsu, Jane Bond was an earlier incarnation of a female action hero in Pakistani cinema.
Jane Bond 008: Operation Karachi starts off at Scotland Yard, London - that’s how you know shit just got serious. Jane’s being assigned to Karachi since she’s Anglo-Indian and they think she can blend in & Scotland Yard is nothing if not racially specific, it seems. Unfortunately, Jane’s contact in Karachi is killed before she can get there and through sheer coincidence, her taxi driver speaks the code words by which she is meant to recognise her contact. She thinks the taxi driver is a fellow agent, the taxi driver thinks she’s in love with him and the bad guys are out to get them. Sadly, the film flopped even though it was a fairly big budget, Iranian-Pakistani collaboration and there haven’t been any other incarnations of Jane Bond 008 since then. Anyone want to hire me to do a spy vs spy Jane Bond comic set in 70’s Karachi? You know it’d be fantastic.
Burka Avenger & Commander Safeguard
I place these two together not because I’m cheating (I’m cheating), but because they’re both moral-led cartoons and we need them to break up the madness of this list.
Burka Avenger made a big splash last year when (as usual) people were more concerned about what the lead female character was wearing rather than what she was doing or thinking - her burqa became a topic of big discussion. Since then creator Haroon Rashid has won a Peabody Award for the series and it’s been a big hit with kids. A school teacher in a small town, Jiya is skilled in martial arts and hides her true identity in an ubiquitous burqa to save the town’s children and the school from the local thugs who have no interest in education. Her constant struggle is against those who do not believe in the importance of education. Yeah, those are the really villainous types.
While Burka Avenger wants kids to be literate, Commander Safeguard wants them to wash their hands. You’d think one would be more important than the other, but in a country where typhoid, hepatitis cholera and other sanitation-related diseases are still shockingly common especially amongst certain rural populations and IDPs, Commander Safeguard’s message is just as valid as Burka Avenger’s. Also, he was a major breakthrough in the animation industry, though, of course, brought about by a soap company. The Karachi-based animation firm Post Amazers, who brought Commander Safeguard to life went on to work on stuff for Hollywood films, like The Son of Mask and Exorcist: The Beginning.
Mahvesh Murad is the host of City89's 89 Chapters and Voodoo Nights, as well as a reviewer for Dawn, Tor.com and many more. You can share your favourite action heroes with her on Twitter at @mahveshm.
All Lollywood images courtesy Omar Ali Khan of http://thehotspotcafe.net/