Birth of a (Muslim) Nation

An iconic film reveals the antisemitism of Pakistani progressives

Zerqa’s iconic poster immortalised its protagonist’s eroticised body in pain, oppressed in chains of bondage. Courtesy Omar Khan
17 October, 2019

Tu keh nawaqif-e-adab-e-shahinshahi hai abhi,
Raqs zanjeer pehan kar bhi kiya jata hai.

(You, who know not the ways of imperialism,
You dance, even in chains.)

The revolutionary poet Habib Jalib penned these stirring lines for Neelo, a Pakistani actress coerced into dancing for the Shah of Iran during a state visit in 1965. Neelo is said to have fainted from distress before the performance and been rushed to the hospital.

This real-life incident lends added poignancy to the Pakistani singer Mehdi Hassan’s rendition in the film Zerqa, released on 17 October 1969, in which shahinshahi—imperialism—is replaced with ghulami—slavery. Directed by Neelo’s firebrand spouse, Riaz Shahid, Zerqa—Pakistan’s first “diamond jubilee” film, with over a hundred weeks at the box office—features her as a Palestinian militant, a peasant girl radicalised by the violent dispossession of her family at the time of Israel’s formation. Forced to dance for her sadistic captors, Zerqa the rebel heroine is sombrely serenaded by Jalib’s ode to the oppressed.

Zerqa’s plot of insurgency and subterfuge unfolds at a thrilling pace, to a frenetic score of bongo drumming, stunts and dynamic camera pans. It is not hard to see why this film, which combines action and left-wing politics with artful masala, is fondly remembered by Pakistani progressives and cinephiles. Fifty years on from its grand opening in cinemas, however, the limits of its anti-colonial politics raise awkward questions.