Kothe Tapni (1976)
Cast: Aasia, Iqbal Hasan, Shahid, Alauddin, Talish, Nasira, Nayyer Sultana
Director: Fayyaz Ahmed
Nutshell: Potent little film focussing on some inner city vices and exploitation with a lifetime best performance by Aasia in the title role.
Listen to Audio Clips from Kothe Tapni below:
Another forgotten Punjabi film from the Pre-Zia days that has been lost over the years but is a potent little film with a strong message to deliver and just stops short of obliterating iron cast Lollywood norms of storytelling with its surprising boldness. Aasia turns in one of her career’s finest performances in the title role of a free spirited, fun loving woman whose life is devastated by exploitation yet she nearly finds solace and redemption and up to the last few moments of the film, threatens to break all sorts of Lollywood’s moral codes but sadly just falls short.
Lollywood’s moral code dictates that once a woman is sullied in any way, she cannot be redeemed. If she has erred or been raped or abused or divorced or been sexually active with anyone other than her husband, there is no room for her in society and according to Pakistani cinema’s moral code, she absolutely must die at the end of the movie regardless of her virtue as a good human being. For a woman, it’s pretty simple; there is no redemption.
The film starts in the big bad city and its underbelly of vice where Iqbal and his friends spend most of their days and nights in the company of drug dealers, bootleggers and prostitutes. It’s an endless cycle of booze, drugs and mujra’s with no end in sight and while Iqbal’s mother rocks back on forth on her prayer mat in hope that her son will repent, he whiles away the hours in a mindless stupor night after night after night. Nearby, in the bustling, sleazy city lives Taji (Aasia) who is a little “out of control” as far as societal norms go. Free spirited and fun loving but also trusting and gullible she soon falls foul of a society that thrives on the weak, the downtrodden and those who are foolish enough to trust others. It’s a dog eat dog world in the big bad city as Taji soon discovers. Her path crosses that of a drunken Iqbal Hasan, who despite his errant and wasteful ways is a decent human being ready to stand up for the oppressed and in a series of flashbacks we learn about Taji’s string of dreadful misfortunes.
She fell head over heels in love with a handsome visitor Shahid who soon romances her and despite her “fast” reputation love and marriage are in the air. Her step mother has nothing to do with it and forcibly marries her off to an ageing man who pays hard cash for her but is surprisingly sympathetic and refuses to be responsible for ruining her life. He divorces her the next morning without touching her all night and returns her “Haq Mehr” allowing her the freedom to go back to her lover Shahid. They are shacked up in some cheap hotel together and she presses him for marriage but he has other plans and walks out on her without so much as an explanation leaving her alone to deal with the hotel bill among other things. Shahid leaves her with nothing and once again a sympathetic, kind Aunty turns out to be just another exploiter and forces Taji to work as a prostitute at her “kotha” along with her other girls.
Gradually, his pious mother’s pleas get to him and Iqbal finally turns over a leaf and quits drinking and his previous hedonistic lifestyle and is courageous enough to show sympathy to Taji and attempts to have her find refuge with a decent family and Talish, a highly-respected member of the community takes her in as his daughter. Everything seems well but it isn’t long before Taji’s grim past catch up with her and threaten to return her to the life of daily exploitation but once again Iqbal steps up and takes responsibility for protecting her and this despite knowing about her dark past and the fact that she has worked as a prostitute for a considerable period of time.
At this stage in the film as it winds its way to a conclusion, it appears as though this film could be on its way to breaking several of Lollywood’s moral codes. Firstly, the film depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as rampant but doesn’t necessarily show that all drunks are morally degenerate people. The notion that for many alcohol serves as a way of numbing the pain and hiding the ugliness of life is suggested, especially in the case of Iqbal, a man who hardly emerges from his drunken stupor for the first half of the film.
Despite his follies, he is a good man with the courage to stand up for what he believes is right. In his relationship with Taji he is able to tap into those emotions that he tends to try to obliterate with alcohol and in his defense of a woman who has been wronged and exploited at every turn in life, he finds his own redemption and a new focus in life. In his caring for this pathetic, broken woman he finds strength, direction and courage and is able to turn his life around from the drunken stupor that it previously was. There is nothing romantic between the two, just a bond based on his sympathy and awakening due to learning about her struggles. It is a strange and beautiful bond between the two but anyone familiar with Pakistani films and the morals that pervade these films will know that this bond can only end one way; in tragedy.
The film goes further than most in its depiction of drugs and alcoholism in mid 70s Pakistan and points at this vice for its destruction of the family unit and its corrosive undermining of family and social values upon which a decent society is built. There is a scathing indictment of alcoholism as Iqbal desperately implores his friend Afzaal to quit drinking and the argument focuses on family and social issues rather than any argument based on religion which is a hugely refreshing change.
The films depiction of Taji’s plight is also constrained by the moral code of Lollywood films and societal norms and yet she is presented as a strong, virtuous character despite the horrors she has had to deal with and it is her strength that draws Iqbal from his drunken stupor and gives him a foundation. The film unflinchingly attacks the brutality of a judgmental and unforgiving society, the exploitation of women forced into prostitution and their lack of resources to fight their situation.
Overtly Kothe Tapni is just another forgettable Lollywood action pot boiler from the sleazy mid 70s and though there is enough of the usual desi masala to keep the regular punters happy there is definitely a moral undercurrent that is fairly potent. The film avoids the usual romantic trappings for the most part and focusses on some ugly but relevant issues and that in itself gives the film a character and a potency that most similar commercial films lacked.
Aasia turns in one of the best performances of her career and Iqbal Hasan too proves why he was such a force despite perhaps not having the best looks nor physique. He represented more than most the average, big hearted Punjabi man more than any other during his time in Lollywood and his popularity is testament to his ability to connect with the ordinary man. Nayyar Sultana is classy as Iqbal’s wife as is Talish and there are some catchy numbers by Madame Noor Jehan especially the title song. Nazli appears for a saucy dance in the beginning and Nimmo appears as the daughter of Talish. Shahid to his credit, takes time out to play a negative role which only adds to his repertoire as an actor.
The film is shot on a low budget in Black & White yet there is some interesting camera-work and the film as a certain energy to it that keeps it from getting bogged down. The flashbacks could have been better integrated and some of the fight scenes cut short but overall director Fayyaz Ahmed’s Kothe Tapni is a surprising little film and mostly for all the right reasons. The film tackles some ugly realities in an unflinching manner and depicts its down trodden women anything but negatively. It may be a little naïve in some of its reasoning but generally speaking, Kothe Tapni is a forceful film with more substance than most.