The Sublime Anjuman
I can’t quite explain why I’m this fascinated by the Punjabi film star Anjuman.
That’s actually not entirely true. I can explain its genesis. My aayah (or nanny, what have you), was borderline obsessed with Anjuman. While growing up, I would often be subjected to VHS tapes of Anjuman’s songs and at times entire Anjuman movies.
As a child, my interest in these was perfunctory at best. Some of the song clips were undeniably mesmerizing, I particularly recall one with a song and dance atop a train (eat your heart out Malaika Arora), and another that featured her in a string of disco themed outfits that were further disco-fied by the mere fact that these were Punjabi masala numbers. Imagine a glitter ball, covered in sequins, layered over with neon gauze, and with green eyeshadow. THAT was Disco Anjuman.
What this post is not trying to do is explore Anjuman as a mass phenomenon. My point of contact is solitary, therefore, to try and explain how the entire Punjabi movie going audience viewed her would be dishonest. What I do know is that Anjuman was a superstar and likely had millions of fans, but I have only one person to explain to me why she personally liked Anjuman as much as she did.
While recently back home I asked Ama (my aforementioned Aayah) why she liked Anjuman so much. Her response was quite simple, “Uss ka dance (her dancing ability), uss ki acting (her acting ability), aur kyunkeh woh kissi se darti nahin thee (and because she wasn’t afraid of anyone / homegirl didn’t take shit from nobody).
I decided that I would try and explore these three aspects of Anjuman in this post: Anjuman – Dancer; Anjuman – Actress; and Anjuman – Amazon Warrior. Upon closer inspection I came to realize that Anjuman, the actress, and Anjuman, the Amazon Warrior, were one and the same. The Amazon Warrior eventually just becoming the defining feature of her acting.
Anjuman – The Dancer
One must never underestimate the importance of dance in the South Asian film. Songs intersperse the action, at times with no particular reason, and at times to further propel the film’s narrative. While possessing the ability to dance well is important for a male actor, for an actress it is absolutely essential. Particularly when keeping in mind the 80s Punjabi film, where the lead actor is often stoic in the song sequences and the actress must do all the heavy lifting.
Anjuman excelled in this arena. Jumping from genre to genre of dance but still grounding it in the Punjabiness necessary for it to resonate with the audience.
Here we have Anjuman performing a typical girl-in-the-village-dancing-in-the-fields (yes, all the hyphens are necessary because this is a REAL category):
In this number Anjuman glides from pining-for-her-love slower dance, to I’ve-found-him-yay! close dancing / expressing her adoration, to finally-let-me-break-out-all-my-moves-for-you to show her utter excitement.
Then, we have Disco Anjuman. Disco Anjuman is very much a one-woman show. She is the center of attention, a slave to disco (or is disco a slave to her lycra bound hips?)
Anjuman is the star here. In her western garb, with her backup dancers in saris. Traditional? Save it for the khait. In the club, homegirl wants her spandex and she wants it now. She is on a single mode through this whole song: ridiculously fucking fast. Or as we know it, Punjabi Disco dancing.
However, there was one particular combination that made a Punjabi song soar to the greatest heights possible. Anjuman, Sultan Rahi, and the immortal Madam Noor Jahan. I present what is possibly the greatest Punjabi song from the 1980s:
Here Anjuman leaves no stone unturned. She plays seductress, accomplice, and ridiculously great dancer all at the same time.
That Anjuman could rise to the occasion with her dancing abilities no matter the test must have certainly burnished her credentials as far as Ama’s fandom for her goes.
Anjuman – The Amazon Warrior
Prior to writing this post, I emailed Ahmer Naqvi (of Copy Paste Material, @karachikhatmal and Sasti Masti fame – you should seriously check out Sasti Masti; a great homage to the Pakistani masala flick), to ask what he thought of Anjuman. I will defer to a paragraph he wrote in response which helps a great deal in understanding how Anjuman differed from earlier Pakistani film stars:
“In the 80s the gender contrast in Lollywood became starker, and films that were successful were increasingly rural-centered, with the action and dishoom dishoom taking center stage not just here, but in Bollywood and Hollywood too. And Anjuman allowed a template for strong female characters to be written. Contrast that with someone like Zeba or Shabnam whose strong characters were urbane women entrusted with moral responsibilities, and dealing with them by trying to sidestep the zaalim samaaj or not let it get them down. Anjuman just kicked the zaalims out of the samaaj.”
Keeping the above paragraph in mind, let’s start things slow; because Anjuman did much to zaalims of many shapes.
Let’s begin with Anjuman not having time for nonsense like whose car should back up so the other vehicle may move:
Sultan Rahi has the temerity to stop his car in front of hers. Anjuman, clad in blue spandex (always the spandex), tells them to move their car. When threatened, she pulls out a strategically placed gun in her hat and shoots the tyres of the offending vehicle. In short: don’t mess with her.
At times even women tried to get in on Anjuman’s action. But Anjuman is the Only Ghundi (The Punjabi OG one may say), and well, takes care of her as she would anyone else:
Needless to say, the challenger gets well acquainted with a dhobi ghaat.
However, Anjuman need not always be a ghundi. Her ability to take the zaalim out of the samaaj was just as effective when she’d lend her hand to law enforcement:
Thus far we’ve seen Anjuman take no shit from anyone as an urbanite, as a deyhaati ghundi, and a policewoman.
WAIT. It gets better. Because Anjuman can singlehandedly take on large groups of men through sheer force of will (or Punjabi masala film director imagination).
Anjuman rides in on a bike; removes a helmet to reveal she’s a woman. The goons quite clearly seem non-threatened by her:
Too bad she knows Tae Kwon Do. And has the reflexes of a feline-human hybrid. In motorcycling gear.
If Anjuman had an equal, it could only be Sultan Rahi. In the following clip, Anjuman tries to take on Sultan Rahi but gets defeated. Never mind though:
She later kidnaps him while veiled. Reveals herself to be the same ‘bebass kurri’ he had earlier referred to; and well, the jokes on him.
In all, the characters Anjuman took on rarely took shit lying down. She is ghundi, she is vandal, she is policewoman, she can take on multiple goons at once, but she most certainly is not bebass.
Anjuman – The Superstar
Upon further probing Ama’s reasons for her passionate Anjuman fandom, I think I came to find why Anjuman resonated with Ama so deeply, “Kabhi kabhi, mujhay lagta thaa keh woh bilkul meray jaisi thee” (At times, it felt as though she was just like me.)
In my opinion, what differentiates a movie star from a superstar is the ability of the actor to maintain a semblance of approachability. Approachability is, (I stress to say) in my opinion, a defining feature of likeability. To be likeable on the scale that Anjuman was, she had to remind women that she was like them, and she had to remind men that in many ways she was not too different from your regular Punjabi gal.
I direct messaged the author Mohammad Hanif (namedrop alert), to ask him if he had any view on Anjuman that could help me hone my thinking on this piece. He mentioned a particular incident he witnessed. Mr. Hanif saw an army recruit saluting a poster of Anjuman and delivering an apology directly to her for having missed ‘Sher Khan’. It would therefore not be out of the realm of possibility to claim that Anjuman did indeed have transcendent mass appeal.
When Anjuman staged her return to film in 1999 with her final hit “Chaudhrani”, Ama went to see the first show. She returned raving about it. The film was successful, so I’d have to imagine her other fans must have raved about it too.
Perhaps they feel for Anjuman, what Anjuman’s character sang in Sher Khan:
Tu ju mere hamesha kol ravay,
Tay mein duniya nu keh davaan paray paray
Dil de ke duniya tun kaun daray