Off Multan Road in Lahore is a fascinating piece of celluloid history reeling in slow decay.
Built in the early 1950s by producer Malik Bari, Bari Studios was where many a hit Lollywood film was shot. The studio housed multiple halls, studio rooms, film sets, a laboratory and all the necessary equipment for filming and post-production. Today, its walls are crumbling. But as they are, they’re also telling tales of a heyday that’s difficult to reminisce without wistful nostalgia.
Malik Akbar is one such bastion of nostalgia. Identifying himself as an ‘extra supplier’, Akbar loses no time in getting to his sales pitch. He tells us he can arrange any extra or background actor needed for a film — from eight to 80 years, any body type, man or woman.
He himself has been an extra in many films. He enthusiastically recalls playing a small role in the film Malangi (1965) during which he gets bludgeoned on the head. He stumbles a little as he enacts the impact of the strike on him. It is not difficult to imagine him as an entertainer.
Like Bari Studios, Akbar’s best days are behind him. He now narrates how some of the biggest actors he worked with did not hear his plea for financial help when his daughters were getting married. But then, Akbar has nine children: five daughters and four sons.
Bari Studios was a village before it was a film set. And not everyone was pleased with the takeover, with at least one posthumous protester. After the studio was built and filming started within its premises, strange things started happening. Akbar recalls Sultan Rahi shooting for a film whose title he doesn’t remember. The actor was tied up to a tree but for some reason couldn’t climb down even after the shot was over — as if a supernatural force was keeping him up there. Others say a wedding procession was being filmed when the girl playing the bride suddenly fell off her doli and fractured her leg. There were also instances of fire breaking out on the sets.
Frustrated, the management went to the village folk to ask why so many accidents were taking place at the studio. They were told a saint buried on the premises was probably not pleased with all the commotion around him. And so, sometime in the 90s, a small shrine was built in honour of Hazrat Janab Ghaib Shah Wali Hyderi Qalandari, an alias that describes his conspicuous absence. The gate of the shrine now remains locked — even though its low boundary wall is easy to leap over — to keep out vagrants.
It is not easy to keep people away from Bari Studios. Baba Gulzar Ahmed is an ageing man with very few teeth and silvery white hair, which used to flow down below his shoulders until recently. A septuagenarian now, Gulzar came to Lahore from Gujranwala when he was a young man with dreams of making it big as a film hero. He regrets not being able to land any prominent role.
After a series of insignificant appearances as an extra and background dancer, Gulzar turned to casting extras like Akbar and doing odd jobs that came up during film productions. His two sons, Nauman, 21, and Zaman, who appears to be in his 40s, have both followed in his footsteps: they run an agency that supplies locations and actors for films and dramas.
Ghulam Abbas is another lasting fixture of Bari Studios. He came there 30 years ago and has since designed costumes dresses for countless films. So many, in fact, that he doesn’t even remember their names. He pulls out a bunch of posters instead: Bandish, Jeeva Gujjar, Baghawat, Khan Khela.
There are others like Gulzar and Abbas who wander the premises of Bari Studios telling stories of the past, lamenting the lack of work and livelihood. Raees Ahmed, 59, calls himself a stuntman, fight director and production manager. He stresses how important it is to get his designations right. Waheed Awan is a director and disciple of Pervez Rana. His film Fauja (1996) was shot at Bari Studios, he points out, while his last film Lahori Shehzaday (2006) was shot at Evernew Studios next door. He is currently working on a production titled Hatyaar.
Along with the studio, these men have become relics of days gone by. They are pining for the time when someone told them those three magic words. The three words they didn’t want whispered into their ears, but for someone to scream at the top of their lungs: Lights, Camera, Action!