Pakistani Film Reviews: Aurat Raj (1979) عورت راج

You know that one subset of B films in international film industries dedicated to providing a "titillating" reversal of gender norms? I'm talking about all those films proclaiming "Island of Women!" "Kingdom of Women!" "Female Planet!" and so on. The one where a bunch of manly astronauts land on a planet with no men, populated with castration-happy Amazons and are made into slaves. (I think Star Trek--TOS used this one multiple times.) Despite the power swap of it all, the trope is generally just another avenue for fantasy. "Men ostensibly being exploited by women" becomes another brand of female exploitation. I honestly expected Aurat Raj (Woman Rule or Woman Kingdom) to be the same, but I was wrong.

A long-suffering wife (Rani) is daily beaten and cheated-on by her drunken husband (Waheed Murad). But when he brings home a mistress, it's the last straw. First she tries to get a divorce, and then decides to go BIGGER, and take her grievances to the streets. Led by the oppressed wife, the majority of wives and mothers rise up against their husbands, fathers, father-in-laws (notably, Sultan Rahi), cheating boyfriends, pimps, etc. and take over the country. First by campaign, then by violence.

Finally, a mysterious bomb goes off and turns the men into badly rouged, hirsute, high-voiced, dupatta wearing ... well, men. But also, and more importantly, victims. All. And the women? Transformed into devil-may-care, growly, tight-trousered, leering, smoking, and rapey politicians, soldiers, and goondas. Rani becomes General Jinjur (seriously, though, right down to the art nouveau helmet and epaulets) *ahem* I mean the supreme leader of the Aurat Raj.

Before you can say "just deserts," all the losing husbands are forced to entertain (not what I'd call it, but still) the new leader with song and dance. General Rani (I'm going to call her this because I didn't catch a name) doesn't accept her husband at first, and he's forced to do a number of humiliating seduction dances to win her recognition. She acquiesces after her ego has been stroked enough, but the minute another man shows up at court with a sob story (set upon by rapey females who have ripped his kameez), she casts hubby off. Immediately, he's captured and forced into the life of tawaif (in one of the best parody sequences of the film).

While all this is going on, we're shown snippets of many other emblems of the new order: women accosting and assaulting men in the street, roaming female dacoit bands, women abducting men on their wedding day, women saving men from rapists and the men falling in love with their saviors, women convicts duking it out in prisons and then going full yeh dosti ...

In other words, in maybe a dozen major film scenarios in which South Asian films have traditionally cast men as the subject and women as the object, the tables are turned. Basically, instead of an exploitation fantasy, we find ourselves down the rabbit hole of filmi tropes, the world turned upside down to reveal social problems and sexism in a humorous way.

This VERY strange film was the brainchild (written, directed, produced, etc.) of Rangeela, a jack of all trades Pakistani comedian. Apparently he was inspired by a short story about matriarchal societies and by his own progressive politics. An intensely personal project, it was also a massive financial disaster, AND a film the government censored pretty darn fast. You can read more back story here, if you'd like.

Personally, I've never been in such a muddle about a film as I am about Aurat Raj. It might be brilliant, and it might also be one of the worst things I've ever seen. Almost every pro could be a con (and vice versa) depending on how you look at it...

Waheed Murad and Rani
Pro: apparently a popular pairing in the late 60s and late 70s, they do have a lot of screen presence.

Con: they don't get to use their own voices (or interpersonal chemistry for that matter), for the majority of the film, and Waheed is almost unrecognizable in his feminine avatar. 

The rapid editing and trippy cinematography
Pro: because it keeps things moving, and at least we're not staring at grass grow.

Con: because the film didn't need that many shots or the stock footage and half the time we don't know where we are or who we are with.

The songs
Pro: about half served the parody goal very well, the best being maybe the early battle-of -the-sexes qawwali and a call-to-battle chorus at the end.

Con: the other 8 or 9 numbers are kind of grating and repetitive.

The voice swap
Pro: it does make the power transfer more humorous and effective.

Con: you get tired of it after five minutes.

The clothes swap
Pro: men wearing the burkas and churidars and the women wearing the ultra-tight flares, military
costumes, and leather jackets does serve to add two necessary qualities: humor and sex appeal.

Con: IF you have a high tolerance for ugly (in the first case) and the culturally specific novelty (in the second).

Note: while there's clearly a fetish factor to all this ... the gender reversal is not sexualized in the way the "Island of Women" international cult trope would be.  The girl-fights are shot like guy-fights ... with scowls and kathunk slaps and flips. All the women are exaggerated in their masculinity, just as the men are in their femininity. It looks better on the women though...oh so much better. Waheed Murad is the best looking of the fellers even in horrifically baggy lavender salwar-kameez. However, this is not saying much. They are a grotesque bunch.

The vignette style narrative
Con: we spend a lot of time with folks we don't necessarily care about, in the name of a funny or pointed skits.

Pro: we get a lot of amusing nuggets out of it, like all of the scrappy female street fighters (who I have a feeling were mostly the same three woman dressed up in different funky hats and jackets), gun happy dacoits, and a bandit who licks her machine gun as an intimidation tactic. 


Power corrupts
Con: the downside of the aurat raj is that it is instantly as oppressive and exploitative as the male dominated version. This is certainly an interesting way to showcase the trials of the average woman in a misogynist world (and certainly would make a great SNL skit), bu it doesn't particularly make women look good (except in the aforementioned costume department).

Pro: it seems to say that in patriarchy or matriarchy, male or female rule, gender inequality and victimization is not OK. In fact, the film ends with a stamp of approval on the frame that "fixes" this inequality. Even with an "it was all a dream" cop-out at the end, the film doesn't soften the message. In fact, both in the dream and out, it's the husband who apologizes, learns to fight for both parties, and begs for reconciliation. I don't know about you, but my inner radical feminist can go home now. 


  1. Ugh! (I'm sorry, but I can't think of anything worse that I'd rather sit through. *grin*)

    1. Oh gosh, I can think of much worse things. :D I could at least get on board with what this one was trying to do.

  2. Catching up on some reviews I should have read sooner... This one sounds interesting. By the way, when you mentioned that there was a qawwali in this film, I remembered a Hindi film qawwali that is kind of like this film. The song is about women taking over and making the men do a lot of the things that women have to do. There are some pretty offbeat lines in this song, such as at one point where the woman singer tells the man that she will pierce his nose for a ring. (And he is also made to wear a dupatta.)

    I used to be able to find a subtitled version, maybe from Tom, but it's no longer available. But here is a clip of the song anyway:

    Regarding the island-ruled-by-women theme, I was wondering if you ever saw the 1955 Hindi film Uran Khatola. It is pretty odd and not to everybody's taste, but it actually has one of the most beautiful soundtracks I've ever heard - not surprising, since the musical director is Naushad. I also find Nimmi to be gorgeous in this film, and a few people have said the same about Dilip Kumar. The sets are also pretty fantastic, as in high fantasy. I enjoyed it, at any rate.

    Regarding Rani... I recall you told me in a comment a while back that you were looking for every Rani dance you could find. I thought that you were going to do a Rani post. I am assuming that you've decided to review some of her films instead... I recently mentioned Rani, in my Lollywood Cabaret post (which I put up yesterday), and I am thinking a lot about doing a Rani post for her death anniversary, May 27. As you said to me, I would welcome suggestions, etc.

    1. Hi, Richard. Always good to hear from you!

      I do like the song from Reporter Raju--what fun--and it seems to me I've seen battle of the sexes qawwalis a few times, perhaps because they are so well suited to matching wit and turning aggression or ill-feeling into humor.

      Well, now I've certainly got Uran Khatola high on my list now. And sometimes nothing will do except Naushad ... esp. if he's in the mood to NOT recycle (IMO).

      As far as marathoning Rani goes, I got sort of interrupted with health stuff and Urdu studies. However, I just finished my semester and plan to get back on the Rani project this summer. Would you consider doing a sort of Rani "week" where we would link to one another's posts? You're certain to bring a very different perspective from me ... and a much more knowledgeable eye for her as a dancer. Rani as an actress, AND her very personal dance style should both be celebrated. She deserves to be better known outside of Pakistan.

  3. Miranda, sorry about the delay in response... Actually, I did respond, but the system here at Blogger was trying to get me to connect in a way that I didn't want to, and then I lost the response.

    Before you made your suggestion about a Rani week, I considered the idea of doing something similar, a joint post on Rani - meaning, we do one post on the same day and refer to each other's blogs... I once did that with Sanket aka Doc Bollywood (reviewing Anmol Ghadi several years ago), and it was fun.

    But I do not know when, exactly, you want to do this, or whether I would want to make it a multi-post, week-long project, or whether the time that will be more convenient for you to do this will work for me. :) (Availability of time, etc., can also change a lot for me from month to month...) Meanwhile, I did conveniently discover the date of Rani's death anniversary while I was doing my May 4 post, and a May 27 post honoring her would actually be a good follow-up to that.

    But I could write a line telling people to look out for something more extensive from you in the summer... I imagine that you will be writing and researching, too. I may just put up a bunch of clips, maybe with short comments. I doubt I will have all that much to say in describing her dances; probably, I will just show them.

    Well, I think this will be my plan anyway. But as you know plans can change and get interrupted, etc. :)

    1. And here I am, with a delayed reply of my own :) I think in the meantime, we should plan on referring to each other's posts. Coordinating the same day smacks of difficulty, and as I'm out of town till beginning of next week, I don't think I'll have time to finish my post until next weekend, at the very earliest. But maybe just plan on referring to eachother's upcoming posts? And when mine is up, I will add a link to your earlier post on Rani's death anniversary.

      The two hardest things with Rani's films is (A) finding them, obviously ... and then (B) finishing them when everything non-Rani on camera is dreadful, which I have a feeling it often was. But I have a handful of films that look promising in mind. Umrao Jan Ada I will try to finish, and there are a couple of groovy entertainers that look watchable. Overall, the 50s and 60s seem to be THE era for Pakistani cinema. (When the films have actually be preserved, that is.) 'Course, Rani just barely squeezes in during the end of that period, in terms of popularity.

      As I'm sure we're both on the look out for more English language texts about her career, have you seen this DAWN article? It has some interesting (if vague) things to say about her "feminist" legacy and image ... talking about how different she was from the norm.

  4. Hi, Miranda. I have put up my Rani post... I might fix or revise a few small things here and there, because I rushed a little since I was not sure if or when I would be called off to work today (unfortunately, that is how I have to live right now), and I wanted to finish the post on May 27. As you will see, I've linked to your blog and talked about your plans to do a Rani post, too. I will link to the specific post when you put it up.

    By the way, please feel free to continue conversation about this over private e-mail if you'd like. Speaking for myself, the comments functions at Blogger slow things down a little, and sometimes I lose a comment while I am trying to send it. Also, while comments sections are good for discussion of the content of a post, maybe e-mails are better for behind-the-scenes coordination? In any event, I hope you like what I have posted about Rani, although I am sure your post will be more thorough and better planned. :)

    1. I loved your post, Richard, and it certainly added a few more films to my list. I agree that email is a lot easier, and more elegant for coordination purposes. I don't want to give up punchlines too early on our blogs, either.




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