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The Tale of a Smuggled Urdu Magazine

Updated: May 20, 2023

The Tale of a Smuggled Urdu Magazine

Rumour has it there once was an Urdu magazine so popular that it was smuggled across the border and sold for exorbitant prices. It's hard to believe, isn't it?

In the early 20th century, there was a surge and disruption in how Urdu was used. From being a language of Tehezeeb, it was evolving into the language of rebellion. When the words of Rashid Jahan and Sajjad Zaheer sparked flame and anger, Urdu discourse would forever be changed.

Others wanted to make Urdu heard in a different way. With the coming of the Talkies, early 20th-century Cinema in India was gaining new ground. With that came the opportunity for a new kind of discourse.

The advent of film journalism in undivided India probably started in Lahore, where ‘Cinema and Chitra’, published in the late 1920s, was the first to make some real dent in this new field of journalism. The language of communication was primarily Urdu.

Urdu was and still is deeply intertwined with the Hindustani-speaking parts of the country. It was from around Lucknow, Lahore, and Delhi where people went into the glittering film industry to make a mark.

It’s not surprising that Urdu as a language became a mainstay in the early rising days of the Film industry. Shama began publication in 1939 with Yusuf Dehlvi, a successful Delhi businessman dealing in real estate and leather, as its proprietor.

Shama was conceived as a combination of religious and literary magazines. Its ability to combine and present its hybrid nature in an articulate & acceptable manner without delving into cheap slander made it stand out.

Priced at two annas a copy, the first issue had this couplet on its cover:

Lo shama hui raushan, aane lage parwaane; Aaghaaz jab aisa hai, anjaam khuda jaane.
Behold the candle is burning, the moths are coming,; When the beginning is like this, God knows how it will end.

It didn’t receive instant popularity, and Yusuf and his family had to really dig deep. However, the heavy usage of Urdu in the industry was a big help. Urdu Poetry was used as song lyrics, and many Urdu novels and plays were even used as film screenplays.

Many of these writers who regularly contributed their poems and short stories on Shama were also involved heavily with the film industry, working on dialogues and screenplays. As motion pictures started gaining popularity, so did Shama.

The era of Urdu Magazines had only begun. Partition led to a sizable influx of Urdu readers in India; for them, Shama became an addiction. But Shama didn’t just lie on their laurels. Their contributors were some of the industry's best and most well-paid names.

Among their contributors were writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, and Krishan Chander and celebrated poets like Jigar Moradabadi and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Regular film columnists included award-winning names such as K.A. Abbas and Rahi Masoom Raza.

By the 1950s, almost all of the Delhvi clan, including Yusuf’s three sons, Younus, Idrees, and Ilyas, and some of their wives, were in the business. Shama's commercial success even led to spin-off publications.

There was Bano (Lady), a magazine specifically for women; Khilauna (Toy) for children; the crime/spy magazine Mujrim (Criminal); and others, all under the Shama Umbrella. Yusuf hadn’t only created a successful business and a nuanced space for articulate discussion.

Though the records haven’t survived the tides of time, Shama was supposedly the first monthly Indian journal in any language to surpass the 100,000 subscribers milestone as early as the 1950s, selling almost 1.5 lakh copies a month.

Such was its popularity that it was ferried across the border in large numbers. Custom officers would often ask, “Is there anyone who is not carrying Shama?” It had become a commodity that people wouldn’t think twice about spending a lump sum on.

What added to the craze was the Adabi Muamma, monthly crossword puzzles, which came with hefty prize money for the winners. It even got a mention in the Shabana Azmi Starer, Anjuman, released in 1986, which was considered a rare distinction for a film magazine.

The stars loved Shama. Dharmendra once heard saying, “I’ve been diligently reading Shama since the time I was studying in the 9th…can say without hesitation that Shama kindled my desire to get into films”.

Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman would often visit the Shama Kothi (Delhvi House), as did the likes of Meena Kumari, Nimmi, and Jayant. There was even a rumor that Yusuf Dehlvi persuaded Sunil Dutt to allow Nargis to act in Raat Aur Din.

The 1990s may have been a boom for many, but it was twilight for Shama and its many contemporaries. The Shama office closed in 1999, bowing down after almost 6 decades of relentless pursuit of literary eminence.

Given the kind of vitriol the language receives today, it’s hard to imagine that Urdu Magazine was mainstream and popular not so long ago. How it wowed its readers for all those years without ever letting its standards down is something we can learn from even today.


This blog has been added courtesy of The Paperclip.

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