Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Shocken compellingly explore the constraints of musical production within the Islamic Republic in Song of Lahore, which follows a group of elderly Pakistani musicians partially influenced by American jazz. Both a chronicle of the band’s efforts to sustain their musical tradition and a history of said tradition, the film adopts the structure of a reunion narrative, with the musicians gradually coming together to perform a big gig. In the case of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, the group of musicians in question, that means being invited by famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to Lincoln Center to play alongside the Jazz in late 2013.
Song of Lahore’s earlier segments are largely set in Lahore, where conductor and co-arranger Nijat Ali oversees the ensemble at Sachal Studios, which was founded in 2004 by arts patron Izzat Majeed as a means to reclaim a national musical style for Pakistan. An early montage explains how a 1977 coup both established the Islamic Republic through the implementation of Sharia law and depleted the nation’s economy, leaving many feeling as though they were “living in a society that has forgotten who they are,” as one musician puts it. The filmmakers establish these socio-historical points not as a polemic, but for contextualizing the necessity institutions like Sachal Studios. Accordingly, the film maintains an even-handedness that services its smaller narrative about the band, which implicitly speaks to a larger one regarding Pakistani cultural freedoms without bogging down into diatribes about injustice.
In fact, the foregrounded history less castigates those officials who’ve denied their citizens access to Pakistan’s musical heritage than it emphasizes how those in opposition to censorship have the capability to reject an oppressed mindset. That approach could play naïve or even in bad faith were the filmmakers not thorough in emphasizing how the music produces an emotional response in each member’s generational awareness, as the music has been passed down from father to son for many years. Violinist Saleem Khan is even driven to tears by his son’s lack of interest and ability to play the music, which the filmmakers compassionately consider from both perspectives by having Khan’s anguished pleas met with the teenager’s uncertain gaze. Without explicitly articulating as much, the scene suggests how maintaining a cultural lineage necessitates more than merely knowledge; it requires a conscious and felt passion for its continuation.
Once the Sachal Jazz Ensemble arrives in New York City for their concert, the filmmakers trek a too conventional narrative route that places the men in contact with American oddities, like meeting the Naked Cowboy in the heart of Times Square. The earlier emphasis on tying music to politics recedes in favor of more innocuous moments seeking fish-out-of-water laughs, which the filmmakers wisely cut short for a prolonged and rousing sample of the Lincoln Center show. Song of Lahore ends on a note of hope that’s no different than a happy ending in a romantic comedy for its avoidance of dealing with a potentially damning future. But the optimism is consistent with the film’s overall tone and interest in perseverance. As Ali says at one point, in reference to their upcoming album, “God willing, this will help the entire world see that Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists.”