Just as English has legendary lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Urdu has its star-crossed lovers Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnun, and Yusuf Zuleikha.
Heer Ranjha is a popular tragic folk romance from Punjab. Heer is an extremely beautiful Jat woman and Ranjha is a flute-playing charming loafer. Ranjha, enjoying his easy life, wanders away from home and ends up in Heer’s village. Heer hears Ranjha’s flute playing and falls in love with him as soon as she sees him. They meet in secret for years until they are found out by Heer’s uncle. She is then forced to marry another man. Heartbroken Ranjha becomes a yogi, wandering the land. He eventually ends up in Heer’s village. Her parents give permission for their marriage, but during the wedding procession, Heer’s uncle poisons her. When Ranjha sees his dead beloved, he promptly commits suicide.
Laila Majnun is a love story from 5th-century Arabian poem which was then adapted into Persian by Iranian poet Nizam Ganjavi. Laila and Qais fall in love with each other when they are young, but when they grow up, Laila’s father forbids them to be together because Qais seems mentally unbalanced. Qais is obsessed with Laila to the point of near-insanity and people call him Majnun meaning “crazy, possessed with a jinn.” Laila is married off to another man and Majnun spends his life wandering around the desert reciting poetry and writing in the sand. Mystics sometimes use Majnun as an example of mystical concepts like fanaa “self-destruction” and diiwaanagii “love-madness.”
While the stories of Heer Ranjha and Laila Majnun are extremely popular throughout India and Pakistan, the story of Yusuf Zuleikha seems to be more restricted to Urdu texts and Islamic texts. Yusuf and Zuleikha’s story appears in both the Qur’an and the Bible, although Zuleikha’s name is not mentioned in the biblical version. Yusuf is the youngest son of Jacob, is very beautiful, and greatly loved by Jacob. His jealous brothers throw him into a well to die, but he is retrieved from the well by an Egyptian slave driver who sells him to a chief in Egypt. The chief’s wife is none other than Zuleikha who is gripped by lust as soon as she lays eyes on Yusuf. She tells her friends about how handsome Yusuf is. She invites them over, gives each one a lemon and a knife, and tells them she will let them know when to cut the lemons. Zuleikha calls for Yusuf. She tells the women to cut the lemons as soon as he steps in the room. The women are so overcome by his beauty that they lose their senses and they cut their fingers instead of the lemons.
There is a great Bollywood film of Heer Ranjha starring Raaj Kumar and Priya Rajvansh. Kaifi Azmi wrote the entire script in verse! Ye Duniya Ye Mehfil is a classic song from the film. A recent song loosely inspired by Heer Ranjha is “Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai.” Laila Majnun was also made into a film starring Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta Kaur. Although there have not been any blockbuster hits with Yusuf and Zuleikha, the story has inspired songs like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yusuf Pucche Dus Zuleikha.”