After all the lightheartedness of the past few posts, time to get back to serious stuff. I had three none-too-cheery films lined up: Khamoshi, Andaz, and this one. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam had been popping up in some recent posts (one song was part of the daaru list, and a discussion on Jawahar Kaul—one of the leads in Dekh Kabira Roya—ended up with a general wondering of what role he played in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam). So Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam it was, a rewatch of a memorable film with some fine performances and superb music.
The film opens at the ruins of an old haveli in Calcutta, where a group of labourers is busy pulling down what remains. When the workers break off for lunch, the overseer (Guru Dutt) stands back, gazing at the haveli, which when he first came to Calcutta as a shy and very green young man from his native Fatehpur, was a grand mansion. The film then steps back into those days, and we follow the young man, Atulya Chakraborty ‘Bhootnath’, as he arrives at the haveli of the Choudhary brothers and is greeted by his own so-called brother-in-law (Krishan Dhawan). [‘So-called’ because there is actually no relationship between them; Bhootnath used to call the man’s late wife sister].
Bhootnath’s brother-in-law was once upon a time the tutor—the `Masterji’—at the haveli; his pupils are long gone, but the Choudharys have insisted he stay on. He has offered to house Bhootnath, and has even found a job for him at the Mohini Sindoor Factory. Bhootnath will be paid the princely sum of Rs 7 a month, lunch included. Bhootnath can’t believe his good fortune, but is momentarily disturbed when Masterji tells him that the owner of the factory, Suvinay Babu (Nasir Hussain) is a Brahmo Samaji. A fine man, Masterji hastens to tell Bhootnath; and lunch will be cooked by a maharaj, a Hindu cook, so Bhootnath needn’t worry about his religion being tainted.
Masterji takes Bhootnath along with him to introduce him to Suvinay Babu, who is mysteriously surprised when he discovers that Bhootnath is from the village of Fatehpur in Nadia district.
Before Bhootnath can discover the reason for Suvinay Babu’s bewilderment, a distraction occurs: the old man’s beautiful daughter Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), who’s sitting nearby, begins to giggle when she hears Bhootnath’s name.
Over the next few days, Jaba comes to be the bane of Bhootnath’s existence—and yet so enticing that he can’t help but be drawn to her. She’s feisty, very straightforward, sharp-tongued and fiercely honest (she gets her father to fire the cook when she discovers that the cook’s been giving Bhootnath very little food and has been threatening the shy young man with dire consequences should he dare complain to Suvinay Babu).
Jaba’s constantly teasing Bhootnath, and even though he tries to look affronted, it’s obvious Bhootnath is quite captivated.
Meanwhile, Bhootnath is also getting better acquainted with the haveli and its residents. Of the three brothers who once owned the haveli, only the middle brother, the ‘Majhle Babu’ (D K Sapru) and the younger brother, the ‘Chhote Babu’ (Rehman) still live; their eldest brother is long dead, leaving behind a quivering and maddeningly orthodox widow (Pratima Devi), who ritually washes her hands sixty-three times at a go, and flies into a tizzy when a crow alights near her when she’s standing on the terrace.
The two brothers, on the other hand, live in an almost make-believe world that’s governed by lust, wealth and debauchery. The Majhle Babu thinks nothing of spending Rs 10,000 on arranging a ‘wedding’ for his pet cat with a specially imported Persian.
He also doesn’t think anything of confiscating the lands of a starving farmer who hasn’t been able to pay his dues. As long as the Majhle Babu has his cat and his pigeons, and dancers to entertain him in the evenings, he’s fine.
His younger brother, the Chhote Babu, is equally degenerate and spends most of his time with a tawaif, returning only in the wee hours of the morning, dead drunk. His neglected wife, the Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari), is a lonely, shadowy figure whom Bhootnath sees at night standing in the corridor, looking out for her husband as she sings for him to come back to her.
But the Chhote Babu is too hardened to come back at a mere song, and the Chhoti Bahu, in a fit of desperation, turns to other means. She’s noticed an advertisement of Mohini Sindoor and is naive enough to believe that the hyperbole of the advertisement (which is along the lines of it bringing together estranged lovers) is all true. She’s also discovered that Bhootnath works at the Mohini Sindoor Factory.
One evening, therefore, she instructs Bansi (Dhumal), the ‘valet’ of the Chhote Babu, to bring Bhootnath to her: a very surreptitious visit, since there’ll be a huge scandal should anyone know that a strange young man has been in the Chhoti Bahu’s room. Bansi tells Bhootnath of the summons.
Bhootnath is initially tongue-tied in the beautiful and dazzling presence of the Chhoti Bahu. She is, however, a kind and gentle person who soon puts him at his ease, enough for Bhootnath to jabber a bit about Jaba (and enough for the Chhoti Bahu to realise that this young man is fascinated by the girl). She then asks Bhootnath for a favour: will he get her a little box of Mohini sindoor? Will it work? Bhootnath isn’t sure what the sindoor is supposed to accomplish, but he hesitantly assures her that it will work.
The following evening, Bhootnath visits the Chhoti Bahu again to hand over the sindoor, and she is very grateful. The next day, she spends a long time (all in the course of another lovely song, Piya aiso jiya main samaaye gayo re) getting ready to let the sindoor work its magic on the Chhote Babu. Bansi has already been instructed to tell the Chhote Babu that the Chhoti Bahu is ill, in the hope that it will encourage him to come and look her up.
The Chhote Babu, unfortunately, is a seasoned player: his wife’s beauty, her pleas and her sindoor leave him cold. Finally, when she begs him to tell her how she can please him, he taunts her with what the tawaif can offer him: singing, dancing, drinking… will she do all of that for him?
Though she’s shocked, the Chhoti Bahu is also too maddened by neglect to not take up the challenge. The next day, Bhootnath is sent for again, and she gives him money to buy her a bottle of liquor. A reluctant and shocked Bhootnath’s entreaties fall on deaf ears; she will have the liquor, no matter what.
So Bhootnath buys liquor for the Chhoti Bahu; and she—very unwillingly—lets her husband tip a glassful down her throat (he ends up forcing it down).
Bhootnath’s life, meanwhile, has taken a sudden, unexpected turn. Unknown to him, Masterji is an anti-British terrorist. One day, just as Bhootnath and Masterji meet by chance in the marketplace, Masterji notices a group of English policemen looting the nearby shops. Masterji shoves Bhootnath into a nearby verandah, and pulls out a bomb which he pitches at the Brits. They aren’t badly hurt, and retaliate by opening fire—and one bullet hits Bhootnath’s leg.
When he comes to, Bhootnath is in Suvinay Babu’s home, being looked after by Jaba. A bedside conversation soon leads to a near-confession of mutual love.
Bhootnath and Jaba, however, are interrupted by the arrival of Suvinay Babu, who shortly after shares some news with Bhootnath: he has arranged Jaba’s marriage with Supavitra (Jawahar Kaul; so that was the role he played—it’s a minor one, though, and he speaks only a couple of lines), a Brahmo Samaji like himself.
Where do these two seemingly futile love stories lead? Does Bhootnath get his Jaba and the Chhoti Bahu her husband? Or do other forces, beyond their control, play a part that neither can have imagined? And where, when and how did the grand haveli of the Choudharys turn into the ruin an older, more mature and less naive Bhootnath finds it?
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is one of the films I saw as a child, and didn’t like. It has too many depths, too many things left unspoken, and touches on things which require a little maturity to understand. To an older (and I hope wiser!) me, this film is a stunning exercise in contrasts. There is the contrast between the bright, cheerful household of Suvinay Kumar, where all is openness and honesty—and the Choudhary haveli, riddled with unhappiness and mindless extravagance, heading for an inevitable doom (as one of its lunatic denizens—Harindranath Chattopadhyay, in a small but memorable role—prophesises, all of this will fall prey to time; this wealth will vanish and this haveli will crumble).
There is, as a mirror to this, the contrast between Jaba and the Chhoti Bahu. Jaba is educated, smart, sassy (yet, in a refreshing change from many Hindi films, not the `bad’ Westernised girl—her education has enlightened her, not made her give up her Indianness or become ‘wicked’). The Chhoti Bahu, on the other hand, is a prime example of the helplessness of an upper class Indian woman of that era: trapped in a gilded cage, expected to uphold family honour and spend her time (as the Chhote Babu puts it), “getting jewellery made, breaking up jewellery, playing with cowries, and sleeping”. Nothing about being loved or valued for oneself. This woman’s life is expected to revolve around her husband—only her husband isn’t there.
And all of it against the backdrop of a disintegrating lifestyle, wealth literally given away in the assumption that there’s always plenty more where it came from, or in sheer indolence… leaving nothing but ruins.
This is a classic film, a must-watch. Depressing in a large part, but also mesmerising.
What I liked about this film:
The cinematography (I love the dark tones that prevail in the haveli and contrast so vividly with the airiness of Suvinay Babu’s home). The acting. The songs. The tiny details (Bhootnath, sitting in the Chhoti Bahu’s room for the first time, tucking into the sweets and the milk that a maid has served him, tells her that Jaba has said, “Other than ensuring you are fed, what relationship is there between you and me?”).
Most of all, Meena Kumari’s acting. She is awesome as the Chhoti Bahu, beginning with her first scene—when Bhootnath meets her, a woman so gentle and sweet that she instantly wins his loyalty—a loyalty that will endure through the years. As the film progresses, the desperation of the Chhoti Bahu, her triumph when she finally manages to ‘hold’ her husband by drinking with him, and her eventual plummeting into alcoholism is brilliantly depicted. (She won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress, by the way). The scenes between Meena Kumari and Rehman are especially powerful, with indifference, contempt and even some lust on his part, and pleading, coquetry, and bitterness on hers.
The music. It’s by Hemant, and each song is excellent. My favourite is the hauntingly beautiful Koi door se aawaaz de chale aao, though Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi and Bhanwra bada naadaan hai are right up there at the top of the list too.
What I didn’t like:
Two minor moments of masala that take away from the poignancy of the film. One is Masterji’s pitching of the bomb (his being a terrorist is never expanded upon, and I didn’t see much reason for it, anyway—Bhootnath’s being cared for by Jaba could’ve just as well been the result of an accident). The other is the somewhat (in comparison with the rest of the film) inept resolution of Jaba and Bhootnath’s relationship. It’s just too masala! A bit, perhaps, like the Joy Mukherjee-Rajshree starrer Ji Chahta Hai (I’ll do a post on that as soon as I’m able to summon up the courage to watch it again).
Barring that—a total of about five minutes—the film’s breathtaking.
Little bit of trivia:
Guru Dutt insisted that Abrar Alvi (who was better known as a writer) direct this film (or at least, as bawa and memsaab point out in the comments below, insisted that Alvi be credited with the direction, since Guru Dutt thought his own name was a jinx). At any rate, he did insist that Alvi learn Bengali so that he could read the original novel—Bimal Mitra’s Sahib Bibi Golam—in Bengali. The film won Alvi a Best Director Award at the Filmfare Awards.