After a longish hiatus, I’ve begun working on my next novel. Like my first book, The Englishman’s Cameo, this one too features the Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang, and is set during the final years of Shahjahan’s reign. I’ve been doing other bits of writing—very little of it related to history—and decided I needed something to help build up atmosphere and get me back in the mood. A historic film, set in Shahjahan’s time? Shahjehan? With Naushad’s hit score, and the chance to hear (and see) K L Saigal singing some of his best-known songs?
Alas. Alas, alas, alas. Or, to put it more bluntly: &$%@##%@!!!
What they really omitted from this film was that common addendum, the blah blah about “The events and characters in this story are fictional and any resemblance to reality is coincidental.” That would have been the truest disclaimer I ever saw, if it had been there. Because Shahjehan, while it is about a Mughal emperor named Shahjahan, married to Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he finally builds a magnificent tomb called the Taj Mahal, deserts historical fact beyond that point, and goes completely (and not even entertainingly) berserk.
Shahjahan, for one, appears to be a rather languid soul, who spends most of his time sitting in court and listening to the personal problems of his courtiers. This time, the man who’s come cribbing to the emperor is Jwala Singh (?), a Rajput who’s guardian to Ruhi (Nasreen), the orphaned daughter of Jwala Singh’s old friend. Jwala Singh has brought up Ruhi as his own daughter, and she’s grown up to be very beautiful—so much so, in fact, that Jwala Singh’s own sons have been clamouring to marry her.
Jwala Singh laments that Ruhi has now become the bane of his existence. Every time he’s tried to get her married, the baaraat has been attacked and driven off—even killed—by hordes of Ruhi’s ardent admirers. Jwala Singh is a bit puzzled about how Ruhi’s beauty has become so famous: she is the most decorous of women, never stepping unveiled outside the house. In fact, even Jwala Singh, in loco parentis though he is, has never seen Ruhi’s face.
The prime cause of distress to Jwala Singh is his neighbour, the poet Suhel (K L Saigal). He’s occasionally noticed Ruhi on the rooftop of her house, and has been so besotted that he’s written a song in praise of her. The song has become all the rage across India, with young men singing it in the streets and Suhel singing it in gardens.
Shahjahan (Kanwar) sympathises with Jwala Singh, and wonders what could possibly be done about this situation. Fortunately for all of them, the empress Mumtaz Mahal (Ragini) has a solution to offer: Jwala Singh should bring Ruhi to the imperial harem. She will stay there as Shahjahan’s ward, and Shahjahan will endeavour to find a suitable groom for her.
This solution, while it seems acceptable to all, has one major flaw, according to Mumtaz Mahal’s pesky and jealous maid Jaan Fiza (Sulochana Chatterjee—the only time I’ve seen her as a young woman. Very pretty, too). Jaan Fiza is brutally frank in warning her mistress that Shahjahan is bound to fall for the charms of the beautiful Ruhi, and then where will Mumtaz be? If Mumtaz values her marriage, Ruhi must be disposed of—married, whatever—ASAP.
One look at Ruhi’s gorgeous face (well, everybody in the film raves about her; I found Nasreen pretty but unexceptional) and Mumtaz’s mother and siblings agree. Ruhi needs to be chucked out of the harem.
Mumtaz has supreme confidence in her own beauty and in the faithfulness of her spouse, so doesn’t take these attempts at swaying her opinion seriously. Shahjahan, entering the harem and going straight to his wife without even a glance at Ruhi standing nearby, restores everybody else’s faith too. Everything is tickety-boo, though the panic monger Jaan Fiza doesn’t let up on trying to get Ruhi evicted from the haram sara.
Shahjahan, true to his word, soon has it proclaimed that he’s looking for suitors for Ruhi. Eager young men turn up in their thousands to offer for Ruhi, but Shahjahan dampens their ardour by announcing his condition for considering a suitor acceptable: the man must create for Ruhi a heaven on earth. Much consternation prevails. Not one of these young men can think beyond the literal wording of the announcement, and they all figure out that without untold wealth, none of them has a chance.
All the young men, therefore, drift away, disappointed. The only one who remains behind is the poet, Suhel. He is too madly in love with Ruhi to give up so easily; and he is creative enough to decide that the interpretations of ‘heaven on earth’ can be manifold. Shahjahan is impressed by Suhel’s devotion, and readily agrees to let Suhel take some months off to concentrate on fashioning an earthly paradise for Ruhi.
While Suhel’s busy working on his ‘heaven on earth’ (a literary one, obviously, given his talents), Jaan Fiza’s getting more and more uneasy, and is back to pleading with Mumtaz to get Ruhi thrown out. (I don’t see why Jaan Fiza persists; it has no effect throughout the film, and in any case, it’s such a tactless thing to do, I’m surprised Mumtaz doesn’t throw Jaan Fiza out for her impudence).
The day duly dawns, and Suhel completes his promise by giving Shahjahan a glimpse of ‘heaven on earth’: a song as they stroll through a garden, past fountains and cardboard pavilions and whatnot, none of it frightfully appealing. But Shahjahan is very impressed, and agrees: Suhel will marry Ruhi. Not right now; later. Till then, Ruhi is promised to him, but will stay on in the harem. So Suhel goes off, bursting with happiness, and the story moves on.
Meanwhile, a Persian sculptor named Amir Ali Shirazi (P Jairaj) has arrived in Shahjahan’s court, and praises his own skill sky-high. Shahjahan wants Shirazi to design some buildings across the empire (I didn’t know sculptors and architects were necessarily interchangeable). Of course, before Shirazi can get the commission, he has to show proof of his skill.
Now follows a somewhat convoluted bit of story. Shirazi says that he will create a sculpture, by first examining a hand that he’s chosen from among the women of the court. There’s some to-ing and fro-ing between Shirazi, Shahjahan and Mumtaz over this: whose hand should Shirazi examine? Will that be politically correct? On what basis should a woman be chosen for that? Etc. Mumtaz Mahal suggests that each woman of the harem extend a hand out through a heavy curtain, for Shirazi to place a bangle on her wrist. A special imperial bangle, with the emperor’s mark on it, will be placed by Shirazi on the hand he fancies most—the hand that he will, so to say, ‘see’.
Shirazi furthermore makes a request: that he will be given, as a wife, the woman whose hand he so honours.
Nobody seems to have drawn up the rules about who can put her hand through the curtain, so when Jaan Fiza arrives, heckling Ruhi to come along, Ruhi obeys. (Jaan Fiza, of course, wants that Ruhi marry and clear out of the harem). Shirazi, after one look at Ruhi’s pretty little hand, slips the imperial bangle onto her wrist.
Shortly after, Shirazi ensconces himself in his studio and gets started on his chef d’oeuvre, the sculpture he’s been inspired to make by looking at Ruhi’s hand. While he’s busy chiselling away, the interfering Jaan Fiza spends her time shuttling between Shirazi and Ruhi, singing love songs to both of them. Such is the power of suggestion that the sculptor and Ruhi fall in love (without having seen each other’s faces: so Hindi film-like!), and before we know it, Ruhi is thrumming away on the rabab and singing love songs too.
When Shirazi finally unveils his masterpiece in court, all hell breaks loose. In one fell swoop, Shahjahan realises a lot of really ghastly things:
(a) Shirazi, bad Muslim that he is, has gone ahead and created an image of a living creature—a woman, no less
(b) The woman he’s sculpted is Ruhi! (we now see the fantastic talent of Shirazi: just by gazing at Ruhi’s hand for a split second, he’s been able to figure out what her face looks like. This guy would be a boon to a fingerprint bureau and/or forensics lab).
(c) So if Ruhi was the woman on whose hand Shirazi put the imperial bangle—it means, according to Shahjahan’s promise, that she is now betrothed to Shirazi
(d) Oops. So what of Shahjahan’s promise to Suhel?
Who eventually gets to marry Ruhi? Do Jaan Fiza’s Cassandra-esque prophecies come true? Where does the Taj Mahal come into the picture? Is there anything in this film that isn’t completely lunatic?
What I liked about this film:
The music. As a child, I must confess to having been very amused by K L Saigal’s somewhat nasal singing. Over the years, I’ve grown to admire a wider range of voices and singing styles, so I can safely add Saigal to the list of voices I admire. And if you want to see and hear Saigal see, Shahjehan is a good bet. With a fine score by Naushad, the film contains some very well-known and well-loved songs: Gham diye mustaqil, kitna naazuk hai dil, Jab dil hi toot gaya hum jeeke kya karenge and Kar lijiye chalkar meri jannat ke nazaare. And the song Mere sapnon ki rani Ruhi Ruhi Ruhi is a landmark in itself: though the song is primarily in Saigal’s voice, Mohammad Rafi sings too—the last line, in a slightly raw and very youthful voice.
What I didn’t like:
Where do I start?
Firstly, the story is a travesty. That is not how the Taj Mahal came to be created, and somehow I’ll accept only so much distortion of fact, not outright mutilation. This one, if they were so intent on using the story they’d thought up, should have been set in some fictitious kingdom.
Secondly, there’s the screenplay itself. Even if one forgives the mangled history of Shahjehan, it’s difficult to overlook the sheer pointlessness of the meandering storyline. Large chunks of the film are devoted to Jaan Fiza trying (fruitlessly) to get Mumtaz to throw Ruhi out of the harem—or there are utterly vague motives and turns of plot that seem to have no logic. How on earth could Shirazi recreate Ruhi’s face, merely by looking at her hand? Why, anyway? And why did Shahjahan allow Shirazi to hang around doing sculpture, when what he wanted Shirazi to eventually work on was designing buildings? The love stories are lukewarm and unconvincing, the flights of fancy just too high-flown for belief, and Shahjahan—an emperor who seemingly has no political or administrative responsibilities—almost ridiculous.
The problem with Shahjehan is that it neither has a gripping story nor good characterisation. One never gets to know any of the protagonists well enough to sympathise with them. The only character who made some sort of impression on me was Mumtaz Mahal: a fairly strong and self-confident woman who, unlike most other cinema heroines, doesn’t take the first opportunity (or any, actually) to doubt her husband’s fidelity. Also she is, surprisingly, a large-hearted woman, regal and wise enough for her husband to defer to her: certainly the most interesting character in Shahjehan.
Oh, and the dialogues. Most of the dialogues in Shahjehan are flowery and pompous. All right for court, I suppose, but when people are in an informal setting, the chances of a rapid-fire dialogue with high rhetoric, every phrase repeated in a dozen different ways, with metaphors and synonyms by the truckload—are slightly slim. A R Kardar, who wrote the screenplay and the dialogues, muffed this one, at any rate.
Plus there’s the acting, much of it too theatrical for words.
And am I the only one who thinks this is a cheesy way of showing that two people are in love?:
As an important film in the history of Hindi film music, this is worth a watch. For anything else, it’s pretty ho-hum.