Shahjehan (1946)

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.

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25 thoughts on “Shahjehan (1946)

  1. Yay! I am so glad you are beginning on your next novel. Can’t wait for it!!! I am sad that it made you sit through a film like this, though. ;D Is Saigal’s voice really worth 2hrs of torture? As someone who’s not developed a taste for his voice (I do appreciate almost every other great singer from that era, though), I must confess that I wouldn’t watch this if I were paid for it! But I am glad to know what it’s all about. :D

  2. Oh wow dusted off. Would love to know what your sources are for the book–do you go to quaint places like Old Delhi to track down dusty manuscripts?

  3. bollyviewer: “Can’t wait for it!!!
    That is sweet of you! Thank you so much. The next Muzaffar Jang book to be published won’t be this novel, though – it’ll be a set of short stories, already written.
    Re: Shahjehan, yes, I’m wishing I hadn’t seen it. Such a disappointing film. This was towards the end of Saigal’s career, when years of dissipation (or so I’ve heard) had wreaked havoc on his voice. The songs are iconic in themselves (especially Jab dil hi toot gaya and Gham diye mustaqil), but what I really liked was something I discovered while searching for the youtube links to the songs of Shahjehan: Baabul mora from Street Singer. I think Saigal sings that superbly. His control over his voice is excellent.

    sophy: Fortunately for me, doing research on Mughal India – especially Shahjahan’s time – isn’t very difficult, because there’s lots of written material available. Abraham Eraly’s The Mughal World and Emperors of the Peacock Throne, and Anne Marie Schimmel’s The Empire of the Great Moghuls are among my favourite sources of information, along with Private Lives of the Mughals of India (R Nath), The Great Moghuls (Bamber Gascoigne), A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time (Michael and Diana Preston), and lots of other books that deal with specific aspects: Mughal gardens, architecture, etc. I’ve done very frequent rounds of all the (admittedly few) Shahjahan-era monuments that remain, till the point where I pretty much know places like the Jama Masjid or Fatehpuri Masjid or Red Fort, enough to be able to write without needing to refer again and again. Sadly, more everyday buildings and areas – markets, houses, etc – have either vanished completely, or changed too much over the years.

  4. Can’t wait for the book. Am a big Muzaffar Jang fan. Combines two of my favourite things, Mughal times, and detective-giri.

    ‘Shahjehan’ sounds ridiculous. I’ve seen some bits with Nasreen in it, and I agree that she is pretty, but I found her quite dull.

  5. When the mood is there, and with good friends around and a iced G & T .) with celery root, K L Saheb’s tracks in the background, those moments are special, We can add the following gentlemen to our ‘ Repertoire’-

    Pankaj Mullick
    Anup Jalota
    Pankaj Udhas……..

    And Shahjehan, oh well has these tracks to make yu ho-hum .)

    Cheers .)

  6. Banno: Yes, Salma Agha seems to have inherited the sleepy-eyed prettiness of her mother! But I guess for a film like this, where her part was not especially large (even though she played a pivotal character), Nasreen perhaps is suitable. She reminds me a bit of Vimmi as far as histrionic ability seems to be concerned: not much expression.

    Ash: My most lasting memory of Anup Jalota’s ghazals dates back to when I was 12 years old, and my parents, sister and I were on a 10-day trip in Ladakh. We had a stereo system (cassettes, of course) in our jonga, but just two cassettes: a Chitra and Jagjit one, and a ‘Best of Anup Jalota’. By the end of that trip – a daily 8-10 hours of very high altitude driving – we knew Anup Jalota’s ghazals almost backward. To this day, just a snatch of one of his ghazals, and I’m reminded of soaring mountains against a deep blue sky, a barren but wildly beautiful landscape, and pink wild roses. Mmmm.

  7. I can’t say, ‘I can’t wait for the book’ :-( since I haven’t even been able to get hold of the first one. I hope to get it on my next trip to India in another 3 months.

    As for Shahjehan, I think they have retold some legend attached to him.
    There are many such legends attached to kings and rulers, just as we have so many Birbal stories and jokes which I believe are all made up.

    I seem to know all these K L Saigal songs. Thanks to radio ceylon.
    His voice was really really rich.
    I have this film somewhere waiting to be watched. Hmmmmmm…should I…should I not….should I….shoul……

  8. Thanks dusted off–I really was curious becuase my impression is that so little has been written about India about say the everyday lives of people and such. Indians, the British and others have different perspectives of course.

  9. pacifist: I hope the 3-month wait is worth it!
    I wasn’t aware of this legend about Shahjahan, but after I saw the film, I searched a bit online, and actually found the entire story quoted in one of Osho’s works. So yes, you’re right – but still, even for a legend, it’s sort of silly. Definitely a film that should primarily be watched for its songs. Possibly also because it stars Saigal, but that’s it.

    sophy: You’re welcome. In my opinion, two of the most interesting books on socio-cultural aspects of life in Mughal India are the books by Anne Marie Schimmel and Abraham Eraly – and they’re pretty similar, even though Eraly is Indian and Schimmel, German. Of course, their primary sources are likely to have been pretty much the same – a mix of Indian chroniclers and historians, plus the accounts of contemporary European travellers like Francois Bernier, Niccolao Manucci, Jean Baptiste Tavernier and Afanasi Nikitin (who was immortalised in the Russian-Indian film Pardesi, starring Balraj Sahni, Nargis and Padmini).

  10. just something i came across somewhere.

    there are 64 arts which are to be learned, according to the our shastras. this includes the more mundane ones that all of us do like cooking, and others like dancing, singing, sculpting, painting and all forms of arts.

    according to the shastras, a person well versed in these arts can sculpt or draw or paint a person perfectly, even with just a hair from the head of the person. this is known as samudrika lakshanam (forgive me if i go wrong. quite sometime i read it.). this has been potrayed in several old tamil films too.

    so i guess that bit would be correct. just my 2 cents.

    great review as usual.

  11. sangeetha, thank you so much for sharing that. I hadn’t known about it, but I suppose that accounts for the story! I still don’t believe it (I mean, how could one?) but that’s the stuff legends are made of. :-)

  12. That’s an interesting bit of information Sangeetha. Thanks.
    Yes, I do believe that’s the kind of stuff the legends are made of which make them so interesting.

    I guess I’ll give the film a chance and watch it with this philosophy in mind. :-)

  13. Ha ha! I was mostly distracted by the giant ostrich feather fans which kept obscuring much of the action, such as it was.

    Interesting tidbits on Nasreen that I discovered through this film: she was Rafiq Ghaznavi’s (the legendary music director) daughter and Salma Agha’s (of the dreadful Kasam Paide Karne Wale Ki) mother…

    I too cannot wait for Muzaffar Jang’s next outing! :D

  14. I knew about Nasreen being Salma Agha’s mother (they both have that sleepy look about them!), but had no idea she was Rafiq Ghaznavi’s daughter. Another of those filmi families?

  15. I didn’t even know that this film starred KL Saigal. Had only heard the songs on radio.
    The story itself sounds very silly but the entire read was very informative.
    I don’t remember having seen Nasreen before but one look at her and I was like what-a-sleepy-face!
    Another Muzaffar Jang adventure on it’s way!!! Yipeeeeeeeeeeee…can’t wait for it!!!

  16. Heh! :-) Yes, Nasreen is the ultimate when it comes to sleepy faces. Even her acting was like that – she seemed to sleepwalk through much of the film. Thank goodness she didn’t have too many scenes (or even too much dialogue in those scenes).

    Well, if you like short stories, then you’ll probably like the next Muzaffar Jang work – ten short stories (as of now), and I must admit I like them better than the novel.

  17. yayyyyyy for new novel !!! By the way, this one sounds so ludicrously outragiously funny ;) Should i try this, what say????

  18. If you’re in a mood for some self-chastisement, yes! ;-) It’s actually pretty irritating, but I guess if you see it in the company of like-minded friends/family, with lots of scope for pithy comments on the total nuttiness onscreen: yes, then you will probably have a lot of fun!

  19. Somehow missed htis post, most probably took place during my ‘exile’.

    Wow, your next Jung novel is on its way!
    Looking forward to it.

    The screenplay and plot seems to have been done by people who were drunk, eh? But aren’t most of the plots in hindi films?

    I always thought Saigal played the title-role in this. Thanks for the clarification. BTW , why is it called Shahjehan?

  20. The next Jang novel is still a bit of a way off – but before that happens, there’ll be the Jang short stories, which both I and my editor think are better than The Englishman’s Cameo. ;-)

    Yes, it is sad that so many Hindi films seem to have been scripted and plotted by people who were tipsy or otherwise completely lacking in emotional maturity/common sense/whatever. A film should have something to recommend it other than just great music! Sometimes I think Bollywood’s music directors, lyricists and singers made Bollywood more than its writers, directors and actors.

    Who knows why the film is called Shahjehan? Perhaps because he’s the most easily recognisable character in it? Or they took a cue from Changez Khan, which is as equally not about Changez Khan.

  21. Better than Cameo? Then they must be veryvery good!

    You are right, Bollywood’s Muisc performers have done a much better job thant heir counterparts in the story department.

    BTW have you seen Tajmahal with Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai? I saw it years and years ago and can’t remember even a bit of it.

  22. Yes, I’ve seen Taj Mahal, but again years ago – so I don’t remember anything of it except the songs, which are out of this world. we had a cassette with the songs of Taj Mahal and listened to it so much that my sister and I got to know the songs almost backward. Paaon chhoo lene do, Jo vaada kiya woh nibhaana padega and Julm-e-ulfat pe humein log sazaa dete hain among them…

  23. You’re the only one of my readers so far to have noticed that last screen cap (or at least commented on it). Honestly, it reminded me of two kebabs on a skewer! Not romantic, at any rate. ;-)

  24. SHAH JEHAN ( MOST WONDERFUL FILM URDU FILM OF THE WORLD)
    =========================================================
    I have seen this most super hit and most W onderful Urdu film of the world in 1955 at Taj Mahal Cinema of Bunder Road Karachi which was situated just in front of Radio Pakistan. This cinema always used to prefered to runs good historical and good family hits films of A.R.Kardar , SM Yousif, Shabab Kiranvi ,V.Shanta Ram and Dev anand ,G.A. Gul, etc for example Dard, Aulad, Nek Perveen,Naya Addmi, Piyar ki jeet, neend, Gumnam, Dillagi, Kismat , Nirala, Qatil, etc ,Hence SHAH JEHAN was also had been run in this cinema,

    This film was made in 1946 by AR Kardar.It was one of the most superhit and most wonderful historical film of all urdu films which was made from 1926 upto now ie during one hundred years history of the film industry.

    The Main properties of this film are the following

    1)- It has a wonderful and true story of the islamic true incidents.

    2)- ALL actors & actress had performed most wonderful acting in this film.

    3_ The songs of this film was also most excellent and Sada-e- Bahar .and these are still being listen by old and new generation even oelapsing of 70 years.

    4- Most standard type and real dialoguesas of urdu language are being used so that everry person should learn that how to speak in most obedient and decent ways,

    5)- There is no any obnoxious word of BAZARI Language has been used in any dialogue in this film.

    6- All actor and actress are found in most moderate and fully covered dress and light make up.

    7- there are showing good moral lessons in this film on the basis of Islamic education

    (a)- DO JUSTICE WITH EVERY ONE

    (B)- Always keep your promose.

    (C)- Always keep Good Relationships and True Love by n both Husband and wife.

    (D)- Always appreciate and accept the good suggestions and advises of the wife

    (E)- Always respect the guests

    (F)- Always help the most suffered persons

    (G)- Always treat well to their subjects(Peoples)

    (H)- Always pay a great tribute and respect to your wife even after her death
    by construction of a wonderful mousuleum over the grave of his most beloved wife

    and so many others most useful and most moral islamic lessons in this most super hit urdu film of the 100 years history of all the urdu films

    The main reason of producing such most wnderful films by A.R.Kardar is that the producer was a real muslim person and he always directed his all urdu films on the basis of purely islamic culture. But others producers have not achieved such a great position in making good historical films for examples, K.Asif had produced MUGHLE AZIM Film but it was not a good film because the dialogues of this film was not most affective just like film Shah Jehan. Similarly there is a nos of differences in the story of MUGHLE AZIM which had been written by many nos of others authers. The acting in the film MUGHLE AZIM is slightly weakesr thancomparede to the film SHAH JEHAN .

    HENCE I AM OF THE VIEWS THAT SHAH JEHAN IS RELLY ONE OF THE MOST WONDERFUL AND MOST SUPER HIT FILMS OF ALL HISTORICAL FILMS OF THE !)) YEARS ..Hence others film producers and directors should try to produced most wonderful films just like FILM SHAH JEHAN. Because good films having good stories can improve the moral characters of the peoples in others words, the good films can impart a good educational lesson and can develop the people minds in a the shape of good citizen .
    …………………………………..
    Commented By,

    RAJA GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN ADOWALIYA
    ( A Great thinker of Pakistan )
    MA (Political Science)
    IQBAL TOWN, RAWALPINDI-46300
    PHONE 4930305
    DATE 10-09-2016

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