‘Bimal Roy’s Benazir’ is what it says on the DVD cover. Enough to conjure up, for me, memories of some of the greatest Bimal Roy films I’ve seen: tender, thought-provoking, real films about real people. Benazir, perhaps because it wasn’t directed by Bimal Roy himself but by S Khalil (who also scripted the film) falls short of the standard of Parakh, Prem Patra, Sujata, Do Bigha Zameen, or Bandini. A top-notch cast, a very well-respected production company, a master music director—but why does this film rarely get mentioned in the same breath as those?
Benazir (the word literally means ‘incomparable’) is the name of a famous and wealthy dancer (Meena Kumari), who lives and performs in Lucknow. Benazir was orphaned during an earthquake in 1934, and has been brought up by a man who had also lost his only relative—a little daughter—in the disaster. The man, whom Benazir regards as her uncle, is a kind, paternal figure whom Benazir frequently confides in.
Early on in the film, we get a clear picture of the heart of gold that beats in Benazir’s bejewelled bosom. Laadle Mirza (Asit Sen), who is the manager of the theatre company where Benazir performs, one day brings a man who had made a contract with Benazir to perform at a charity function. Benazir is ill with a high fever, and Laadle has been trying to fob the man off. He pleads with Benazir that he has been selling tickets for the show for hundred months (really?!) now, and if it falls through, his dream—to repair a girls’ school—will go down the drain.
Afsar Nawab is Benazir’s most ardent admirer. He makes no bones about the fact that he is completely besotted by the dancer. She, in turn, is charming and even coquettish—in a dignified way. It is obvious that Benazir is very comfortable in his presence: she receives him, clad in a housecoat…
…and it’s equally obvious that this is no cloak-and-dagger liaison, because while Nawab Sahib is visiting Benazir, there is a phone call for him. People apparently know that where Afsar Nawab is to be found.
This phone call comes as a surprise for the audience, because it reveals to us:
(a) that Asfar Nawab is a much-married man, and
(b) has just become a father
Ahem. Considering the way he’s been mooning about Benazir, I’d not have expected this of a man who seems so kind, good, and upright (and, well, typical Ashok Kumar—barring some films, of course). The caller at the other end of the line assures Nawab Sahib that his younger brother Anwar has been informed and is expected to arrive by train within the next few days.
Afsar Nawab heads home and is handed over his new son by his mother-in-law (Durga Khote).
The old lady leaves the room, and Nawab Sahib places the baby next to his wife, who’s lying on her bed. He puts a pile of coins on the dupatta that his wife drapes over the sleeping baby, along with a ring, in a gesture of what is obviously a reward for having borne him an heir.
A little medieval? But worse: the ring bears the word ‘benazir’. Nawab Sahib had had it made for Benazir, but since he got called away home before he could present it to her, has decided he may as well give it to his begum.
The inscription on the ring does not go unnoticed; his wife is hurt and unhappy, and doesn’t accept it. But Nawab Sahib couldn’t care less.
In the meantime, we are introduced to two other people in the household. One is Nawab Sahib’s sister-in-law, his wife’s younger sister Shahida (Tanuja). Shahida lives in Allahabad but is right now in Lucknow with her parents for her sister’s confinement.
Lusting after Shahida is Shaukat (Tarun Bose), a cousin of Nawab Sahib’s. We learn pretty early on in the film that Shaukat is a poor relative, who is dependent upon Nawab Sahib. He has the run of the house, and seems to spend a lot of his time making passes at Shahida, who despises him.
On the sixth day after the birth of Nawab Sahib’s son, a celebration is held at home, for which many guests are invited—and Afsar Nawab, in a burst of thoroughly insensitive (and indiscreet) enthusiasm, asks Benazir to come and entertain his guests.
Benazir obliges, and Nawab Sahib and his equally hedonistic friends loll about, watching her dance and sing for them…
Upstairs, surrounded by the men, Benazir is reciting a poem that she has composed in honour of the birth of Afsar Nawab’s son: “Phoola chaman khushi ka, jaan-e-bahaar aaya” (“The garden of happiness has blossomed; the life of spring has arrived”). She’s smiling prettily at the men, acknowledging their praise of her poetry, but her eyes are just beautiful, not radiant—
—until, suddenly, someone appears.
This is Afsar Nawab’s long-awaited younger brother, Anwar (Shashi Kapoor). Anwar has just completed his BA, and has returned to Lucknow on learning of his nephew’s birth.
He is warmly welcomed, made to sit down among the men, and Benazir is urged to continue with her recitation. She does; and a subtle change has come over her. Her eyes have lit up at the sight of Anwar, and as her poem progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious (at least to me; the men don’t notice) that though the words of her poem remain the same, the ‘jaan-e-bahaar’ she now alludes to is not Afsar Nawab’s little son, but Anwar.
Anwar, though, is oblivious. He soon goes off to pay his respects to his bhabhi, and on the way, bumps into Shahida. They’re both pretty dazzled (though they don’t know each other), but Shahida runs off and Anwar goes to Begum Sahib’s room. And who should arrive there shortly after, but Shahida? It turns out that Shahida and Anwar had played together as children, so are really not strangers.
The romance between Anwar and Shahida springs up immediately. They’re both equally smitten, and their relationship is a sweet, affectionate one, even though they’re shy of each other, and pulling each other’s leg, by turn.
This, fortunately, is a love story that isn’t frowned upon by all and sundry. Shahida’s sister, Nawab Sahib’s begum, is keen on the match; so is Nawab Sahib. And when Begum Sahiba writes to her mother, the old lady is equally happy. Her husband, Shahida and Begum Sahiba’s father, admits that he had rather thought of Shaukat as a suitable bridegroom for Shahida, but he’s not terribly averse to the idea of having Shahida marry Anwar instead.
Unfortunately for Shahida and Anwar, the person who has been entrusted to deliver the letter from Begum Sahiba to Shahida’s parents is Shaukat—and he has no compunctions about eavesdropping while the two old people are discussing this prospective wedding. It comes as a shock to Shaukat (after all, he has had an eye on Shahida for himself all this while).
He does this by using Nawab Sahib’s relationship with Benazir as a pretext for a conversation with Anwar. Shaukat confides in Anwar that Afsar Nawab is having an affair with Benazir (a fact that Anwar has already discovered, due to a chance overhearing of a conversation between husband and wife).
Shaukat emphasises that the knowledge of this relationship is slowly stifling poor Begum Sahiba.
Shaukat urges Anwar to go and talk to Benazir, and to tell her to end the affair with Afsar Nawab. Impressionable young Anwar agrees (though he’s reluctant to go and visit Benazir—the realisation that she is his brother’s mistress disgusts him).
However, the first time he goes to her home, it is to find that she isn’t around. When Benazir returns and is told that Anwar had come to visit, she is beside herself with joy. Little does Anwar know that it is he, not his brother, whom Benazir is in love with.
The second time he visits, he gets to meet Benazir, and she invites him to have tea with her—just as Afsar Nawab arrives. Benazir manages to whisk Anwar away without his brother realising it, and Nawab Sahib happily believes her when she tells him that the tea tray had been laid out in expectation of a visit from him.
Soon after, the wily Shaukat (who’s been spying on Anwar) takes the opportunity to try and disillusion Nawab Sahib by telling him whom the tea tray had actually been meant for.
Nawab Sahib refuses to believe it: Benazir is devoted to him. And, as for Anwar, Anwar is his dependable, level-headed, good little brother. Who is, in any case, in love with Shahida.
Shaukat also talks to Anwar, telling him that it is useless to plead with Benazir; she will never let go of Afsar Nawab. The only way to break up the affair and to send Nawab Sahib back to his begum is by showing Nawab Sahib how despicable Benazir really is.
Anwar privately thinks that reasoning with Benazir would work. So, he returns to her home, and is horrified when he realises that she has been imagining his visits to be spurred on by love. Anwar is indignant and snaps back at Benazir that he loathes her. Benazir is hurt and humiliated.
In the midst of this tumult, Afsar Nawab, accompanied by Shaukat, turns up and sees Benazir with Anwar…
Where will this go? How will this mess of emotion and drama get sorted out? As Benazir once remarks, “Dilon ke khel mein koi na koi sheesha zaroor tootta hai.” (“In the game of hearts, one glass or the other is always shattered.”)
What I liked about this film:
Shashi Kapoor and Tanuja in their (alas, too short and too few) scenes together. Both are favourites of mine, and as a jodi, they’re utterly lovable: they’re both sweet and bubbly and shy and oh, so good-looking.
Mil jaa re jaan-e-jaana. For a film scored by the great S D Burman, Benazir had music that was (at least to my ears) rather underwhelming. It’s not bad; Burmanda probably couldn’t compose bad even if he tried to. Still, there’s one song in particular that I liked a lot, and it’s Mil jaa re jaan-e-jaana. Lovely music, beautiful lyrics, and wonderfully picturised.
What I didn’t like:
The two male protagonists, Afsar Nawab and Anwar. I like characters with shades of grey, but these two just did odd flip-flops that made little sense to me. For example:
When Anwar discovers that Benazir has sold off even her jewellery to pay his medical bills, he proposes to her. This, when it has been made amply clear that Anwar adores Shahida (and she him). It might have been acceptable for a while, because Anwar had received news that Shahida’s father had decided to get her married to Shaukat. Combined with his gratitude towards Benazir, this could have been a plausible (though somewhat unsavoury, to me) reason for the Anwar-Benazir match. What made it completely unacceptable was the look of deep love on Anwar’s face when he looks at Benazir—even after he’s discovered that Shaukat, now disgraced, is out of the running. Is this young man so fickle?
The end, incidentally, shows him in an even worse light.
It’s obvious enough that Benazir is the person we are supposed to sympathise with. She is the one who sacrifices everything—health, career, wealth, etc—to do good, whether it means dancing while she’s ill, or giving up something much more. Frankly, though, I couldn’t find myself liking Benazir that much.
For instance, she is quick to say that she has never encouraged Afsar Nawab and that his love for her is one-sided; but that doesn’t hold water. Far from making any attempt to rebuff him, she is always shown as openly welcoming, both of him and his expensive gifts. Secondly, her infatuation with Anwar seems rather selfish—she appears to shut her eyes deliberately to reality, and to what Anwar himself thinks. Even elsewhere, as the film progresses, I get the feeling that Benazir’s much-vaunted selflessness and goodness is actual pretty superficial; she isn’t the paragon she’s made out to be. And her sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. Perhaps just paying back for what she’s snatched from others.
My verdict? I like Muslim socials. I like Shashi Kapoor, Tanuja, Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar, Tarun Bose. I like Bimal Roy films. And, yet, this one left me feeling very uncomfortable and irritated, because I didn’t find myself rooting for anyone, except possibly Shahida, whose role anyway petered out pretty soon. The next time I want to watch a Muslim social, it’ll probably be Mere Mehboob or Nakli Nawab. This one doesn’t merit a rewatch.