76 thoughts on “Pakeezah (1972)

  1. A very beautiful appreciation of a very beautiful film.
    Yes, that is what it is at the end, a beautiful film, for me at least. Although the ambience, sets, characters are just fabulous, they somehow fail to raise sympathy in them for me. It is somehow everything larger than life. Not in Sanjay Leela Bhansali way, the characters are very human for that. Somehow I’m always more engaged in looking at the fine things in the film (all the things you have mentioned) and the small details, to which Kamaal Amrohi has paid so much attention.

    “(And if you like Pazeezah, watch this blog. There’s more coming up).”
    Looking very much forward to it.

    • Thank you, Harvey!

      I agree with you regarding the beauty of Pakeezah. I must admit (at the risk of annoying all those who adore this movie to bits!) that the main thing about Pakeezah that appeals to me is its prettiness – both visual and aural. Yes, the characters have depth and Sahibjaan especially is well etched, but all said and done, I’ve seen better stories. The story here is sort of average, but everything else – the stuff I’ve mentioned – compensates for that.

  2. I love this movie for its songs and its costumes and you have written a great review, as always. However, my Urdu must be a whole lot less than ‘not of the highest order’ because I found many of the dialogues beyond my comprehension when I watched it many years back. On the other hand, I may understand more if I watch it now, who knows? Anyway, I have to watch it again so that I can refresh my memory – your review makes me want to watch it again. Thanks, Madhu!

    • It may be that my Urdu has improved over the past few years, to the stage where I can understand somewhat more Persianised Urdu than I could earlier. Compared to Mughal-e-Azam (just as an example), however, I think the language in Pakeezah is far more everyday Urdu. Natural, I suppose, considering the very different settings (both time and place – imperial court versus modern city).

      I hadn’t watched Pakeezah in years, too, Lalitha. Fortunately, it’s up on Youtube:

      • Thanks, Madhu! The subtitles will help, I hope, considering the quality of most subtitles. Luckily, I now have a laptop where I can go and find the meanings of words, so the doubts about watching without understanding are not there any more, and you have even found me a convenient place with subtitles. More after I watch the movie.

        • Good! I’m glad to have been of help, Lalitha. I hope you’re able to enjoy it more – and understand all of it (I must admit I haven’t seen the subbed version, so can’t comment on how good or bad the subtitles are).

  3. Madhu, thank you for the excellent writeup of Pakeezah as well as the reference to my blog. :) Even now, when I’m working on that blog – which has mostly settled on an even earlier period than yours has – I often think about writing more about Pakeezah. I agree that Pakeezah doesn’t really belong in the 1970s, and that is why it is by far the greatest Hindi film of the 1970s. :)

    By the way, unlike with a lot of other films that we like to write about, there is no shortage of writing about Pakeezah. I have noticed that academics particularly love to write about this movie, especially in the U.S. :) Well, it does offer a wealth of material for someone writing about social changes and gender, etc., in addition to being one “Bollywood” film that is very well known internationally.

    For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Anna Morcom’s academic work, Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance. As I’ve mentioned on Facebook, this book is unfortunately weighed down a bit by its academic style (weighed down, at least, if we’re judging it by its appeal to an audience beyond academia). But there is a lot of information in this and it has very good moments. Probably the best part is the opening plot summary and analysis of Pakeezah… Of course, Morcom mentions some of the symbols, too, including the train, which she says symbolizes modernity:
    “Significantly, a train – that unmistakable symbol of modernity in so many Hindi films – provides a space in which the new relationship and new values emerge.”

    By the way, Morcom also provides a very specific translation of “Suhagpur,” which she says means, “happy-state-of-marriage-sville.” (That’s how it’s printed, though it looks odd with the “s” in “marriages” following the hyphen – I wonder if there’s a better way of putting that.. But anyway, would you agree?)

    I am happy to see that you also are going to come back with more words about Pakeezah. I will come back with more comments, too. But before I go this time around, just one more thing, regarding the actresses… I’m glad you noticed Nadira so well. Your description definitely makes me want to view her scenes again. Personally, I thought the greatest actress in this film was Veena. She was amazing here! It filled me with delight to watch her seething with sarcasm in her conversation with Ashok Kumar. (They had come a long way since Najma. :) )

    • Thank you, Richard! (And thank you, too, for first drawing my attention to the thumris of Pakeezah – your post was the one that alerted me to something I’d never really noticed till then).

      I do know that international writers seem to have a particular love for Pakeezah. Incidentally, doing a net search for Pakeezah kept throwing up results that featured, first up, Philip Lutgendorf’s article on the film. The IMDB page on the film didn’t appear anywhere even on the first page of the search results.

      This plethora of writing on Pakeezah was what kept deterring me from writing about the film too. There are people sufficiently nasty (as poor Anu can testify) who will ask, “What have you written about this film that hasn’t been written already?” As I was, however, watching the film, I decided I may as well review it, too. Even if I’m repeating things others have said, and in much better ways too. :-)

      I agree with Morcom’s interpretation of the train as a symbol of modernity, though I don’t really swallow her interpretation of Suhagpur. I’ve always thought of suhaag as just a state of being married, whether or not happily (though popular usage – at least in films – seems to always interpret it as ‘happily married’, so Morcom may be right). In any case, I would think for a tawaif, just the mere notion of being married would be enough of a wonderful dream, so far above the reality of her own life. (That ‘marriages’ thing seems like a typo, by the way).

      Personally, I thought the greatest actress in this film was Veena.

      Veena, I think, is one of the greatest character actresses Hindi cinema had. She was so good as the imperious and strong-willed woman, whether it was here in Pakeezah, or as Noorjehan in Taj Mahal. And, also strong-willed but in a wonderfully warm-hearted, loving way, in Chhoti Bahen – that’s my favourite Veena role.

      • Regarding Veena, she was also great in Najma (1943), and she was a unique and spectacular villain in Dastan (1950). Madhu, I am afraid that I turned you off to Dastan completely when I mentioned that Raj Kapoor did his Charlie Chaplin routine here a lot, one year before Awara. Maybe you’ll change your mind for the chance to see Veena here, not to mention the chance to see and hear Suraiya at her best.

        • … and, considering I have a soft spot for Suraiya, that is a definite incentive! Perhaps the presence of both Veena and Suraiya will help me tolerate a Chaplinesque RK. I shall look out for this, Richard. Thank you.

      • This is a very late comment but Yay! I knew I couldn’t be the only living fan of Veena’s! I have loved her in every movie I have seen her in, so I keep digging up older movies to catch her even in a few scenes! She was great as the the old, frail but still strong-till-death widowed mother/step-mother in “Do Raaste”.

        I actually liked Raaj Kumar in Pakeezah, he was rather subdued and the romance does come through effectively. Great write-up as always Madhulika. Your reviews often make me revisit movies and songs I have seen/heard before but now want to revisit :)

        • Thank you so much! Glad you liked the review. :-)

          Veena was wonderful, wasn’t she? I think she could do imperious and dignified brilliantly – and in both ways, the haughty and not-so-nice style (as in Taj Mahal – and the nice way too, as in Do Raaste. One role in which I especially like the slightly younger Veena is her role in Chhoti Bahen. Rather melodramatic and weepy film otherwise, but Veena’s character comes out as a very strong character, dependable and kind, unflinching, yet gentle.

        • Sorry, I don’t see much sense in it being a possessive. :) The way I reasoned to myself that this wasn’t just a typo was the fact that the name would be referring to plural of the entire entity “happy state of marriage,” rather than a happy state of marriages. The plural would become necessary only when referring to the town full of people in a happy state of marriage, hence the “s” being added on with the “ville” suffix. But maybe that’s a bit convoluted? I thought that maybe a better term was needed altogether, but I am not sure how else it could be phrased.

        • A town, where the happy-state-of-marriage (so convoluted) abides.
          Rampur: where the blessings of Ram abide. If you take the word-to-word meaning, it might mean where Ram lives, but since Ram has gone, his blessings (or his protection) are assured here.
          Gorakhpur: where the protector of the cows abide
          Sorry, the two examples sound very much like RSS, but these were the first two that came into my mind.

          • “Sorry, the two examples sound very much like RSS

            Haha! Considering the way the election results seem to be headed, that’s probably unwitting pandering to the powers-that-shall-be. :-D

            As for ‘happy-state-of-marriage-sville’, I’d have thought it could just as easily have been written as ‘happy-state-of-marriage-ville’, implying that all married couples who dwell there are happily married.

  4. The fact that it love this film so much has prevented me from writing about it. You are brave Madhu for putting it down so beautifully here!

    • Thank you, Sharmi! :-)

      Oh, and don’t let your love for a film keep you from writing about it. Reading something by someone who’s passionately fond of what they’re writing about is often a joy!

  5. Sigh. I have no right to complain, though. I’ve been sitting on my review of Pakeezah since Meena Kumari’s birth date last year! :)

    But as Harvey says, this post is more than just a review. It is an appreciation of the film and it is wonderful. With all its flaws, Pakeezah is one of my favourite films. I agree with you that both Veena and Nadira were wonderful in their respective roles.

    she’s not a bad actress, but she seems downright tired in places,
    Meena Kumari was seriously ill during the latter half of the shooting. She could barely stand, and spent her time between shots resting in her room. She was so determined to complete it however that she struggled through the long days of shooting.

    (And if you like Pazeezah, watch this blog. There’s more coming up).
    Looking forward to whatever that is! You do know how to increase our anticipation. *grin*

    • Thank you, Anu!

      Yes, I do know that Meena Kumari was very ill in the last days of the shooting. In fact, I remember, when I first watched Pakeezah (i must have been 11 or 12 years old) – it was being shown on Doordarshan – my father pointed out that scene in which Salim takes her uphill to the mosque there to marry her, and gives her name as Pakeezah… my father said that was the last scene she ever shot. I don’t know if that’s correct or not (it may be, since my uncle, being part of the crew, sort of knew what was going on on the sets some of the time).

      I rewatched Pakeezah because of what’s coming up next. :-) You’ll see; just give me a week or so.

  6. I am so biased in favor of Pakeezah. I fail to notice its failings. If they are there, they add to the likeability of the film. Perfection can be irritating sometimes.

    On the dialogues, my personal favorite is when Sahibjan visits Bibban and shows her the letter. Bibban says, “Yeh khat tere liye nahi hai, Sahibjan”. She says that in a sad way that it really breaks your heart. Here is a girl who is in quest of true love, and feels it is within her reach.

    Regarding Shahbuddin/Nawabjaan face-offs, I feel, when Nawabjaan asks Shahbuddin to come the next day to pick his daughter up as she has already started her mujra, she is really testing him. She knows it was Shahbuddin’s cowardice that cost her sister her life. She wants to see if he is courageous enough to own up a daughter who is a tawaif. The correct reaction would have been Shahbuddin saying “I don’t care if she is already in the mujra, I want to take her away NOW”. Then Nawabjaan would have been sure that he would not break the girl’s heart in the same way he broke her mother’s heart.

    This was the reason for her insisting on the baraat to commence from the kotha. This way the world would know that here was a girl who was a tawaif, but Salim was man enough to marry her as she was.

    As for the last bit of the movie, it was Salim who proposes that Sahibjan perform at his wedding. It was a bit melodramatic, but then, he is the rejected suitor. I guess Nawabjaan wanted this final ‘test’ to play out. She has been seething at (rightfully so) Shahbuddin for SO long.

    Oh, I love this movie, I could go on and on.

    • Bibban says, “Yeh khat tere liye nahi hai, Sahibjan”

      Oh, yes. Very well quoted, Ava. That was another beautiful dialogue (I also like the fact that Sahibjaan initially refuses to accept what Bibban says, then comes to the realisation that her friend is right.

      Those are also some good insights you offer into Nawabjaan’s face-offs with Shahabuddin – especially that bit about her testing him, when he first comes to fetch his daughter. Which, now that I think of it, does get repeated – to some extent – at Salim’s wedding mujra, since Nawabjaan again confronts Shahabuddin there. Thank you for helping me look at that from another perspective!

      Talking also about that last mujra, I still am a little sceptical about Sahibjaan’s motives there. I can understand Salim being miffed at her (she jilted him after all, even though he doesn’t know it was out of love for him). What I cannot swallow is why she is hellbent on rubbing salt into his wounds and reminding him of their past – because he has insulted her by summoning her for this mujra? It is plausible, I suppose, but I find it a little hard to understand her thinking. (Though one may argue that Sahibjaan is thinking, not with her mind but with her heart here…)

      We can go on and on. :-)

      • Yes, we could go on and on.

        Just yesterday I rewatched a bit of Pakeezah. It was so beautiful. Just as a tense Nawabjaan climbs up the kotha after sending away Shahbuddin, the mujra starts. The first place where Sahibjaan points when saying ‘Inhi logo ne’ Is towards the departing buggy of Shahabuddin.

        I will have to rewatch the rest to refresh my memory. But I do feel that though it was Sahibjaan who gave up Salim, she did not expect him to get married so soon. It is natural if she feels jealous anyway. :)

        Gosh! This movie is like such a live thing, it has a life of its own, keeps growing on me. :D

        • “The first place where Sahibjaan points when saying ‘Inhi logo ne’ Is towards the departing buggy of Shahabuddin.

          Ah! I hadn’t noticed that. And so apt, too, since Shahabuddin has been responsible for her mother’s decline and death, and there are others like Shahabuddin who are waiting in the wings to wreak havoc with Sahibjaan’s own life.

          Yes, I suppose Sahibjaan does feel insulted – and jealous – that Salim should get married so soon after she has jilted him. A little unfair, but I guess natural.

      • Salim insulted her very badly. He recognized her as a ‘tawaif’. He sent the letter to ask her to dance himself, it wasn’t from his family. In his grief and anger over rejection he negated his own kindness and humanity that he had shown Sahibjaan days before. In ‘Tir-e-Nazar’ song, she says, you cant even meet ur eyes with mine. To drill in the point that what you did was stupid and insulting and has put you in the same place as those men who claim to admire me as long as I do their bidding, and those ‘respectable’ families that call me to dance at their wedding because of my talents but want to keep me yards away from their homes otherwise. Its about telling someone I love you despite your background and when they leave, poking them where they hurt the most in a silly act of childish revenge. Salim knowing her actual motive in leaving is inconsequential. And it’s also a bitter lesson in reality for Sahibjaan.

  7. Madhu the moment i read pakeezah i thought of rajkumar in his inimitable drawl ” Aapke pair zameen pe mat rakhna mailay ho jayengay ” good to see you breaking your pre ’70 reviews only for a change. With every review I see your passion for reviewing increasing. Keep it up.

    • Thank you, Mr Neelakantan! And, if you read the review, you’ll see the actual dialogue quoted above. :-)

      And yes, I do occasionally review 70s films (again, as I’ve mentioned in the post) – films released in the very early 70s, and with a definite feel of an earlier period. Sharmeelee and Fiddler on the Roof are among the other films that fall into this bracket, which I’ve reviewed.

  8. Nice to read your appreciation of the film. I love ‘Pakeezah’ to bits and had to comment on this one. I see it as more than just an aesthetically beautiful film (and I know you do too, you’ve spoken about some of symbols, performances, songs and silences). But a lot of ‘pretty films’ have completely left me cold, while some scenes in ‘Pakeezah’ do have a strong emotional impact (certainly in my case). Your view appears to be that the first half is subtle and effective, and the second half becomes melodramatic. I agree the final speech that nawab jaan gives, and that scene is a little melodramatic, but overall I do not think of ‘Pakeezah’ as a melodramatic film. In fact I think the term ‘melodrama’ is a complete misnomer when applied to ‘Pakeezah’. I’ve seen the word sometimes used in relation to the film particularly by non-Indian critics, and sometimes it seems to be a generic term applied to all Bollywood films…like ‘oh, it’s a Bollywood film therefore it must be default be a melodrama’. The term can be used to describe heightened emotions, or a heightened state of being, but the word ‘melodrama’ to me connotes kitsch, tackiness, artificiality, and ‘Pakeezah’ represents none of these things.

    I prefer the second half of the film because, for me, that’s where the most powerful scenes take place. In the first half you have a tawaif who dreams of another kind of life and a real lover, but it’s basically her moving through opulence and never actually trying to do anything to improve her situation. She is essentially passive. It is this passivity as well as the pace of the first half which is a flaw of the film in my opinion. In the second half she gets to show personality. In the marriage scene, she is tortured and her flight from the mosque/dargah is an act prompted by her love for Salim. I found the scene where she reads the letter he pens to to her, after he feels he spurned by her very effective. It didn’t seem strange or contrived to me at all. Nadira acted very well as you pointed out. I thought the male actors did a good job as well, Ashok Kumar, Sapru and, of course, I thought Raaj Kumar was amazing as ‘Salim’ ! :) Let’s agree to disagree on him…but really even if someone doesn’t like Raaj Kumar generally, how can they not like him in ‘Pakeezah’?! Of course, it’s your blog and you have a right to express your opinions.

    Some of the comments speak about how much has been written about the film. I actually think that very little has been written which is actually good…and by ‘good’ I don’t mean that I expect every writer to sing praises of the film and love it as much as I do. I mean that some of the stuff I’ve read (particularly by non-Indian writers) has been completely way-off. The author has no freakin’ clue about the mileau or culture, or has a very superficial understanding of it, and has spent pages on end harping on about the most obscure side point. There are only two good academic pieces I have read on ‘Pakeezah’. One is written in part by a non Indian. It is called ‘Pakeezah: Dreamscape of Desire’ by Richard Allen and Ira Bhaskar. (Source: Projections, Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2009, pp. 20-36). I think it might be by the same Richard who has commented on this post. It is a very good analysis of the film from the first frame the the last scene. An excellent piece on the film has been written by Shweta Sachdeva Jha, called “Frames of Cinematic History: The Tawaif in Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah” in Narratives of Indian Cinema (ed) Manju Jain. Primus Press, 2009. It is the most perceptive and astute commentary I have read on the film (and I haven’t even read all of it…just the extracts available on google books). I’ve read Meghnad Desai’s small book on ‘Pakeezah’ which I had been eagerly awaiting and which I was very disappointed by. It’s a small book which ends as soon as it begins (and even then half the book is just devoted to just describing what happens in the film), and there were plenty more problems with it aside from this.

    At core, I think of ‘Pakeezah’ as a deeply romantic film and that’s where it’s principle attraction lies. It’s a real pity that Meena looks so ill and so much older than her character in some of the scenes, but in spite of this the romantic scenes are beautiful. The songs are glorious. Your uncle has been part of creating on of the best soundtracks ever….’Pakeezah’ is a strong contender for the best film score ever. Looking forward to your upcoming posts on the film.

    • Silverambrosia, thank you for that long and very well-thought out (and emotional – I could read your passion for Pakeezah!) comment.

      Before I go any further, a couple of things. Firstly, the Richard who’s commented above isn’t Richard Allen; he’s Richard Singer, to whose blog (Dances on the Footpath) I’ve linked when I mention the backgroundthumris of Pakeezah. Secondly, ah – no upcoming posts on this film; just one post, and that’s going to be a review of the Meghnad Desai book which you trash>. :D I will begin reading it probably tomorrow, so let’s see how that turns out.

      When it comes to the tone of the film (and other films, actually), I think whether or not a film is considered melodramatic really depends upon the individual viewer, what they construe as melodramatic or not. I, for instance, get uncomfortable with too much rona-dhona; raw emotion – especially high-pitched – tends to unnerve me. My threshold for melodrama isn’t anywhere as low as that of most Westerners, since these Hindi films are what I grew up with. So what may seem melodramatic to an average Westerner may be perfectly fine with me. But put a Bhabhi or a Khaandaan in front of me, and I cringe. Which is why I liked the first half of Pakeezah so much more than the second half – the emotion is there, but it’s quiet, subdued; in contrast, those scenes in the second half – that man accosting Sahibjaan and Salim while they’re headed for the mosque in a tonga; or that last mujra – well, that got a bit too much for me.

      Let’s agree to disagree on that too, along with Raj Kumar. Incidentally, I took that screen cap of Raj Kumar and Meena Kumari while watching the film because he was absolutely deadpan in that scene. It’s not as if he can’t act well – I thought he was pretty good in films like Waqt and Dil ek Mandir, but he didn’t really float my boat in Pakeezah.

      • Madhu, thanks for pointing out that I’m not Richard Allen. :) (Although I don’t go by my full last name in my blog, I do use the “S,” which isn’t an “A.” :) )

        Richard Allen is a professor at New York University. I mentioned a presentation that he did on Pakeezah in my post here:

        http://roughinhere.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/the-academics-are-in-love-with-pakeezah/

        Regarding material written about Pakeezah in general… I haven’t really seen anything bad enough to match the description by Silverambrosia…

        I would highly recommend Anna Morcom’s description and analysis at the beginning of her current book Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance. Much of that book is very much about the milieu and culture, and she even makes a point of revealing aspects of that cultural history that have generally been hidden or glossed over in the popular representations that we see in films, etc.

        By the way, Anna Morcom is from London, UK, and according to the book jacket, she is a lecturer in the music department at the University of London.

        There are also some nice mentions of Pakeezah in The Dancing Girls of Lahore, an excellent book about a family of “dancing girls” in Heera Mandi by Louise Brown, who’s a sociologist at Birmingham University, also in the UK.

        And I have taken another look at Philip Lutgendorf’s post on the film. Yes, that’s very good (as most of his are). I believe he is still living and teaching in Iowa…

        • My mistake, I shouldn’t have simplistically just gone on the the first name and love for ‘Pakeezah’. Regarding the academic material on ‘Pakeezah’ I disagree with you. In some academic articles the discussion is so centered on the milieu or aspects of the tawaif’s profession, that discussion of the film ‘Pakeezah’ is only peripheral to the broader project of the author. In others the piece is so filled with academic jargon, and deliberately made abstruse, such it doesn’t doesn’t make for a compelling read..and by this I don’t mean it’s difficult to understand or grasp, but that the author actually doesn’t have much to say about the film which is very interesting…and some pieces I have read are naive, simplistic and betray a very superficial knowledge of the culture and milieu. Philip Lutgendorf’s reviews are often good, and I certainly wouldn’t call his review of ‘Pakeezah’ a bad one, but in this case I disagreed with it’s import i.e. his assertion that ‘Pakeezah’ is at it’s core a resounding affirmation of patriarchy.He says “the film heavily endorses the ideology of bourgeois patriarchy, fixating on maintaining the physical virginity of Sahibjaan, which alone insures that she can become (as Salim renames her) “Pakeezah,” a “pure one,” worthy of marriage—which the film clearly regards as the summum bonum of a woman’s life.”

          It is true that the means through which Sahibjaan is emancipated from the shackles of the kotha is through the framework of marriage, and that even though she finds an amazing guy her life will most likely be limited to homely domesticity. The film is set in another time (and was conceptualised in the mid 50’s). Realistically speaking, and within the religious-cultural backdrop of the film, the actions taken by some of the protagonists in the film are very radical, and also in part amount to an attack on forms patriarchy. Salim’s grandfather ‘Hakim Sahab’ represents stern traditional and ‘Salim’ in many way embodies modernity and the hearkening of more egalitarian times. Lutgendorf has a very glamorised conception of the tawaif and her role in society. Yes, a minority of courtesans belonging to the most affluent kotha’s could boast significant learning and musical accomplishments, and had more freedom of movement than ordinary women. But that was just a minority, for the majority of courtesans and prostitutes it was a far more sordid and ugly existence, featuring considerable physical violence and sexual coercion. These women were trained in artifice, and could rarely give expression to their own wishes and real feelings. It was not a choice for many women in the occupation. There is no denying that the underlying ideology of ‘Pakeezah’ does affirm notions of sexual purity, but I do not believe it to be fixated on mere physical purity or virginity, as affirmed by the article in question. I think ‘Pakeezah’ would have been an even more powerful film had Sahibjaan been physically used, but I think Amrohi didn’t take that turn partially because he didn’t want Sahibjaan to experience the worst of it, and partially so that audiences of the time wouldn’t balk. But the term ‘Pakeezah’ is adverting to a state of mind, rather than a condition of physical virginity. It has equal applicability to prostitutes who have slept with many men and have no higher accomplishments or learning. Even Sahibjaan who lives in opulence is sold off to the Nawab of Panipat. She may be resigned to it and not put up a fight against it, but essentially she’s being sold off like a piece of chattel.

          I have not read Anna Morcom’s text or ‘Dancing Girl’s of Lahore’ and cannot comment on either, but broadly I don’t think there has been a lot written specifically on the film ‘Pakeezah’ (rather than an allusion to it as part of a larger text) which is very good. Richard Allen’ s text and Schweta Sachdeva Jha’s pieces are both very good and are notable exceptions.

          • I can see your point regarding Philip Lutgendorf’s article. You would probably find Anna Morcom’s more agreeable:

            “This exquisite film melodrama encapsulates the world of professional female performers in South Asia prior to modern reforms. With visceral clarity, it depicts how performers fit, and do not fit, within South Asian patriarchy: their skill, art, allure and renown – yet their low status. However, the film is also didactic. It presents these conflicts as injustices and puts an end to them in a bloody, revolutionary and definitive manner. With Salim’s love and acceptance of Sahib Jan, however, the solution presented is also compassionate.

            “In the film, modernity is the savior…”

            Some of your other complaints actually do apply to Morcom’s work: it is a book filled with too much academic jargon, and the discussion of Pakeezah is peripheral, occurring as an introduction. But considered as a separate article, I think the discussion of Pakeezah is well-written and astute.

            I can’t say that I have seen enough of the body of work out there that deals with Pakeezah to make any general judgment about it one way or the other. But I am not sure if I am convinced by your assertion that “some of the stuff… (particularly by non-Indian writers) has been completely way-off.” Is the material by non-Indian writers, in particular, really just the worst? I think I would need to see more evidence. :)

            • It’s not about Indian vs. non-Indian commentators. Indeed the latter are to be commended for taking an interest in, trying to understand, and bothering to write about mainstream Hindi cinema, an area largely neglected by Indian academics until the last decade. Basically, I think that most of the stuff which has been written specifically about the film ‘Pakeezah’ (rather than an allusion or reference to it as part of a broader cultural anthropological study) has not been that great, whether undertaken by Indian or non-Indian critics. If you read my comments on this post you can see that I was really dissapointed by Meghnad Desai’s fairly recent book on ‘Pakeezah’ which I had been looking forward to. It wasn’t just because the book didn’t contain much new information, but I also didn’t think it was a very insightful book.

              Perhaps I shouldn’t have called it ‘way-off’, but yes, some of the stuff I have read by non-Indian authors has been naïve, simplistic and indicative of the author’s not having understood the film very well. An example of this is Rachel Dwyer’s appraisal of the film which has also been criticised by Jha in her piece ‘The tawaif in Umraojaan and Pakeezah’. You can read the criticism by entering the title of the text in google books. The original piece by Dwyer was written almost 10 years ago (still relatively early days in her film writing career), and it would be unfair to judge her by it now, but that’s an example.
              As I mentioned earlier I have not read either Morcon’s text or Brown’s. In those books it’s perfectly legitimate for the ‘Pakeezah’ to occupy a peripheral space within a broader discussion of Lahore’s dancing girl’s or dance culture, and to be drawn upon when it is illustrative of a point the author is trying to make. The author’s project here isn’t the appraisal of one film.

          • I too agree woth your point of view. Regarding the minority of courtesans enjoying a better status, an example in the film is when Sahibjaan visits Bibban. A girl from a neighboring Kotha asks Sahibjaan to lend her ‘taqdeer’ fate to her for atleast one night. This scene and some other dialogues in other scenes clearly indicate her higher status in her profession.
            And about her being pure, tawaifs were never cionsidered pure virgins ever by society. There still is an popular truism that once a woman is in that profession, even if she only sings and dances, she is definitely not a virgin. kamal amrohi I think he knew the audience would make this assuption. and the death of the nawab in the boat accident before he could use sahibjaan was an intended scene to show the audience that despite her being actually a physical virgin also, she’s anyway treated as ‘impure’ by society (salim’s family for eg). And for her mental purity, the whole movie deals with that with egs like sahibjaan being kind and dignified during the quarrel btw the girls in gulabi mahal, her wish to escape this place and her assertion that if the girl wants her fate, she can take it and hopefully never return it.

        • So many books to read, so frightfully little time. The Morcom book particularly sounds very interesting. Who knows when I will ever get the time to read these?… Right now I have about 20 books on my bedside table, and have just borrowed yet another one that I thought sounded good. :-)

      • It is partially individual perception as you say, but it’s not possible to totally rule out some sort of objective bar regarding what denotes ‘melodrama’. Sometimes I think that if the viewer is not very familiar with the milieu , it can inhibit their understanding of the film, such that they don’t quite get the emotional significance underpinning something, or lose out on particular nuances. If their isn’t a receptiveness to what a particular action can denote in a particular culture, then the emoting of the actor at that point of the film can seem misplaced or over the top to the viewer; hence their assertion that it is a ‘melodrama’. As I said in some academic pieces I’ve read, the term ‘melodrama’ appears to have been generically applied; the thinking seems to be ‘it’s a bollywood musical and is therefore by default a melodrama’. Of course I’m not accusing you of ignorance, you’re pretty familiar with the culture and language etc. If I had just seen the first half of ‘Pakeezah’ I wouldn’t have particularly liked the film. For me, it is the second half which lends any kind of emotional impact or power to the film. I think of ‘Pakeezah’ as an understated film, but Meena Kumari’s acting at some points in the first half is understated enough to be almost expressionless. I thought it was the second half where she actually got to show her acting ability, despite her advanced age and illness. ‘Dil ek Mandir’ is to me a prime example of a highly melodramatic film, to the point where you’re actually unwittingly cracking up in parts of it. I also recall you calling it a ‘melodrama’ so we can’t be too far apart on this one. I thought ‘Waqt’ was the beginning of the theatrical ‘Jaani’ persona Raaj Kumar came to assume later on.

        My intent wasn’t to entirely trash Meghnad Desai’s book, but I was very disappointed with it when I got it. I was so excited when I learnt there was a whole book coming out on ‘Pakeezah’ even if it was a short book. Half of it is devoted to just recounting the story, and there is this completely irrelevent chapter called ”The Rewriting’ where Desai is identifying what was shot before and what after (not only does he make quite a few mistakes here) but to what purpose is this exercise? Even the chapter on the ‘The Stars’ contains largely generic information about the actors. Nothing to do with how the stars felt about the film, their approach towards the role they were entrusted with. Desai’s argument would probably be I couldn’t find enough on this stuff, and he does source some issues of the ‘Film Industry Journal’ and ‘Screen’ magazine, but I do think he could have tried a bit harder. The book is not for someone who knows and loves the film. It’s pretty much an introductory text. One of the few good chapters containing some new information is the chapter on ‘Kamal Amrohi’ and to some extent the chapter ”The Making”. It’s a small book and all the chapters are pretty small as well.

        • I agree with your assertion that a lack of familiarity with a culture can lead to people branding a film as ‘melodramatic’ when actually it’s a question of conditioning and culture. I still do hold with my belief that one’s perception of whether or not a film is melodramatic (or whether an actor is being understated or expressionless) is also a matter of personal taste. On a related note, I remember watching Twelve Angry Men and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (the latter being a film I’d admired a lot when I saw it as a child) – only to realise, now, that the latter seemed far too melodramatic and overwrought, Pankaj Kapoor hammy in the extreme, and me with a now pronounced preference for the Hollywood original.

          I will reserve my comments on Meghnad Desai’s book for my next post, when I review it.

          • I did say that it is partially a matter of individual taste /perception. I haven’t seen the Hindi version of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ and can’t compare. By and large, I think that if Bollywood has a reputation for churning out melodramatic films then that reputation is well deserved. Many (probably most) Hindi do contain strong doses of melodrama. I do, however, think that ‘Pakeezah’ is conspicuously not a melodrama, and consists of a deliberate interspersion of minimalism and high drama (not melodrama). We obviously don’t see eye to eye on this and should just leave it at that. Looking at your comment below on Meghnad Desai’s book (about it not being very insightful) I fully concur…seemed like such a waste, though it does provide some trivia and new information.

            • Incidentally, I do not refer to Pakeezah, in its entirety, as a melodrama. I merely say that some of the scenes towards the end are melodramatic.

              But let’s agree to disagree on that too.

              • I owe an apology, my tone was somewhat edgy just now. Sometimes that comes through, when the subject being discussed is something you love so much, but it’s important to maintain civility (civility of tone as well) even when engaging on a point of disagreement. Ok…we’ve discussed the subject of melodrama in relation to ‘Pakeezah’ quite extensively, but just to finish up. I often don’t mind it if people dislike ‘Pakeezah’; We obviously all can’t like the same things. It’s the accusation of melodrama which gets my back up, because melodrama is something I am derisive of, and to me that is something which ‘Pakeezah’ by and large eschews, to it’s credit. I think of it as a subtle and understated film, the first half and most of the second half as well (which you think is not that well done). We don’t entirely disagree on this, as I did concede that nawajaan’s final speech and the shoot-out was a little melodramatic. But most of the second half I don’t regard as melodramatic in the least, and which I think is often quite beautiful (and not just in the sense of aesthetics). Now I’ve said everything I had to say on the subject of melodrama, and I do apologise for getting a little edgy.

    • Wow, this is quite a find! So was this song filmed twice? Even in the coloured version, Meena Kumari looks quite young, so I assume that too was among the earlier scenes filmed. Which makes me wonder why they would have filmed the same thing twice, once in B/W with her wearing a ghagra-choli and the second time in colour, with her wearing this red outfit.

      Any clue?

      (By the way, I first read your comment on my phone and didn’t get the time to watch the Youtube video – so wondered if the Inhi logon ne you were talking about was this earlier version). It was picturised on Yaqub, and (I now see) was from Aabroo, 1943:

  9. Hi,
    For me, the scene where Raj Kumar names her as, “Pakeezah”, the shot of Meena Kumari – the reality of her life and the truth that comes across her face narrates what the whole the movie is about. She was a Tragedy Queen – period.
    I was very disappointed that she didn’t win the `Filmfare’ best actress award for 1972 – that would have been her 5th Filmfare award that she rightly deserved.

    Thank you

    • I agree with you about that scene. Meena Kumari’s acting in it is superb. When I saw this film the first time, as a child, I didn’t understand why she ran away from the wedding, but even then, I couldn’t help but be haunted by her expression – so much anguish and confusion and pain there. Sadly, I thought Meena Kumari’s acting wasn’t uniformly good throughout the film. Never bad, as I mention, but not always top-notch, in my opinion.

  10. Madhuji,
    Congratulations for presenting your well thought-out views on Pakeezah. A good write-up on a great movie.

    On most of the previous occasions, I watched the movie after I read you review. I have watched Pakeezah twice before. I saw the movie for the first time in my teens. For me it was Lata Mangeshkar’s and Ghulam Mohammad’s film, then. The songs led me to watch the movie. I was impressed by the background music (At that time I did not notice that it was by Naushad) and photography. Later when I watched it again for the second time, I realized it was Kamal Amrohi’s film. He had transformed an ordinary story into lyrical opus. Meenakumari, in spite of her poor health, did a splendid job by merging into the role of Sahibjaan as if both were one single entity.

    The first scene after the title role is still etched in my mind. The camera catches Sahibjaan between the lighted chandelier at the top and the flickering candle below. The door behind opens and the room is flooded with light from outside, bringing in hope, hope of love, hope of life anew. Hope with open arm arrives, only to be thwarted, transient.

    Once again hope arrives through a letter, unknown to Shahibjaan, when she is fully entrenched in the life of tawaif. She is gobbled down into this vicious life, an object of longing. Lust is there, not brazenly vulgar and obvious, but subtly depicted.

    The pining for pure love is revived once again by way of another letter. “Aapke paaon dekhe. Bahut haseen hain. Inhein zameen par mat utariyega. Maile ho jaayenge”. In the end, the feet which were immortalized by the above lines, were not only grounded but incised and bled to attain her true love for which she was yearning for.

    You have said it all. Whatever I have said was only a reiteration.

    In spite of its glaring flaws it was a wonderful film. Highly watchable, the positive points overriding the blemishes

    Thank you once again.

    • Thank you, Venkataramanji, for the appreciation! When I had finished reading your comment (and those of others who’ve commented before you – especially silverambrosia, Ava and Richard), I thought, “my readers have written more insightful things about this film than the writer of the book I’ve just finished reading about this film!”

  11. Memories, memories all come flooding back. My parents were quite selective about the films we saw as a family, Pakeezah was definitely not a film meant for us. My brother rarely saw Hindi films, he definitely preferred English films so he seldom accompanied us. I do not remember how we ended up accompanying our parents. Both of us wondered what were doing there, we were both bored. We could make head nor tail of the dialogues for instance at that time I did not know what guftagu meant. All I remember appreciating were the dance numbers. My father on the other hand went gaga over the film’s photography, “God!” he exclaimed,” each frame is like a painting.” My only excitement was that I recognized the boat – the one which drowns- it used to be anchored at the Gateway of India. We knew it was being used for the film.
    The film flopped, people appreciated the photography and the music but that was it. The difference in Meena Kumari’s looks also did not go unnoticed, the age difference was discernible. Then Meena Kumari passed away. That was it, it turned the tide in favour of Pakeezah, people rushed to see the film making it a superhit film. Incidentally, my father passed away on March 8, a week later Prithviraj Kapoor passed away followed by Meena Kumari on March 31
    Trivia
    Padma Khanna stood in for Meena Kumari for some of the dance numbers as she was the better dancer.
    After recording the song thade rahiyo Kamal Amrohi felt people would not understand the words so he re-recorded the song using the words thahere rahiyo but later decided to go back to the original.

    Yes over the years as a mature adult I learnt to appreciate the photography and some of the shot compositions, actually my father used to talk about these shot compositions. Otherwise I still find the film boring.

    • Yes, Padma Khanna is quite obviously the dance double for Meena Kumari in Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge – Meena Kumari was too ill by that time to do any dancing of her own. I’ve been reading a book about the film, so I’ve learnt some more interesting trivia about the film, some of which I’ll be mentioning in my next post. And no, I hadn’t known that that boat used to be moored near Gateway of India! How interesting. :-)

      Your recounting of that anecdote about you and your brother being taken to see Pakeezah reminded of one of the first films I remember ever watching in a cinema hall – a biopic named Meena Kumari ki Amar Kahaani. I was too small to understand anything of it (all I remember was that it began with Meena Kumari’s ghost meeting a whole lot of other ghosts in a graveyard, and telling them the story of her life… Basically more a documentary than a biopic, I guess, because I seem to recall that it had clips of her films. I’ve forgotten who played the ghost).

      And I’m glad there’s someone else besides Harvey and me who thinks the film looks and sounds very good, but is not as fantastic as it seems to be generally regarded. I don’t find it boring, but I feel it’s not deserving of the very high praise lavished on it. Most people seem to find nothing wrong with it.

      • So happy to see that you and I once again agree on something. Yes I remember that documentary on Meena Kumari, I did not see it but I remember it being launched and I do remember the lady playing Meena Kumari was a newcomer whose name was Dolly. If I am not mistaken she was a Bengali.
        There was another thing apart from the music compositions which was very good about Pakeezah and that was the lyrics of the songs. My father for instance loved the line aa jaao main bana doon palkon ka shamiana from the song mausam hai aashiquaana

        • That is another coincidence! I have always been fascinated by that aa jaao main bana doon palkon ka shamiana line. Also, from the same song, Suraj kahin bhi jaaye, tum par na dhoop aaye, which is such a polar opposite from the “may the sun always shine on you” sort of lines one comes across in English books and films. Quite a reflection on how the sun is prized in grey England, but not here in India where it can bake and boil. :-)

          Thank you for telling me about Dolly.

  12. My interest is mostly film music and not cinema in general. I have admired and enjoyed all the lovely Pakeezah songs since the 70s, but did not see the movie. But I feel like watching the movie now since your review and your appreciation of some of the features in the movie make me curious and interested. This is a great review. You have the knack of making people very interested in some movies. I saw the Twelve Angry Men after reading your review and liked the movie a lot.

    About the songs, while Naushad is credited only with the background music, Raju Bharatan in his book Naushadnama, implies that some songs were composed by Naushad and not Ghulam Mohammed. I adore Chalo dildaar chalo, Mausam hai aashiqaana. All the songs are lovely compositions, but these two are my favorites.

    • Thank you so much – and I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Since you are interested in film music, I would particularly encourage you to watch Pakeezah, because while you can watch and appreciate all the songs individually on Youtube, all the lovely background songs – some of which appear only in snatches, a little bit heard now and a little bit elsewhere – are really best heard in the movie. Even otherwise, it’s a pleasant enough film, and well-crafted and good on the ears and eyes.

  13. Yes, I watched the entire movie yesterday. I enjoyed it thoroughly and paid particular attention to the features you highlighted. Apart from all the lovely songs, I also enjoyed Naushad’s background music. In a ‘period’ film, he used modern instruments like guitar beautifully to capture the dreams of Sahibjaan. He also used Lata’s voice to great effect in the background. And yes, the thumri’s are great. Thank you so much. Looking forward to your next post on Pakeezah.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the film! And I do think Naushad managed to provide a very fitting background score. I wonder what sort of music Ghulam Mohammad would have provided as a background score for Pakeezah if he had lived long enough to do it…

  14. Excellent DO. I just love the way you have gone into depths of the whole thing especially the screenshots. They are lovely. Chosen well, and the way you have described the scene that goes with it.

    Actually I could just copy paste what Ava wrote. My opinion, feelings, thoughts are just hers. :-)
    Coming to symbolism. There is quite a lot of it.
    Even the snake.
    Here it’s somewhat ambiguous. When first the golden cage with the bird is hung up the snake slithers in for its prey, and is often seen coiled around the cage or the branch, like the Nawab – ready to strike. BUT it turns out it is also a protector and saves Sahabjan from a dangerous situation.

    The train. Personally I doubt that even for a second I’d think it represented modernity. Kamal Amrohi was hardly about tradition vs modernity.
    I always took the train as a reminder of the letter. And since the train passed by her haveli it must be the one coming to their town in which she first travelled, and had her feet admired.
    We see her running on these tracks later when she runs out of the haveli. Perhaps Raj Kumar took that train often too, to go to the forest where MK lands after the accident on the barge. So it all connects.
    MK’s dialogues at one point with Bibban also indicates that she sees the train as a connection with the letter and that night.

    har raat teen baje ek railgaadi apni patriyon se utar kar mere dil se guzarti hai aur mujhe ek paigham de jaati hai
    ..after this she takes out the letter and shows it to Bibban.

    Animals play an important part here, first the elephants and then the snake.
    I also like the warm interaction between the inmates of the havelis.

    I’ll confess now that after reading your review I was consumed with the desire of watching it again, and I’m writing this comment after having watched it. :-)
    Thanks so much. Really an excellent write up.

    • Thank you so much, pacifist! I’m glad you liked this review.

      That’s an interesting thought you share about the snake – I must admit the only thing that had stuck in my mind was the snake’s killing of the thekedaar and thus saving Sahibjaan (which is rather the role snakes seem to play in a lot of films – all the way from Dhool ka Phool to Amar Akbar Anthony. That bit about the snake coming menacingly towards the caged bird had slipped my mind, but it’s intriguing. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Thinking it over, I tend to agree with you about the train being less a symbol of modernity and more a reminder to Sahibjaan of that very significant incident in her life.

    • You are so right about the animals, Pacifist. I watched the movie again after reading this, and wondered about how often animals step in to save Sahibjaan. I don’t want to see too much into it, but wondered if we should take it to mean that humans are more dangerous than animals.

  15. Great review! It brings back memory of my childhood.At that time,DD used to telcast hindi movies on Saturday/Sunday’s at 6:30 pm.There was a lot of praise from my schoolmates about Pakeezah,I rarely watched movies on TV as I was of the ‘studious’ kind of pupil.But I wanted to see Pakeezah due to the praise my friends showered on it.Finally the day came,but I was not allowed to watch it,due to its subejct.So I finally made an excuse to go to my friend’s house under the pretext of taking notes.I watched the whole movie at my friend’s house.As my friend had a Color Tv in his house,I watched it and amused by its brilliant picturisation.
    Again when I watched it when I was old enough to understand,I found the second half quite moving specially ” Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge” gave me gooseflesh.According to some sources a dance on was picturised on Padma Khanna as the body double of Meena Kumari,as Meena Kumari has been ailing and too frail to dance as she got exhausted easily at that time.Padma Khanna wore veil on her face and performed the dance,and anyone could hardly discern that it was not Meena Kumari dancing there.

      • No problem. :-) Though, regarding Padma Khanna in Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge (and I’ve mentioned it in the next post too, where I review Meghnad Desai’s book on the film) – if you look carefully, you can see through the thin veil that it’s her and not Meena Kumari. True, I guess if one doesn’t know that to begin with, it’s not glaringly obvious.

    • Hehe! I love that anecdote. :-) I must admit that even though both my sister and I were very studious, we also were gifted with excellent memories. So if we paid attention well in class (and we did), we didn’t really need to study very much before the exams. Even at examtime, therefore, there was no restriction on watching TV (not that back then – in the 80s – there was much to watch)!

  16. Really enjoyed reeding your review Madhu :-)
    This film brings up mixed emotions for me. Pakeezah the movie really disappointed me.

    Music… BRILLIANT! including the background scores.
    Yun Hi Koi Mil Gaya Tha is in my Top 5 list of songs I would never get tired of listening to, especially the train ki seeti. Its a special childhood memory.

    Costumes… Lovely
    Cinematography… Nice
    Acting… Veena and Nadira were impressive.

    The Actual film … TEDIOUS. I found it very hard work.
    I don’t know what I was expecting. The beautiful music had completely mesmerised me since I was 3 years old and the film just did not live up to the music for me.
    This film is probably one of the reasons I have never been able to really take to Meena Kumari. And I think you have broken it down really well in your review so I will just use what you said and say the bronze one was scary, the pre barge one was OK, the post barge one was just (sorry to repeat) tedious.

    The film just did not do its music justice.

    • Ah, thank you, Shalini. With all that undiluted love for Pakeezah pouring through in the comments from other readers, I was beginning to think there must be something wrong with me! (True, I do think the symbolism is very good, but then – looking at it objectively – which Hindi film does not have symbolism?) And the costumes, cinematography and music I agree are great; but the rest of the film is – well, really not all that mind-blowingly good. Not bad, but with really rather an unimpressive (and predictable) storyline.

    • Thank you! Glad you liked the post. :-)

      Oh, so taqdeer also means ‘head ornament’? I didn’t know that. The pun makes that dialogue even more interesting.

  17. Few days back I came across an album named ‘Pakeezah – Rang Barang’ containing the unused songs of Pakeezah, released five years after the film’s release i.e. in 1977. Here is a playlist of those songs.

    Though all of the album’s song are very pleasant, I personally liked the song ‘Tanhai sunaya karti hai’ very much, I imposed that song on a very similar video. Here is the video

    • Wow. I’ve heard the background thumris of Pakeezah, but I’d never come across Tanhaayi sunaaya karti hai before. Thank you so much for this! It’s lovely, and I think you did a good job putting it on the video of Main jab bhi akeli hoti hoon.

  18. Nice moovie. Superb reviews of each item.one can enjoy the more if they see the reviews first and then the film.

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