Whenever people ask me what my movie blog is about, I say pre-70s cinema. Pre-70s, yes, but with a few (very few) exceptions, and those are films released in the very early 70s, but with a distinctly 60s feel to them. Pakeezah is the example I invariably give: a film released in 1972, but with an aura that’s recognisably of an earlier period about it, whether it’s in the fashions, the actors, or the overall look of the film.
Since I generally steer clear of reviewing very well-known films, the format of this review is going to be slightly different from my usual film review. I’ll begin with a much briefer synopsis than usual, then go on to discussing—in far greater detail than I normally do—what I liked about the film, what I didn’t like, and sundry other musings regarding Pakeezah.
To begin with, a synopsis. The story begins with the elopement of a tawaif, Nargis (a bronze-haired, grey-eyed Meena Kumari) with her lover, the Nawab Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar). Shahabuddin takes Nargis to his household, where she is rejected by his very honourable family. Nargis flees, and hires a palanquin to take her to a graveyard, where she spends the next 10 months of her life, giving birth to a daughter in the interim.
Flash-forward to 17 years later. Shahabuddin, has received—through a kind-hearted soul who found it hidden in a book on sale—a letter written by Nargis on her deathbed. It tells of the birth of Nargis’s and his daughter. Shahabuddin rushes to Nawabjaan’s kotha and asks for his daughter (Sahibjaan, also Meena Kumari, but minus the coloured lens and bronze wig). An imperious Nawabjaan informs him that her niece is already occupied in a mujra and can be met later. Come tomorrow morning, she says.
…by which time Nawabjaan, unwilling to yield her niece to Shahabuddin, has spirited Sahibjaan away. They travel overnight by train, and en route, while both aunt and niece are asleep in their compartment, a fellow passenger climbs into their compartment by mistake—and, thanks to the train’s unbroken journey ahead—is forced to stay on until the next station arrives. This man (though we are introduced to him by name only later) is Salim (Raj Kumar). He sees Sahibjaan’s gorgeously hennaed feet, is immediately entranced, and leaves her a note in praise of her feet, begging her not to put them on the floor, for they will be sullied.
By the time the train stops and Sahibjaan comes awake, the man has departed, taking—as a souvenir—the multicoloured feather Sahibjaan uses as a bookmark. She finds his note, reads it, and is so completely enchanted that she holds fast to it, keeping it away safely and reading and re-reading it in the days that follow.
Days that are a continuation of Sahibjaan’s life as a tawaif. Nawabjaan soon buys a beautiful haveli as a residence and showcase for Sahibjaan. Here, under the tutelage of Gauharjaan (Nadira), Sahibjaan performs for the pleasure of men like a certain nawab (Kamal Kapoor). It is this nawab—whom Gauharjaan has quickly assessed as sufficiently moneyed and in lust with Sahibjaan—who, within minutes, earmarks Sahibjaan for himself. Sahibjaan, unknown to him (or even those around her), dreams only of that unknown stranger who praised her feet.
It is with the lecherous nawab that Sahibjaan goes on a fateful barge trip down a river; the barge is wrecked by rampaging elephants, the nawab dies, and Sahibjaan finds herself washed ashore near a deserted tent, which, she discovers shortly after arriving, contains a very familiar bookmark.
Reading through the absent tent-owner’s diary, she finds an account of herself, seen through his besotted eyes on that night in the train. And, when the man—Salim—returns to his tent to find an unexpected but extremely welcome visitor, there is a shy and hesitant but also happy ‘reunion’, so to say. Or a first meeting, since this is the first time Sahibjaan is actually seeing Salim. Everything is gloriously romantic, and Sahibjaan, free of her life as a tawaif, in the company of the man who loves her—and whom she loves—is buoyed by the hope that happiness is here. Will always be here.
Pakeezah, written and directed by Meena Kumari’s once-husband, Kamal Amrohi (they split up during the making of the film, which was why it took 14 years to make) is one of those quintessential ‘Muslim socials’ that used to make their appearance every now and then. It has the nazaaqat, the tehzeeb, everything from the ghazals to the shararas, that the average audience would expect from a Muslim social. While it touches upon other issues (a tawaif‘s ‘rehabilitation’, and the role of the so-called ‘respected’ in actually perpetuating the caste of the tawaif), it still remains at its core, a story about a woman striving to break free of a life she dislikes, but unable to do so—for the sake of that very love she craves.
This is by no means a flawless film. The second half, for example (and the climax in particular) is overly melodramatic. This becomes all the more glaring when contrasted with the first half, which is relatively subtle, understated, much more accomplished. Combined with this is the result of the many years it took to shoot the film: the ages of the actors themselves. Meena Kumari, for instance, till the barge scene, is an undeniably beautiful woman. Not 17, certainly (as Sahibjaan is supposed to be), but 27 (which Meena Kumari actually was, almost).
The barge scene onwards, the Meena Kumari we see—except in a few frames here and there, probably filmed years earlier—has a face that is a mere memory of its former beauty: ravaged by drink and depression, old beyond even the actress’s short life of 40 years. Her acting in this half of the film too suffers; she’s not a bad actress, but she seems downright tired in places, or (in other scenes) trying too hard to appear young and nubile.
There are other problems, too: the somewhat implausible turnaround towards the end (first on the part of Sahibjaan, and then, right after the climactic Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge, on the part of Nawabjaan).These come across more as a ‘let’s hurry up and get this film done with’ type of shortcut than logical progressions of the story.
After all (spoiler coming up), if Sahibjaan had, of her own accord refused to marry Salim, why the rancour that prompts her to accept his request to dance at his wedding—and to make that dance a means of reminding Salim of their bitter past? And why does her aunt, who had in the first place tried to keep Sahibjaan away from Shahabuddin (going to the extent of taking Sahibjaan away), suddenly decide on a volte face after the mujra at Salim’s wedding? (spoiler over)
1. The songs. Pakeezah, says my father, had some of the very best music ever composed. That may partly be because my father’s elder brother, David Vernon Liddle, played the guitar in Mausam hai aashiqaana, so he’s probably biased; but I do agree that when it comes to a score that is uniformly good, Pakeezah is very hard to beat. Ghulam Mohammad composed these, to lyrics by several poets, including Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Kaif Bhopali. My favourite is Thaare rahiyo, followed by Yoon hi koi mil gaya thha and Mausam hai aashiqaana, but each of the other songs—all the way from Inhi logon ne le leena dupatta mera, to Chalo dildaar chalo chaand ke paar chalo, to Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge—too is superb.
2. The background music. On a related note, the background score, much of it composed by Naushad, after the death of Ghulam Mohammad. Pakeezah’s ‘main’ songs tend to shine so bright, they invariably drown out the beautiful thumris that often form the backdrop. Watch the scenes set in the bazaar, where the tawaifs practise or perform, and you’ll hear some lovely songs in the background. Richard published a good post on his blog about these.
3. The symbolism. Pakeezah is replete with symbols. There is, for instance, the oft-used symbol (not just in Hindi cinema, but elsewhere too, including in Ray’s Charulata) of the bird in a cage. In this instance, a golden cage that the nawab lusting for Sahibjaan sends to her as a present. (Interestingly, the other present he sends along with the bird can also be construed as symbolic: it’s a carpet, indicating perhaps that this is what he wants Sahibjaan to dance on). For him, his gifts say, Sahibjaan is just a thing of a pleasure, a bird bound in a golden cage, or a pretty little thing pirouetting on his gold-embroidered carpet.
The caged bird symbol is given an interesting twist (and a contrast) in a scene where Sahibjaan sits, bending over a pool in her haveli, staring at her reflection. On her shoulder dangles an ornament she’s had especially made: a tiny, cage-like golden locket that hangs from a golden chain hooked into her tresses. In it, kept very safely and always close to her, is the precious note from Salim. The frame is a telling one: Sahibjaan’s own, cherished ‘cage’ in which she imprisons what she values the most; and, above her, the nawab’s cage, with its resident bird.
(Hardly surprising, then, that this scene ends with Sahibjaan reaching up, taking down the cage, and setting the bird free).
While on the topic of symbols in Pakeezah, it’s worth noting that the railway station sign seen through the window when Sahibjaan wakes to find Salim’s note beside her feet is Suhagpur—a definite indication that Sahibjaan has, even if she wasn’t aware of it at the time, met the man who will someday be her suhaag.
Trains themselves form an important motif throughout the film (a symbol of Sahibjaan’s turbulent journey through life?) A train is where Sahibjaan’s and Salim’s paths first cross, and ever after, trains continue to haunt Sahibjaan. A train goes past her haveli, hooting loudly into the night at 3 AM daily, adding its own note to Sahibjaan’s song (which is itself an ode to that fateful night journey). A train even becomes the means of bringing Sahibjaan and Salim together later in the film, after they have been separated.
4. The dialogues. Written by Kamal Amrohi, the dialogues of Pakeezah stand out for the way in which, while they are very much part of the ‘Muslim social’ milieu, they aren’t extremely Persianised, making them easy to understand even for those whose Urdu may not be of the highest order.
The most famous dialogue (even though it’s not really spoken, except in the background) is, of course, that immortal “Aapke paaon dekhe. Bahut haseen hain. Inhein zameen par mat utariyega. Maile ho jaayenge.” My personal favourite, though, is a relatively undramatic, easily missed, but very poignant little dialogue in a scene where Sahibjaan has gone to visit her friend at a kotha in the city. Sahibjaan goes out onto the balcony, and sees a tawaif standing at a window opposite—she knows Sahibjaan too, and is envious of Sahibjaan’s fame and success. They exchange greetings; the other woman tells Sahibjaan that she has been summoned for a mujra (and, obviously, more). Give me your fate for one night, the woman says teasingly to Sahibjaan.
“Haan, haan,” Sahibjaan says. “Zuroor le jaana. Phir chaahe waapas bhi na karna”. Her colleagues and friends may envy her; Sahibjaan, however, knows all too well that this fate of hers is not one to be jealous of.
5. The silences. Especially in the first half of the film. As memorable as the dialogues—and in some cases, even more memorable—are the silences in Pakeezah. Kamal Amrohi uses actions, expressions, little details to convey far more than dialogues do, and often in much less time. There’s the example of when the nawab first comes to Sahibjaan’s haveli to see her perform (she sings Thaare rahiyo). With a few actions—one man after another flinging purses of coins at Sahibjaan’s feet to show their appreciation (and, without saying so, extend a proposition)—Amrohi builds up an atmosphere similar to a heated auction. It’s finally brought to a screeching halt (and with an indubitable claim made) when yet another man, reaching out to throw a bag of money towards the tawaif, is shot in the hand by the nawab. The coins spill all over the gleaming floor; the injured man retreats, nursing his bleeding hand. The other guests leave. The nawab gets up nonchalantly and limps away.
No words said, but so much made obvious: the nawab is a very wealthy man, and very powerful. He is also without compunction, and does not care for competition. And he has staked a claim on Sahibjaan—a claim Sahibjaan dare not deny or defy.
6. The women’s acting. While there are men in Pakeezah—Raj Kumar (not, in my opinion, at his best here), Ashok Kumar, Kamal Kapoor and DK Sapru among them—this is primarily a woman-centric film. The focus is Meena Kumari as Sahibjaan. And then there are the women who surround her: her aunt Nawabjaan (Veena is as imperious as ever), her mentor Gauharjaan, and her ailing friend and fellow tawaif Bibban (Vijaylaxmi). All are good characterisations (Gauharjaan is an especially noteworthy one in this respect), and the performances, respectively, are excellent. For me, the one who really stands out—besides Meena Kumari—is Nadira as Gauharjaan: very canny, able to have her way and cajole Sahibjaan’s customers, without antagonising Sahibjaan herself. And she ‘says’ a lot without actually saying anything, much of the time.
7. The costumes. Or, to be more precise, Meena Kumari’s costumes, which she designed for her role as Sahibjaan in Pakeezah. The colours, the embroidery and zari, the flowing, voluminous-skirted kurtas: all rich and sumptuous without being gaudy.
8. The cinematography. By the German-born cinematographer Josef Wirsching, who died in 1967 during the many years Pakeezah was in the making. Between them, Wirsching and Amrohi created visual magic in Pakeezah, all the way from the scenes set inside Sahibjaan’s haveli to the outdoor shots—the barge floating serenely downriver, for instance.