Book Review: Meghnad Desai’s ‘Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World’

When I posted my review of Pakeezah last week, I mentioned that I’d be posting something further about Pakeezah. This is it, and the reason why I rewatched Pakeezah in the first place: I wanted to see, once again, the nuances of the film, before I got around to reading Meghnad Desai’s Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World (Harper Collins; 2013; ISBN: 978-93-5029-369-0; 152 pages; Rs 250).

Book cover: Meghnad Desai's Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World

To start with, I must confess that I haven’t read any of the academic works written about Pakeezah (which, seems to be a favourite with writers on cinema, both Indian as well as Western). For me, watching Pakeezah again, and this time with a view to seeing it for more than just entertainment, made me think of things that I had either not noticed before, or had simply forgotten over the years. With Pakeezah now fresh in my mind, I got down to reading Desai’s book on the film.

Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World is aptly named, since, by the time Pakeezah was released in 1972 (after having been in the process of being created since about 1957), Hindi cinema—and India itself—had moved on. Desai mentions the films and the tropes that had come to dominate Hindi films by the 70s: Sholay, the angry young man, etc. Pakeezah, a Muslim social that unmistakably belongs in the era of Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Mere Mehboob, and Barsaat ki Raat, shared little in common with other films released around the same time: definitely a harking back to an era that was already half-forgotten.

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah
Desai’s book begins with a brief prologue (which I found rather rambling in its meandering through everything from Andaz and Mughale-Azam to Sholay and the TV series Ramayana and Mahabharat in its attempt to list cinematic works that endure and those that do not—the point being that Pakeezah is one of the former).

This is followed by eight chapters:

The Story (a literally scene-by-scene synopsis of Pakeezah);
The Origins (how Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi came together—both personally and professionally, and how this partnership resulted in Pakeezah)
The Making, 19571971 (as its name indicates, how the film was actually made: from the initial cast and crew to the way the story evolved over the years)
The Rewriting (going deeper into the way the story changed over the 14 years Pakeezah was in the making, including Meghnad Desai’s own interpretation of what may have prompted Kamal Amrohi to make these changes)
Pakeezah: The Many Themes (discussing the tropes and cinematic themes that find expression in Pakeezah, such as the Muslim social; the women’s film; the reluctant tawaif; and so on)
The Man Behind Pakeezah: Kamal Amrohi (about Kamal Amrohi, his background, how he came into the film industry, and his films—in particular, the classic Mahal)
The Stars (brief biographies of the leading lights of Pakeezah’s cast: Meena Kumari, Raj Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Veena, Nadira and Vijaylakshmi, along with brief introductions to the character each of these people plays in Pakeezah)
The Music (about Ghulam Mohammad—who composed the music for Pakeezah; touching very briefly upon Naushad, who helped him, and later provided the background score for the film; and the lyricists—Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaif Bhopali and Kaifi Azmi, who wrote the songs, along with Kamal Amrohi himself).

For me, the main irritant in this book was the repetition of the storyline. Of course, while discussing a film, one is compelled to provide at least a brief outline of the plot, an aim achieved adequately by the first chapter, The Story. Unfortunately, large sections of the stories—including entire scenes—are repeated all over again here and there, at times with little reason for the mention of the scene to be so detailed.

Along with the repetition of certain scenes, there are repetitions of certain interpretations that Desai makes. As an example, there’s the climactic Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge, when Sahibjaan’s anguished mujra culminates in her cutting her feet on the glass of a chandelier she’s broken, and dancing on, getting her feet bloody—the very same feet that Salim had begged her not to lower to the ground, for fear of them getting sullied. It’s a striking, ironic link to that first time Salim saw Sahibjaan; but it hardly needs repetition to drive the message home. Once, possibly, if one wants to draw more attention to the symbolism of that scene. But repeated twice after the first mention? Not needed.

The climactic scene from Pakeezah
There are other aspects of the book that seem to indicate a lack of clarity at times. At a basic level, the language is, now and then, a little vague: “We next see Shahbuddin… But he now knows he has a daughter. He goes to Nargis’s grave where the woman tells him her aunt has taken her away.” (Considering there are four females being mentioned in this little paragraph—Nargis, Nargis’s sister Nawabjaan, Nargis’s baby daughter Sahibjaan and the woman at the graveyard—the ‘her’ in the last sentence can be confusing if you haven’t seen the film, or aren’t really paying attention).

There are also some—as far as I know—factual errors: for example, Waheen thamke reh gayi hai is incorrectly transcribed as Yoonhi thamke reh gayi hai. In one place, Shahbuddin is described as Hakim Sahib’s only son (considering Salim is his nephew—and Salim calls Shahbuddin ‘chaacha’—this is almost certainly incorrect).

Majrooh Sultanpuri, too, is credited with having written Inhi logon ne (the earliest occurrence of this song I’ve come across is from the film Himmat, 1941, in which it was sung by Shamshad Begum; two years later, in Aarzoo, the same song was picturised on Yaqub. Majrooh Sultanpuri didn’t debut in the Hindi film industry till Shahjehan, 1946).

Against that are the interesting snippets of information, the anecdotes about Pakeezah, which are contained in two main chapters: The Making, 1957-1971 and The Man Behind Pakeezah: Kamal Amrohi. For me, these were the best part of the book: things I learnt that I hadn’t known before, like Amrohi’s almost obsessive perfectionism (he had borrowed, from MGM, Cinemascope lenses to film Pakeezah. During shooting, Amrohi complained to MGM that the lenses were slightly unfocussed. Lengthy altercations resulted, with Amrohi insisting that the lenses did malfunction, while MGM defended their lenses. The impasse was brought to an end when the lenses were finally tested at a Hollywood lab—and were found to be out of focus by 1/1000 mm). Similarly, the scene showing the barge floating down the river against a backdrop of a sunset took over a week to film, because Amrohi just wasn’t satisfied with the sunsets till then. There are other interesting anecdotes along these lines, and background information—like that of how the film’s story and cast changed over the 14-odd years Pakeezah was in the making.

That is the main reason I would suggest reading this book: to read about how Pakeezah was made. If you’re a trivia hound (like me), you probably already know that Padma Khanna was Meena Kumari’s dancing double for Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge. But do you know who was first slotted to play the hero opposite Meena Kumari? Do you know how much the set of the Bazaar-e-Husn (which is where Sahibjaan lives with Nawabjaan initially) cost—and what flaw Kamal Amrohi discovered in it?

A view of the Bazaar-e-Husn
If that intrigues you, look out for this book. However, if you’re looking for deep insights into what Pakeezah stands for, what it arose from, its symbolism and any deeper meaning, you may well be disappointed. Desai does talk about the many themes of the film—the tawaif, the woman, the patriarchal society, the ‘Lucknow of imagination’, the very epitome of tehzeeb, and so on—but to no great extent. (I have to admit: when I finished reading this book, I thought some of the people who’d commented on my review of the film had offered more insights into it than I’d gleaned from the book).

Recommended? Yes, if you like trivia (and some gossip about Meena Kumari’s and Kamal Amrohi’s personal lives). No, if you’re keen on insights and deeper meaning.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Meghnad Desai’s ‘Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World’

  1. Excellent review. Madhu, your writing is so elegant, it is a pleasure to read anything written by you.

    I am kind of curious about the trivia and making-of part, so let me see if I can pick it up.

    • Thank you, Ava, for the appreciation. :-)

      The trivia part is by far the most interesting bit about the book. Gossip doesn’t really interest me, and Desai’s interpretations of the movie’s symbols etc – well, as I said, the people who commented on my last post did a better job (and pacifist has just added another interesting observation there). But I did like the trivia and the ‘making of’ sections.

  2. this is short notice, but since the ‘tehzeeb’ of Awadh found a mention here, you maty be interested in this event at the IGNCA today(23rd May)
    IGNCA and Sufi Kathak Foundation presents,“The Last Song of Awadh”

    A Symposium on Legacy of Begum Akhtar represented by Last Living Legend

    Zareena Begum of Nanpara. conceptualized by Ms.Manjari Chaturvedi.

    Venue: Auditorium, C.V. Mess, Janpath.

    Time: 4.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.

    Session I
    4:00 p.m.–4:30 p.m.

    Screening of Short documentary film by Ms Saba Deewan followed by a talk and discussion

    4:30 p.m.–6:00 p.m.

    An introduction by the moderator Shri Vikram Lall
    A talk and discussion with last living court singer of Awadhi durbars discussing the lives and works of Zareena Begum along with Janaab Iqbal Ahmed Khan, Shri Salim Kidwai, Shri Pran Neville and Ms. Chhayya Ganguli

    6:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

    Lecture demonstration of Ghazals by Zarina Begum and her accompanists
    Performance of Darbari Kathak by Ms Manjari Chaturvedi with Ghazal sung by Zarina Begum

      • It was Fabulous ! Manjari Chaturvedi’s perfomance (and costume) was very reminiscent of Pakeezah ! And interestingly (in the context of this post) , the gentleman sitting next to me was a self-professed regular at similar events , having been to possibly all thumri/Begum Akhtar/KL Saigal/Pran Neville events in the city. He had this very interesting observation to make where he commented that having been to many of Manjari Chaturvedi’s, and being a thunri aficionado, many of Ms. Chaturvedi’s moves were almost identical to those in Pakeezah. Given that Ms. Chaturvedi is a serious scholar of ‘Darbari Kathak’ it just illustrates that Pakeezah took its details very seriously.

        • That’s interesting. I do wish I’d known earlier – might have been able to make the time to go if I’d had more notice. But never mind; some other time. Glad to know it was good, though. A friend of mine has seen Manjari Chaturvedi perform and praised her highly.

  3. Madhuji,
    I loved reading your review but your review does not enthuse me to read this book.

    You have mentioned the reason.

    “Recommended? Yes, if you like trivia (and some gossip about Meena Kumari’s and Kamal Amrohi’s personal lives). No, if you’re keen on insights and deeper meaning.”

    Most of the trivia mentioned were known to me. Some time back I read a biography on Meenakumari by Vinod Mehta (probably the publishers were Harper Collins).About 15-20 pages were devoted for Pakeezah and of course a lot more on her personal life. I exactly do not remember whether I read it there or somewhere else.
    Thanks once again and what next?

    • Ah, if you have read a biography of Meena Kumari’s, then you’ll probably know most of everything there is to know about Pakeezah, Venkataramanji.

      And, no; my intention was not to enthuse people to buy the book. To be honest, I didn’t buy the book myself – this was a review copy sent to me by the publisher, along with a few other books on cinema that they’ve released in the recent past. Since I like Pakeezah, I thought I may as well read it and review it on this blog. The trivia part of it is the best, really. And if you already know all of that, then’s there really not much point…

    • Thank you, Karthik!

      Now that you mention it, no. Nothing specific about the Urdu, though he does mention some of the dialogues – especially the classic paaon and zameen one. Perhaps, like me, he didn’t think the Urdu as unforgettable as – say – in Mughal-e-Azam.

  4. You know what I like best about blogging and reading blogs, it is the amount of interesting information that you get, as for instance I did not know that inhi logon newas a song written by Amir Khusroo. You see I am now working on my post on my favourite songs from my father’s films, while doing some research for the post I ended up getting such interesting information from blogosphere.
    You know what, back then I knew a lot of stuff about Pakeezah like who were supposed to do the the roles opposite Meena Kumari and all that. But I have forgotten everything now.
    Going by your review I do not think I would like to spend money on this book.

    • “You see I am now working on my post on my favourite songs from my father’s films

      Oh, good! I’m looking forward to it, already. :-) Though I’m not sure about whether Amir Khusro did write Inhi logon ne – the opinion on that seems to be divided, just as very few people seem to be absolutely sure that he was the man who invented the sitar (there were actually two Amir Khusros, and people tend to confuse one’s accomplishments with those of the other).

  5. Ashok Kumar was supposed to be the hero, right? Your review was much more interesting than the book seems to warrant. Like Mr Venkatraman, much of the trivia mentioned was known to me, so I’ll read your excellent review and forget about making Baron Desai any richer than he already is. :)

    • I don’t know why, but WordPress decided that your comment was spam. Thank goodness I had a quick glance at the spam before I deleted it, and was able to retrieve your message!

      Ashok Kumar was later supposed to be the hero. Initially, Kamal Amrohi himself was supposed to play the hero.

      “forget about making Baron Desai any richer than he already is. :)

      Laal salaam! Yay. :-D

      • I don’t know why, but WordPress decided that your comment was spam.
        :( It happened over at Carla’s blog as well, but there it just vanished into the blue so I knew something was wrong. Here, on your blog, it said ‘your comment is awaiting moderation’. Sigh. WordPress does not like me.

  6. A somewhat tongue in cheek ode to a bygone world perhaps, I’ll never forget this scene from East is East with a young Archana Punjabi doing her Meena Kumari impression.

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