…which could probably have been more appropriately titled How to Jump to Conclusions and Mess up Lives. Or Never Trust a Sinister Mamu. This is one Muslim social – a genre I have long admitted to being very fond of – which has been recommended to me so often, I’ve lost track of the recommendations. On the one hand, I wanted to see it because it has some lovely songs; on the other, the thought of watching Meena Kumari in one of her last few films – well, that wasn’t something I was really looking forward to with anticipation. But all those recommendations tilted the balance.
Bahu Begum begins with a song – Pad gaye jhoole, saawan rut aayi – which serves to introduce us to three of the main female characters of this drama [it also indicates that there’s something a little wrong with this bunch of young women – and the birds and squirrels of the neighborhood – if they’ve left obviously ripe mangoes still hanging from the trees].
But, I digress. Back to the women. The focus of this scene is Zeenat Jahan Begum (Meena Kumari, who with Pakeezah, Chandni Chauk, Benazir, Ghazal, and this one, should probably have been crowned Queen of the Muslim socials). With her is her dearest friend Bilquees (Zeb Rehman), and scolding them for getting drenched is Zeenat’s old nursemaid Kariman Bua (Leela Misra).
The house they live in, all peeling plaster on the outside and not a grand chandelier in sight on the inside, is evidence enough of the state of this household. As Zeenat teasingly admonishes Kariman Bua when the old woman asks if she should make khichdi: “Bua, khichdi nahin, pulao kaha karo. Aakhir kuchh toh nawabi ki shaan tapakna chaahiye khaane se.” (“Bua, don’t say ‘khichdi’; say ‘pulao’. Let some of the grandeur of our being nawabs drip from what you say”).
Zeenat’s father, Nawab Sultan Miyan (DK Sapru) is genteel and polished, but yes – woefully penurious, and incapable of eventual recovery. He has, in what probably appeared as an initial push at making some money, rented out half of the haveli to Achhan (Johnny Walker), but since Achhan hasn’t paid one naya paisa of the rent in all these months, that has come to naught, too.
Achhan’s being their tenant, however, has proved fortuitous for Zeenat, because the man she loves – and is loved by, Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar) is Achhan’s best friend.
Shortly after the monsoon song, Yusuf comes along, ostensibly to meet Achhan, but in reality for a quick tête-a-tête with Zeenat. [They make a somewhat astonishing couple, as far as looks go: Yusuf’s eye shadow is definitely darker than Zeenat’s…
Yusuf has met Zeenat several times already, but their meetings have always been these hurried and furtive types; he’s now getting restive, and with Achhan’s help [and a rather lunatic – but effective – plan, involving Yusuf dressing up as a ghost to frighten away Kariman Bua], finally manages to get a date with Zeenat. They meet in a garden, and Zeenat brings Bilquees along as chaperone [not that –as she assures Yusuf – she doubts his integrity. Actually, this is just a ploy on the part of the writer to make sure Bilquees knows what Yusuf looks like].
Yusuf begs Zeenat to marry him, and Zeenat shyly suggests he ask her father. Yes, of course; why didn’t he think of that earlier? says Yusuf, and decides to get down to business straightaway – by appealing to Achhan, asking him to speak to Yusuf’s Mamu (his maternal uncle), Mir Qurban Ali (Balam), to go to Nawab Sahib with a proposal on behalf of Yusuf. [Convoluted way of doing things, but anyway].
On to this Mamu, now: he is in charge of Yusuf’s considerable fortune until Yusuf gets married. [Idiotic provision in the will of Yusuf’s father, and Yusuf is too gullible to realise that this is not going to make Mamu jaan, who has been surreptitiously beating it up on Yusuf’s wealth all these years, to be kindly disposed towards Yusuf’s marriage. Whether to Zeenat or anybody]. Achhan, conscientious and loyal as ever, goes off to plead with Mamu, and Mamu – a wolf in sheep’s clothing – pretends that nothing will give him greater joy than to arrange Yusuf’s wedding with Zeenat. He assures Achhan that he will attend to the matter right away. Not, of course, with any intention of doing so.
The scene now shifts to another lot of people: Nawab Sikandar Mirza (Ashok Kumar, like Meena Kumari, a firm fixture in Muslim socials) and his younger sister, Suraiya (Naaz, looking very pretty). Suraiya’s dearest wish is for a bhabhi: her brother is much older than her, and ever since Suraiya was left motherless as a child, she has longed for a bhabhi to be a mother to her. Only, Sikandar Mirza hasn’t been very obliging all these years. Suraiya, now close to giving up hope, has begun to settle for jewellery instead. Where are the earrings you’d promised me?
… where, as luck would have it, Zeenat too has come, accompanying Bilquees, who wants to select jewellery for her sister’s wedding. As luck would have, it, too, Zeenat — with her burqa turned up, revealing her face – is sitting right in front of the narrow gap between two curtains. Nawab Sikandar Mirza, sitting outside, happens to glance up, sees Zeenat, and is smitten (though she notices him and quickly turns away).
Sikandar Mirza is so smitten that he immediately collars an acquaintance and enlists his help in finding out who the unknown lady is. The man, following Zeenat, soon loses sight of the women, but has the good fortune to land up at Achhan’s home, where – in the presence of Achhan’s landlord (who, if you remember, is Zeenat’s father) discovers who Nawab Sikandar Mirza’s mysterious beloved is.
Things move very swiftly then. Soon, all of Sikandar Mirza’s acquaintances know that he wants to marry Nawab Sahib’s daughter, and a delegation, deputed by Sikandar Mirza, goes off with his proposal and many rich gifts to Nawab Sahib. Nawab Sahib is very taken aback and very flattered. And, of course, says yes. A thousand yeses. A proposal from the wealthiest and most respected Nawab in Lucknow is not to be sneered at. The wedding day is fixed for a week from now.
First of all, Yusuf – coming to visit Achhan – happens to pass by a curtained doorway through which he hears Zeenat’s father talking to Kariman Bua, telling her what a fine marriage proposal has come for Zeenat: such a very eligible man, so well-respected, so wealthy. Yusuf [who obviously has a pretty high opinion of himself] automatically assumes that this is him being discussed, and scurries off, delirious with joy, to thank Mamu for having been so good an intermediary.
Mamu quickly accepts all the gratitude Yusuf showers on him, and gives his nephew some news: there’s a business associate in Allahabad, from whom Rs 10,000 has to be collected – in person. Yusuf should go. Yusuf is reluctant. Unsurprisingly, he’d much rather spend time getting ready for his wedding; besides which, as he points out, he has plenty of money in any case; he doesn’t need any more. Mamu offers an excuse: he would like to give Yusuf a grand wedding present; surely Yusuf will not begrudge him that? Thus emotionally blackmailed, Yusuf agrees.
Meanwhile, back in her own haveli, Zeenat has discovered loads of fine clothing and jewellery lying on her bed; asking Kariman Bua what this is all about, she is told that her wedding has been fixed – and, as a result of a series of misinterpreted questions, answers, statements, and more eavesdropping, ends up under the false belief that her groom-to-be is Yusuf. More delirious joy ensues.
In the course of the next few days, Achhan, by some odd coincidence, discovers the truth: that Mamu has been bluffing all this while and Zeenat’s match has been fixed, not with Yusuf but with Sikandar Mirza. Achhan sets out to try and put a halt to the proceedings – but the wily Mamu, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Shagufta (Indira Bansal), manages to have Achhan clapped into jail on charges of stealing Shagufta’s necklace.
On the evening of the following Thursday, Nawab Sikandar Mirza arrives with a splendid baaraat at Zeenat’s doorstep. Zeenat’s father had already begged that no women be part of the baaraat – since there are no women at home to look after them [Kariman Bua doesn’t seem to count; neither does Bilquees]. Oddly enough, there is a bevy of richly clad females hanging about the place. This request therefore seems peculiar– until later in the film, when you realise it was a means of keeping away Suraiya, who by dint of being the groom’s sister, would have expected to spend all her time glued to the bride’s side.
The proceedings get under way, the men down in the courtyard, Zeenat in her room with Bilquees – until Bilquees decides to go and peer down at the groom. She rushes back at once to give Zeenat the horrifying news: Zeenat’s groom is not Yusuf!
Zeenat is, as is to be expected, close to collapse. There is some time, however, before the vakil and the witnesses will come to her door to ask for her consent to the nikaah. She will go to the dargah which has become her weekly (every Thursday, what a coincidence!) rendezvous with Yusuf. He will be there, he will help.
Bilquees tries her best to stop Zeenat, but fails. Zeenat scurries off dargah-wards, and Bilquees hurriedly gathers up some pillows, leans them against the headboard of the bed, and drapes some bridal finery over the entire lot [where did she get another shahi joda from? Did Zeenat order two sets of gold-embroidered red outfits for her wedding? Just in case?]. She then pretends – to anybody who tries to enter, which basically consists of Kariman Bua and some female guests [Allah knows who, considering Nawab Sahib’s request] – that Zeenat is a little unwell and would like to be left alone.
Zeenat, meanwhile, unaware that her beloved is away in Allahabad, wanders frantically about the dargah, trying to find Yusuf. She cannot, of course, and finally faints, right there. Fortunately, a group of women camping out at the dargah come to her rescue and take her aside, where they watch over her for the next few hours [a fainting spell that lasts a few hours? Frightening]…
…while, back home, poor Bilquees’s defences have fallen before Kariman Bua, who has barged in and discovered for herself what has happened. Barely has Kariman begun to wring her hands and screech than the vakil and the witnesses turn up outside the room, accompanied by Zeenat’s father. The vakil and his gang of witnesses stand outside while the vakil asks Zeenat if she will accept Nawab Sikandar Mirza as her husband, blah blah [it’s a long question; very long]. When there is no response, Zeenat’s father goes in to urge his ‘shy daughter’ (as he imagines) to answer.
With, of course, the expected result: he is horrorstruck to discover that Zeenat is missing. His nerves are all shot to pieces, what with Kariman’s frantic babbling and Bilquees’s tearful admission of being an accomplice – though, she repeats (and this Zeenat had promised too, if for some reason she was unable to find Yusuf): Zeenat should be back at any moment now.
She isn’t, and outside, the vakil has already asked his question twice and is getting restive. Nawab Sultan Miyan, desperate, falls at Bilquees’s feet, begging her – though he doesn’t say so – to at least say a proxy ‘yes’ on Zeenat’s behalf [this old man has obviously not been watching too many Hindi films. If he’d done his bit of movie-watching, he’d have had the presence of mind to utter a high-pitched squeak of “Haan!” and immediately follow it up with a rumbling “Bahut acchha, beti!” in his own voice].
Bilquees, taken aback to find Nawab Sahib falling at her feet, utters a startled “Huh?” which the vakil [either a little hard of hearing, or getting too impatient; possibly both] interprets as “Haan”’. He and the witnesses troop away, relieved and happy, back to the rest of the party, and the wedding is accomplished. Zeenat – without ever having been there – is now married to Nawab Sikandar Mirza.
Of course, when the doli arrives at Sikandar Mirza’s house and he reaches in to help his bride out, it’s to discover that the doli is empty. His first thought is of his own honour: what will people say? So, with the connivance of Suraiya, he spreads the word among all the waiting janta that Begum Sahiba is unwell [Zeenat is acquiring quite a reputation as an invalid, possibly a malingerer]. The doli is carried right into the zenana, and Suraiya takes over, pretending to look after a non-existent bhabhi.
But how long will this masquerade last? Nawab Sikandar Mirza’s honour and his standing in society are very important to him; he must not let it be known that his bride, far from never coming to his house, wasn’t even present at the wedding. Yet, what of Zeenat? Zeenat, coming awake at midnight in the dargah and realizing that she has let down her father and broken her promise? She is, as far as society is concerned, married. But she isn’t, not really, since she wasn’t even there. And her heart is still the absent Yusuf’s.
What I liked about this film:
The story, by Jan Nisar Akhtar (who also produced the film). It’s a fast-paced, engrossing story, with some unexpected twists and turns. And, a special mention of the good use of humour. There isn’t strictly a ‘comic side plot’ in Bahu Begum, but the shenanigans of Johnny Walker’s Achhan (and his fighting cock, Dilawar) provide a refreshing touch of light-heartedness to the proceedings.
The songs, courtesy Sahir Ludhianvi and Roshan. Hum intezaar karenge and Duniya kare sawaal toh hum kya jawaab dein were the ones I was most familiar with (although I had heard Pad gaye jhoole saawan rut aayi too) before I began watching Bahu Begum; I did, however, discover a couple of other songs that I ended up liking. One that I’d never heard before Nikle thhe kahaan jaane ke liye, but it turned out to be lovely: beautiful music, and wonderful lyrics.
What I didn’t like:
The ending – while not something I outright disliked – was not exactly what I’d wanted. I can see that, going by the unspoken rules of Hindi cinema, this was something I should have seen coming, but it wasn’t quite the resolution I’d have liked to the mess in which the characters of Bahu Begum found themselves.
Still, overall, a good film, with some fine acting (Lalita Pawar, too, appears in a small but important role in the latter half of the film), good songs, and enough to keep you engrossed for the duration of the film. Well worth a watch, especially if you like Muslim socials.