Noorjehan (1967)

Give me a period film, and I’m willing to give it a shot. If it happens to be set in Mughal India, so much the better. If the cast features people like Meena Kumari, Pradeep Kumar, Rehman, Veena, Lalita Pawar and Nighar Sultana: well, there’s hope that the acting will be passable. And when I realize that the music composer is Roshan: then I’m certainly on for it.

Noorjehan, of course (though Richard would probably question that ‘of course) is about the noblewoman who married the fourth of the Great Mughals, Jahangir. Born in May 1577 and named Mehrunissa, she was the daughter of a man who rose to great prominence in the Mughal court: Itmad-ud-Daulah (‘Pillar of the State’) was the title given to him, and the marriage of Mehrunissa to Jahangir made of Mehrunissa a powerful woman, too. Initially given the title Noormahal (‘Light of the Palace’) by her doting husband, she was subsequently given the title of Noorjehan (‘Light of the World’) and went on to become probably the most influential of imperial consorts in the Mughal dynasty, a wealthy woman in her own right, as well as a woman who exercised a good deal of power from beyond the purdah.

pic1

I was curious to see how faithful Hindi cinema would be to the character (or what is known of it) of Noorjehan, which was another reason for my wanting to watch it.

The film begins somewhere near Qandahar, where a caravan is passing through the desert, when it chances upon a baby girl lying on the sand, guarded by a cobra. The snake [how very perspicacious] senses that these men intend no harm to the baby, and slithers away. The men are awestruck, and the leader of them, an old man of some eminence, predicts that this baby will be very fortunate. More practically, however, he realizes that she needs sustenance right now, so he hurries towards Qandahar, where hopefully they will be able to find a wet nurse to feed the baby.

pic2

Instead, in Qandahar, the old man runs into an acquaintance, Mirza Ghiyas Begh (Wasti), who has just arrived in Qandahar with his wife (Veena). Mirza Ghiyas Begh is distraught: he tells his old friend that his wife had given birth to a baby girl three days ago, but the infant has been lost [the role of Mirza Ghiyas Begh’s wife should’ve been played by Nirupa Roy rather than Veena].

The old man is happy to reunite the much relieved parents with their baby, and he is the one who suggests that Mirza Ghiyas Begh:
(a) Name the baby Mehrunissa
(b) Accompany him to Agra, where Akbar rules and where Mirza Ghiyas Begh is bound to receive a warm welcome.

pic3

The latter proves correct, because when the scene shifts to Agra and we are introduced to Akbar (Rehman), he is pleased to be informed of Mirza Ghiyas Begh’s arrival. Years ago, when Akbar’s father, Humayun, had been dethroned by Sher Shah Suri and had been reduced to wandering about Persia, one of his few friends had been the father of Mirza Ghiyas Begh. The father had helped Humayun and stood by him; now that the son has come to Agra, Humayun’s son has an opportunity to repay that debt.

pic4

So Mirza Ghiyas Begh is made a courtier and given a high post; and—in a couple of scenes—we find that years have passed. Mehrunissa has now grown up (to be Meena Kumari) and Akbar’s son, Salim ‘Sheikhu Baba’, as he’s affectionately addressed by all his family (Pradeep Kumar, who else? He could probably have done these period films in his sleep) is grown up but not as devoted to kingship and administration as Akbar would like him to be.

One day in spring Mehrunissa goes out with her friends, and sings of the beauty of the season. Salim gets to know of her song—or rather, her poetry—and is so smitten that he orders a servitor (Johnny Walker) to arrange for him to meet Mehrunissa; he is eager to see her.
With the help of a court dancer named Dilruba (Helen), a plan is set up: Dilruba promises that she will contact Mehrunissa and invite her out to the gardens. Salim should be there at the same time; he will get to meet Mehrunissa…

pic5

…which he does [and it is, as one would expect from a Hindi film, love at first sight]. Sadly for Salim, the meeting is all too brief: a maid comes along, addressing him by his title [thus letting Mehrunissa know who her admirer is] and telling him that the Empress is summoning him.

pic6

Fortunately for Salim, the fact that Mirza Ghiyas Begh is such a high-ranking official means that there is a chance he will get to catch the occasional glimpse of Mehrunissa. A few days later, he notices Mehrunissa accompanying her mother into the chambers of the Dowager Empress, Mariam Makani (Lalita Pawar). Salim hurries after them, making the excuse—to his grandmother—that he hasn’t visited her for a while, so came along to greet her.

pic7

To his discomfiture, his grandmother sees this as a matter of some urgency; Salim never visits her, so if he’s come, it must be urgent indeed.  She graciously dismisses her guests, who now go to pay their respects to the Empress, Jodha Bai (Nighar Sultana). Here too, a huffing and puffing Salim, longing to greet his mother because he’s been neglecting her all this while, arrives. And, as did Mariam Makani, so does Jodhaa: she dismisses her guests so that she can spend some time with her son.

pic8

Next, the two women go to salute the Emperor, with Salim following in their wake. Akbar, however, sees through his son’s flimsy excuse; he dismisses the women, and orders them to leave through this gate, not that one [where he’s seen Salim surreptitiously position himself]. When Mehrunissa and her mother have gone, Akbar gives Salim a stern warning: as the heir, he should be focussing his energies on matters of state. He also tells Salim that the rebellious Pathans of Gujarat will need to be put down, so that is likely to be a task that will soon be entrusted to Salim.

pic9

But Salim is a firm believer in that old adage about ‘in one ear and out the other’: the very next opportunity he gets, he meets Mehrunissa again—at an outdoor party, where Dilruba manages to get all the young women involved in a game of hide-and-seek, with a blind-folded Mehrunissa quickly teased and lured into a secluded corner of the garden where Salim can talk to her. Mehrunissa returns Salim’s love, but also tells him that this cannot be: he is a prince, she nothing. Nobody will let them be together. Salim brushes aside that protest…

pic10

… and continues to meet her. One night, Mehrunissa is disturbed to realize that someone, cloaked in black, has been watching them all this while. And one day, as they sit in the Sheesh Mahal, watching a performance by Dilruba and another dancer, they do not realize that someone is keeping an eye on them again. [In my opinion, the Sheesh Mahal, part of the imperial palace, is hardly a discreet place to be carrying on an affair].

pic11

The result of this is soon manifested. Salim overhears a group of noblemen discussing his affair with Mehrunissa; they disapprove of it, and express a desire to have the relationship ended. Salim storms in and gives them a piece of his mind, but it has little effect. The noblemen petition the Emperor to order Mehrunissa’s father, Mirza Ghiyas Begh, to get his daughter married as soon as possible.

Mirza Ghiyas Begh, on receiving the Emperor’s command, consults his wife, and the only suitable candidate she can suggest is their current house guest. This is Ali Quli Khan (Sheikh Mukhtar), a Persian nobleman who has now come to Agra. Mirza Ghiyas Begh thinks it’s a great idea.

Not so Salim, who, when he discovers what’s afoot, flies into a rage and vows to kill Ali Quli Khan before he can get within arm’s reach of Mehrunissa. To this end, Salim orders a tiger hunt to be organized, and takes along a beautiful new matchlock that a friend has gifted him.

Just as Salim is taking aim to shoot Ali Quli Khan (who is seated on another elephant and completely oblivious), a tiger bounds out and carries off one of the men on foot. Ali Quli Khan jumps down from his elephant and wrestles the tiger, finally strangling it to death. Salim is so impressed that he forgets all about his vow. He expresses great admiration for Ali Quli Khan and bestows a new name on him: Sher Afghan.

pic12

The plot now gathers greater momentum. The Pathans in Gujarat have by now grown so obstreperous that Akbar sends Salim off at the head of the Mughal troops to suppress them. And, while Salim is away putting the Pathans in their place, Mehrunissa is married to Sher Afghan, who has been appointed Subedar of Bengal and been sent off to Burdwan.

pic13

What now? How does Mehrunissa go from being tucked away in Burdwan, as the wife of Sher Afghan, to being the royal consort, the Empress?

From my experiences of Hindi cinema and its penchant for trying to fit everything to centre around a romance, I hadn’t expected this film to be too different. Which was just as well, because here, too, the romance between Mehrunissa/Noorjehan and Salim/Jahangir is what forms the pivot of the entire tale. Not unpleasant, not boring—but with much wasted potential.

What I liked about this film:

What I’d expected to like: the music, composed by Roshan to lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni. There are several songs which I liked a lot, but my favourites are Allah, Allah kitne pyaare din aa gaye, Sharaabi-sharaabi yeh saawan ka mausam, and Aap jabse kareeb aaye hain. All vintage Roshan, and beautifully sung.

Most of the acting, and two scenes in particular, both of which feature women (and show the respective women in a good light—as powerful, strong-willed individuals). The first scene is one featuring Mariam Makaani confronting her grandson Salim; the second is of Mehrunissa going to court to demand justice. Both are powerful scenes in their own way, and show the respective women as interesting characters, willing to stand up for themselves and for what they believe is right.

(And yes, there is good old Sohrab Modi, as a magistrate. Which historical worth its salt would be complete without at least a guest appearance by this man?)

pic14

What I didn’t like:

The acting is good, but one grouse I had was that several talents were wasted. Veena, for instance (who did such a magnificent job as Noorjehan herself in Taj Mahal), has barely a few lines of dialogue and only a couple of scenes to her credit—nothing, in short, that really justifies having an actress of her calibre in the film. It’s the same with poor Johnny Walker, who’s so much fun, but has barely anything to do except a couple of very brief comic scenes.

Talking about the comedy, too, I realize humour was considered almost de rigueur in Hindi cinema back then, but I’ve seen few films use it well as a side plot. Noorjehan isn’t one of them. Along with Johnny Walker stuck in that too-short role as Salim’s servant, there’s Mukri as Arsalan (Sher Afghan’s servant) and Tuntun as Arsalan’s wife (subjected to much sizeist scorn). There are isolated episodes involving these people, none of them complete or very coherent, and none adding in any way to the plot or even providing any real comic relief.

The second thing (and no, this didn’t come as a surprise) was the lack of historical accuracy, the easy way in which romance has been made the focus of the entire plot. It is true that Mehrunissa was married to Sher Afghan and that Jahangir married her (though after a good long wait—of four years) after Sher Afghan died; but there are other details that the film pushes under the carpet or dramatizes or otherwise glosses over in order to make it more to the taste of the typical Indian audience of the 60s.

For example, there is no mention made of the fact that Jahangir already did have many wives (Mehrunissa was his twentieth and last) before he married her. Also, there is the unsavoury theory—not confirmed, but definitely thrown about—that Sher Afghan was killed at the orders of Jahangir. And that it may just have been possible that Salim met and fell in love with Mehrunissa when she was already a married woman (though, to give credit where it is due, another theory is that Salim knew and loved her from before she got married to Sher Afghan at the age of seventeen).

What disappointed me more was the lack of emphasis on the character of Noorjehan apart from that of a romantic heroine.

pic15

This woman, after all, is often regarded as one of the most ambitious, charismatic and powerful of women in medieval Indian history—but the only glimpse we get of that steely resolve is towards the end (no, I won’t spoil it by explaining further). An all too brief glimpse, and one which in any case focuses on her more as a devoted wife than anything else. I’d have liked to see more of Noorjehan, the woman who is widely believed to have been the real power behind the throne; the woman who did not just amass a lot of power and wealth during her lifetime, but whose influence continued to be felt in generations to come, as well.

But that may have meant portraying Noorjehan as somewhat flawed, and a less than perfect romantic heroine—and we know that’s not quite how it works in old Hindi cinema.

Still, worth a watch, if you like historicals. The music alone is lovely.

Advertisements

39 thoughts on “Noorjehan (1967)

  1. I watched the movie for Meena and the music. I thought Pradeep Kumar was a weak link. The characters were not too well etched. One of those historicals where just the names of the old kings are used.

    Just ok as a time pass.

  2. I remember watching it for Meena Kumari. :) Besides, at that time, I wasn’t really looking for accuracy – historical or otherwise; now, I think, I have less patience with blatant rewriting of history.

    I agree with you that there was much wasted potential here – how lovely it would have been to have shown Noor Jehan as she was really – a woman who knew how to manipulate her way to maintaining the balance of power, during a time when palace intrigue itself required strategy to survive.

    • “how lovely it would have been to have shown Noor Jehan as she was really”

      Exactly. Here, she comes across as just another mostly wishy-washy female who gives her loyalty where her duty takes her. It would have been satisfying to watch a younger version of the Noorjehan one sees in Taj Mahal: imperious, manipulative, knee-deep in intrigue. But I suppose that wouldn’t make her the ‘acceptable’ Hindi film heroine, and they didn’t have the courage to try to swim against the tide.

  3. Very nice review Madhu didi! Especially the part where you said ‘the plot gains momentum ‘ I actually shifted in my chair in anticipation!

    Have you read the Empire of the Moghul series by Alex Rutherford didi? The fourth part of the series deals with Noor Jehan.. It was a fascinating book.. The author had actually managed to get into the mind of the queen and ended up painting a compelling portrait of her.. Though its difficult to show in a movie I guess.
    I’ve never been a fan of Pradeep Kumar.. though songs puffy rises in him were so lovely.
    And isn’t Sheikh Mukhtar the one who acted in the old movie Bahen? With Nalini Jaywant I think where he tries to stop her getting married.. It was pretty bold for those times, incest and stuff :o
    The director I think was Mehboob Khan
    But lovely review didi :)

    • Thanks, Rahul! I’m glad you liked the review.

      I haven’t read the Alex Rutherford series, even though my husband has got all the books at home and has read them. It was a deliberate decision on my part, because I didn’t want the books to even inadvertently influence my writing of the Muzaffar Jang series,

      I haven’t seen Bahen (though it sounds interestingly avant garde!), but Sheikh Mukhtar also acted in (and as) Changez Khan and in Qaidi No. 911. He also acted – though not as the lead – in one of the most interesting films from the 40s that I’ve seen, Roti.

  4. This is all lovely. But surely there is a paper/book out there, explaining and deconstructing the Bollywood Mughal universe ? I mean, how all these Mughal period films share some common tropes, how and at what points they completely depart from history and why? How mythology, folklores, popular history and actual history intersect and at what points they completely depart. This whole thing cries out for a dissertation, no ? :)

    • “This whole thing cries out for a dissertation, no ? :).

      It absolutely does! I think a lot of the tropes that Hindi cinema uses when it comes to Mughal period films draw from legend and folklore – for instance, in this film, the naming of Ali Quli Khan as Sher Afghan is based on popular stories that he had saved Salim from a tiger and so was given this title. Whether it’s actually true or not is questionable.

      The problem, i think, lies in the fact that this was all so far back in history – and the less ‘political’, therefore less well-documented, of events – have probably evolved out of rumours. And some of those have become so common that few people even bother to think twice. I remember, when I was writing the third Muzaffar Jang book, Engraved in Stone (which uses the Taj Mahal as part of the scene of crime), my editor said, “You’ve described the Taj Mahal and its construction in so much detail. Shouldn’t you mention somewhere that common belief that Shahjahan got the hands of the workmen cut off?” I actually had to put in a little bit in the book about that, following it up with a logical dispelling of that myth.

      • Oh yes, the tiger-fight story. Isn’t the same attributed to the naming of Sher Shah Suri as well, how he was mere general, Farid Khan, before killing a tiger with bare hands? And what is with these mythical female characters like Anarkali or even Jodha? Also, the language in these films, so completely different from what they actually spoke!
        I would love to read your books but don’t we all need a historically accurate Mughal film too, where Salim is speaking Braj Bhasha :D

        • I’ve actually mentioned something about Anarkali and the possibility of her not being completely fictitious in my reply to Shalini’s comment. Have a look at that – it’s interesting. :-D

          As for Jodhaa, nobody seems to be absolutely certain who she was, hai na? I remember the huge row kicked up when Jodhaa-Akbar was released, with various people up in arms about who Jodhaa was married to (or not). But she apparently was a very real woman, no myth, and research does seem to suggest she was married to Akbar.

          As for language… ah, well. I suppose that liberty has to be taken, since so many languages were prevalent even in a city like Delhi – other than the ‘link language’, Persian – that it’s probably best to use just Urdu and bridge all those gaps.

  5. You make a great point Madhu – given the title of the movie, it is both a little ironic and disappointing that the film ends just when Mehrunissa has finally become NoorJehan! That said, I enjoyed “NoorJehan”‘ for all the reasons you cite – the music, the performances, the setting and the production values (I don’t think this was a cheaply-made film).
    As an aside I always found it funny that a fictional love was conjured for Salim (Anarkali) when he had a real-life grand passion in NoorJehan. While on the Mughals and Meena K and Pradeep Kumar, have you seen Adl-e-Jhangir? Good movie.

    • Thank you, Shalini! I think it was you who first pointed me to this film – so thank you for that, too.

      It is ironic that just when Mehrunissa becomes Noorjehan, the film ends. It would’ve been good (as in Taj Mahal) for the love story to find its successful culmination midway through the film, so that the rest of the film could be devoted to other plot elements.

      Interestingly, that story about Salim and Anarkali may not be completely fictional. I remember, when my father was doing research on Jahangir some years back for a book he was writing, he came across a mention in a foreign traveller’s account of a woman named ‘Immequali’ who was said to have had an affair with the prince. (Considering the way these firangs botched up Indian names, Immequali could well have been Anarkali – especially as the prince in question was definitely Salim). I don’t recall who the traveller was; some Englishman, if I remember correctly…

      I haven’t seen Adl-e-Jahangir. No thank you for increasing the length of my wishlist! :-D

  6. A period film, Meena Kumari, Roshan’s music.. I don’t know how I missed watching this one. Sounds like a worthwhile watch even if the events presented are more fictional than truth. However, I always wondered how much of the Mughal history as we know it is real and how much fictional / movie fiction. Are there written records of the Mughal empire as it was ? Or just surface events as we were taught in school, a chronological order of the rulers and their achievements.

    • You should watch this, Neeru. It’s pleasant enough viewing, even if not completely accurate.

      Oh, yes, there’s a lot of written material about the Mughal empire as it was. There are written accounts from people of that period – sometimes biographies written by eminent personalities (Jahangir’s autobiography, Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri is one); sometimes commissioned accounts of reigns (which tend to be biased in favour of the ruler – Akbarnama, Jahangirnama; a delightfully personal account is that of Gulbadan Begum, Akbar’s aunt, whom Akbar had requested to write down her memoirs), sometimes accounts by foreign travellers – Niccolao Manucci,Tavernier, Bernier, etc – who visited and wrote down their experiences.

      I think all of these are available in English translations (sections of some of them – like Tavernier’s diaries – for free online).

      http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/tavernier/

      Plus, there are some brilliant scholars, like Anne-Marie Schimmel, Irfan Habib, Abraham Eraly and Ebba Koch, who specialize in the non-political aspects of the Mughal empire: art, society, food, culture, clothing, technology, lots of interesting stuff. I get most of my facts for the Muzaffar Jang series from the books by scholars like these.

      • Thank you so much for the link and other information. Last I had a history class was in 8th grade. I have more interest in our country’s history now than when I was younger.

        • I suppose I’m a little more crazy about history than most people… it runs in the family. My sister’s a historian, and even I ended up studying history all the way till I graduated.

      • there is a famous saying for noor jehan and i think it is a dialogue in safar too. that jhaangir ney ek pyaali sharab k liye aur ek seek kebab k liye hindustan ka takht noor jehan ko de diya. and whenever i think about royalty , shaahi andaaz. i think about pradeep kumar ji. he once told that he and meena ji had good rapport. and i have realised instead of watching sanjay leela bhansali periodic dramas . i will watch sohrab modi movies. i have weakness for old movies its genuine reason . can’t watch bhansali films. i watched devdas and questioned why i have watched to waste 3 hours?? that made me to ignore baji rao mastani .

        • True, I find Bhansali’s films too pretentious. Devdas was a pain to sit through. Just so much flashiness, so much focus on the look and the prettiness that the story and the acting and the essence of the film get overlooked…

  7. I understand that the film was never commercially released in India . In fact , sheikh mukhtar who was a popular actor and producer of this film , ran away to Pakistan with the print of this film immediately after the films shooting was over and released it in Pakistan where it was a great success . Shaikh mukhtar never returned and died in Pakistan .

  8. “The second thing (and no, this didn’t come as a surprise) was the lack of historical accuracy”

    As much as I like period films, I struggle with reconciling the historical facts and the thought that this is how the director perceived the event which may not be entirely accurate makes me a bit biased to begin with..

    Unfortunately it (hindi period films, in general) also means dealing with Pradeep Kumar (who loves wrist-band) or Bharat Bhushan (who loves band-aid) both put me off especially when it comes to songs (they make no effort to even simulate the degree of difficulty that the song they are “singing” deserves).

    Having said all that, Mehrunnisa/NoorJehan is such an impressive character that I might still watch it..

    Your review is fatntastic, as always! Thank you..

    • I agree about Pradeep Kumar and Bharat Bhushan being major deterrents when it comes to watching Hindi period films. (You could add Mahipal to the list). What I find irritating, though, is that some of the most melodious songs are picturised on them!

      Mehrunissa/Noorjehan is an impressive character, but the problem is that the film doesn’t deal with the impressiveness of her (I think Veena was a far more interesting Noorjehan in Taj Mahal). This film really makes Mehrunissa (she doesn’t become Noorjehan until the last scene) a romantic leading lady. And pretty wishy-washy, too, though there is a climactic scene which is a bit of a saving grace and does show a glimpse of how steely Mehrunissa could be. Sadly, just one scene.

      Glad you liked the review, Ashish! Thank you. :-)

  9. Madhuji,

    Interesting review. However, more than the review, it was the comments section that really was very interesting. An entertaining way to brush up our fading knowledge of ancient India. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s