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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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].
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.