On 31st March, 1972, a Good Friday, Meena Kumari died, after a long and painful battle with cirrhosis of the liver. She had been admitted to St Elizabeth’s Nursing Home in Bombay on 28th March, and died three days later surrounded by the people who had played an important part in her life, both personal and professional. Her sisters Khursheed and Madhu; her estranged husband Kamal Amrohi; and various luminaries of the film world, including Begum Para and Kammo, from whose house the Aab-e-Zamzam (holy water from Mecca) was fetched to be spooned into Meena Kumari’s mouth as she was dying.
Over the next few days and weeks and months, Meena Kumari’s name dominated Hindi film news. Her magnum opus, Pakeezah, had just been released, having been 15 years in the making; Meena Kumari’s death served to make the film a success: thousands went to watch Pakeezah simply as a way of paying tribute to the much-loved actress. Praise was lavished on ‘India’s greatest tragedienne’ and there was much speculation about who, really, was responsible for her lifelong misery, and the alcoholism that had finally taken her life. People who had worked with her—co-actors, directors, and others—paid homage.
And Vinod Mehta, based on the success of a book he’d already written (not a biography) was asked if he would be up to writing Meena Kumari’s biography.
Less than a week after Chitalkar Ramachandra was born in Maharashtra, on January 17, 1918, in the town of Amroha (in north-west Uttar Pradesh) was born, into a wealthy family of landowners, Syed Amir Haider Kamal Naqvi. Syed (or Kamal, as it probably more appropriate to refer to him) began writing Urdu stories at a young age and harboured a dream of making them into films—a dream quickly shot down by a father who did not think cinema a worthwhile profession. Faced with the prospect of having to manage the family’s estates, the 16-year old Kamal sold his sister’s gold bangles to finance his clandestine escape to Lahore. Here, he continued to write stories while studying (at Lahore’s Oriental College) and by managing to have some of these published, was able to finally save up money enough to travel to Bombay.
In 1938, when he was just 21 years old, his story Jailor was adapted to the screen by film-maker Sohrab Modi.
And that was how Kamal Amrohi made an entry into the Hindi film industry. This was the man who would write perhaps the most memorable Urdu dialogues of any film in Hindi film history (Mughal-e-Azam). This was the man who made what is arguably the finest and most memorable Muslim social in Hindi cinema (Pakeezah). This was the man, too, who—even though he directed only five films—made a mark for himself with those films, three of them (Mahal, Pakeezah and Razia Sultan) becoming pretty much cult classics.
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).
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.
Since my last post was about my uncle, the guitarist David Vernon Kumar, it seemed appropriate to devote this post to one of the films for which he played. Mahal, made when my uncle was about 20 years old, featured the hauntingly melodious Aayega aanewaala, the song that shot Lata Mangeshkar into the limelight – also a song, which, if you listen carefully, has some beautiful guitar notes. Played by my Vernie tau.