1919 was a good year for Hindi film music (though, at the time, Hindi cinema—then only six years old, since Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913—did not know it). Because this year saw the birth of several people who went on to define the music of the industry from the 1940s onwards. From singers like Shamshad Begum and Manna Dey, to music directors like Naushad and Sudhir Phadke—and three of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists: Kaifi Azmi, Rajendra Krishan, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.
When I was reading Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s The Prince Musician, I came across a mention of this film, which I had never heard of. But the songs listed as being part of Sitaaron Se Aage were familiar to me, and both leads—Ashok Kumar and Vyjyanthimala—are among my favourites. Recently, reading HQ Chowdhury’s Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, I was reminded again of Sitaaron Se Aage, and decided it was high time I watched it.
And what a showcase of SD Burman’s music this film is—right from the start. It begins with Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka, with Lattu (Johnny Walker) and his cronies, the pickpockets Bajjarbattu and Nikhattu, going about relieving passersby of their belongings. The three end up outside a theatre, where the superstar actor Rajesh (Ashok Kumar) has just completed yet another highly-acclaimed performance.
Years ago, in the good old days when the single channel on Doordarshan was our main source of entertainment and we therefore watched everything that was telecast, I watched 12 O’Clock. I’d already seen Guru Dutt’s big films—Pyaasa, Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chaand. I assumed, based on those (I had yet to watch Bahurani or Saanjh aur Savera, and had thought Mr & Mrs 55 a flash in the pan), that 12 O’Clock would be along the lines of the serious stuff Guru Dutt churned out.
… which this is not. Because this is one of a handful of the films Guru Dutt acted in but did not direct.
In Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak, there is a scene well into the film which offers a glimpse of both what this film is about and what its tone is like, how it conveys its messages.
Hamid Ahmed (Sanjeev Kumar) is about to leave home for office. His wife Salma (Rehana Sultan) brings him a cup of tea. In a large cage that sits in their room is a mynah which has been mimicking Salma’s voice so perfectly that Hamid has mistaken something it’s said for his wife’s words. Salma, smiling mischievously, points out his error and tells Hamid about a so-called brother of hers from her village.
Salma: ‘… woh kaha karte thhe, “Pinjre mein panchhi ko band karne se bada paap lagta hai”.’ (He used to say, ‘It is a great sin to imprison a bird in a cage.’)
Hamid (smiling): ‘Chhod dene se bhi toh lagta hai.’ (‘Releasing it too can be a sin.’)
Salma: ‘Woh kaise?’ (‘How is that?’)
Hamid: ‘Baahar sainkaron baaz, shikre… koi bhi khaa jaaye.’ (‘There are so many birds of prey outside. Any of them might eat this one up.’)
A scene near the beginning of Oonche Log is an interesting revelation of some of the themes that govern the film, and eventually have a bearing on its climax.
Major Chandrakant (Ashok Kumar) is a blind, widowed ex-officer of the Indian National Army. He now lives in Ooty. One evening, he receives at his home a friend, the school teacher Dhuni Chand (Kanhaiyyalal). There are more dissimilarities than similarities between the two men: Dhuni Chand is poor, barely managing to make ends meet on his salary and what he makes from the odd tuition, while the major is comfortably off, spending his time writing his memoirs.
I can blame my not having watched Bahaaron ke Sapne all these years on my father: when I first expressed an interest in the film because it had been directed by Nasir Husain (back then, a teenaged me associated Nasir Husain only with frothy and entertaining films like Dil Deke Dekho, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, and Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon), my father said, ‘It’s a serious film.’
And that was that. Because, back then, I didn’t care to ask how serious. Anything that smacked of reality rather than escapism was not to be touched with a barge pole.
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.
A lot of my memories of 50s and 60s cinema date back to the 1980s, when almost all the films I watched were those shown on Doordarshan. In the early years, with Doordarshan being the sole channel, my sister and I (our parents were rather more discerning) watched every single Hindi film that was telecast, down to painful stuff like Jai Santoshi Ma and the thoroughly obscure Fauji, with Joginder Singh (who, if I remember correctly, also produced and directed it) in the lead role.
But, to get around to the topic of this post: Abhilasha, not a very well-known film but one which made an impression on me because of two songs I liked a lot. And because it depicted a mother-son relationship that was a little different from the usual.
While watching Pakeezah some months back (and reading Meghnad Desai’s book about the film), I was struck by how fond old Hindi cinema used to be of the motif of the ‘chaste tawaif’. A paradox, seemingly, because how could a woman be a tawaif – a prostitute, to put it bluntly – and be chaste? But films like Pakeezah and Adalat did just that: they portrayed women who lived in kothas, sang (in Adalat) and danced (in Pakeezah) but were ‘good’ women, chaste and pure, women who may have been lusted after by bad men, but who – thanks to fate, good friends and relatives, kind strangers (both human and animal) – were always able to avoid the fate worse than death: of yielding their chastity to a man they were not married to, or weren’t going to eventually marry, even if only in secret.
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.