During the classic and retro era of Hindi film, not many of the stories of the films back then revolved around female characters, not all the Hindi film heroines could get the opportunities to act in the lead role, not all female characters were equally emphasized as those of the male ones or did get enough of the limelight. Meena Kumari, Nargis, Madhu bala, Vyjayanthimala were among the few eminent actresses who did the leading female roles in their time when Raj Kapoor, Deelip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Ashok Kumar and other eminent actors ruled the Bollywood film industry and box offices with flying colors. It was not quite a cakewalk for the female actresses of that time who struggled hard and successfully proved their abilities and acting capabilities in Bollywood.
Meena Kumari was a leading actress of her time and beyond. Her graceful and glamorous on screen appearance and perfectly flawless acting were the key success factors in her films. Over the years her charm, appeal, style and her charisma have not faded a bit. The fascination for her legendary films is beyond time. In most of her films Meena Kumari played the lead role as a female artist and the stories revolved around the strong female characters that she played. The strength of those characters came from their morality, sensibility, honesty, integrity, sincerity and other virtues. Those characters were strong, desirable, responsible and yet they had their natural soft and feminine sides. They were independent, lonely yet they longed for love. The characters that she played were unique in their own ways. She worked in some legendary films which later created history in Indian Film Industry. Not only for her flawless acting, but also for her personal beauty care, dress designs, hair-do and makeup she is renowned for. She had a different way of makeup and hair styles that she initiated in Bollywood. The Smokey eyes, stylish and classy eye makeup, blush on and contour that we see her using onscreen was beautiful and exotic and has its evergreen appeal. She used to be her own makeup artist and costume designer. In many of her films including Pakeezah, she worked as the dress designer as well. She had a fascination for Sarees. In Pakeezah she wore beautiful Anarkalis which are made from gorgeous sarees with designed anchals and edges with zarkans, stones, beads and glitters.
She contributed in the set designs of Pakeezah as well.
The undeniable fact to notice in Pakeezah is the marvelous set that was decorated for the shooting, ( Yet another honorable mention would be the set of ‘Mughal e Azam’). Every detail has been taken seriously which is why these films were massive success. Especially, if the viewers watch the set and the background during the song “Inhi logo ne le liya du patta mera” carefully and pay attention, they will understand what I am trying to say.
Why am I discussing about the sets, clothing and costumes used in those films?
Details.. it was all about the details… perfect little things made a big perfect film.
‘Pakeezah’ in one word, is surrealistic.
It is a film written, directed and produced by Kamal Amroohi who was known for his pursuit of perfectionism. The film was released in 1972, though its shooting started nearly 16 years before its release. For different reasons shooting had to be held for years.
Without the beautiful and gorgeous Meena Kumari the story of Pakeeza and its description will be incomplete. Meena Kumari, perhaps the only actress in Bollywood who could do this role so perfectly. ‘Pakeezah’ is a heart touching story of a Lucknow Tawaif (Courtesan) Sahibjaan whose heart is filled with purity. Pakeezah means ‘pure’. Raaj Kumar played the role of Salim Ahmed Khan, love interest of Sahibjaan and also a forest ranger who fell in love with her at first sight of her beautiful feet! The irony is, the sad story of Sahibjaan and tragedy in the conjugal life of Meena Kumari and Kamal Amroohi went in parallel way. Their marital complication was a major reason why the film work was not complete and released in due time. It took 16 years to complete and finally release this film. The making of this film started back in 1936. At one point Meena Kumari and Kamal Amroohi got divorced and then Meena Kumari became a chronic alcoholic. Meanwhile its shooting was paused. The making of Pakeezah remained incomplete.
Years later, Nargis and Sunil Dutt, gifted actor-actress and real life couple of Bollywood requested Meena Kumari to complete its rest of the work with Kamal Amroohi. Despite being severely ill Meena Kumari agreed to do the rest of the shooting of Pakeezah and completed the work. The film was complete, released (1972) and later it became a history in the Indian film industry. But after a few weeks of the release of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari breathed her last at the age of 39.
Gorgeous on- screen presence of actress Meena Kumari is the main magnetism of Pakeezah.
Beautiful songs of Pakeezah sung by Lata Mungeshkar, Mohd. Rafi & Mehdi Hassan created fascination for the film over the years. Inhi logone, Thare Rahiyo, Chalo Dildaar Chalo, Mausam hain ashiquana are some of the very beautiful and melodious songs of Pakeezah. They have been hits and all time favorite since then. The music of this film is by Ghulam Mohammed and Naushad Ali.
“Aaj hum apni duao ka asar dekhenge.. teer e nazar dekhenge…zakhm e jigar dekhenge…”, this heart aching song with meaningful lyric was sung by Sahibjaan as Salim prepares to get married to someone else his family chose for him. With a heart full of agony and despair Sahibjaan accepts his offer to dance in his wedding program. She dances and sings along at the wedding of her lover. She sings, “Today I will see the effect of my prayers…with piercing eyes I shall see…with a wounded soul I shall see”, and dances to the tune. With a wounded yet a strong heart and will force she sings and dances away. To dance her pain away she dances on broken glasses and bleeds, careless to her physical pain she sings to drive away the mental agony. Aj ki raat bachenge to zaher dekhenge… … if tonight I live through this then I will try even the poison… How many are out there who can be strong enough to witness their beloved one getting married to someone else? This is a sign of maturity and mental strength of a woman as she dared to witness the wedding of her beloved one taking place in front of her eyes.
“Chalte chalte …
yun hi koi mil gaya tha …
sare raha chalte chalte….
wo hi thamke rah gayi hain…
meri raat dhalte dhalte..
Jo kahein gayi na mujhse
Wo zamana keh raha hain..”
On the way I met someone …on the way… my night stood steel there..when I met him there..what I could not say, now the whole Earth says that..
Infatuated in the love of the unseen letter writer Sahibjaan sings this song.
Yet another beautiful song from Pakeezah,
Mausam hain ashiqana
Aye dil kahin se unko
Kaise me dhundh la na..
Mausam hain ashiqana
It’s the season of romanticism
with love in the air
My heart, please go and find him
For, this is the season of romance and love ..
Who does not dream of true love? And there is a woman in every courtesan that craves for a beautiful love and a married life, a home where someone waits for her with arms wide open. At first this may seem to be a story too good to be true for an unfortunate girl who lives in a brothel, a prince comes to him and sweeps her feet off the ground and takes her far away from the miserable and painful life. Every girl dreams of this happy ending. There are many scenes in the film that are actually dream scenes, things that can happen only in dreams not in reality. Thus the combination of dream and reality, expectation and disappointment give the film a great climax.
There is a quote delivered by a friend of Sahibjaan, “Yeh paygam to hain lekin ye tere liye nahin hain, Sahibjaan tere paer me shayad us waqt ghungru nahin the.” She tells Sahibjaan that she was infatuating for nothing, and that the writer of the note did not know that Sahibjaan was a courtesan, had he known he would not have asked her to keep her feet off the ground….. Clearly, this bitter truth from this friend and well wisher of Sahibjaan disappointed her and this heartbreak was visible on her face, though she insists.
This is how one weaves dream and then stumbles with the bitter reality.
Another scene, the male protagonist Salim meets sleeping Sahibjaan on a running train. It was 3 am in the morning while he got into that train. It was slight dark in the bogey and she was sleeping with a scarf wrapping her face so he did not see her face clearly. But he saw her beautiful feet. And as the train was running, her feet were stroking him slightly. He left her a note,
After she woke up Sahibjaan found a note at her feet, it said, “Aapke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jayenge.- Aapkaa ek humsafar”[“I have seen your feet. They are very beautiful. Please do not place them on the ground. They will become dirty. — A fellow traveler]
She read the note and kept it with her carefully. This small note started showing her incoherent and beautiful dreams and hopes along with that. This letter keeps her alive in her world where she keeps searching for a light.
But reality is bitter unlike the dream world.
A time comes when she refuses strongly to sing and dance at the mehfils. In the brothel owned and managed by Gauhaar Jaan, somehow a perverted merchant gets in the harem and attempts to force Sahibjaan against her will. Somehow she manages to escape. Before she fell in love she was just another girl from the brothel. But after she fell in love with Salim it changed her, she felt that may be there was a beautiful world waiting outside to welcome her, a world much beautiful than the world she lived in and then she saw a hope that may be for once in her life she could be happy too. She ran away from there to save herself from the merchant and accidentally gets faint and falls in front of a running train. Thinking that someone must have gone under the train the driver stopped it abruptly and crowd came outside to see what happened.
Luckily, Salim (Raaj Kumar) was on that train and Sahibjaan was rescued alive and okay. But being unaware of her identity he shows interest to know more about her and tells her that he looked for her everywhere after she left him where they met for first time. Fearing that her unseen dream might be shattered before beginning, initially she hides her identity on purpose and tells Raaj Kumar that she cannot remember her past.
With Salim she enters the outside world and gains experiences of a different life for a while with different people in a very different world which she eventually finds not so warm and not so welcoming for her.
A courtesan, her love interest, and dream to have a happy ending are not all. It is not that easy perhaps, and then comes the society. She is not accepted in the society made and ruled by men. Even if her lover wants to give her social acceptance his family would not agree to that. A great disappointment and disaster come in the way of dream come true when the former clients of the courtesan bump into her and her lover. She could not bear the scene of her beloved being socially harassed because of her. Her identity makes it difficult for her to live a normal life.
Here , the irony is, her mother was also a courtesan who fell for a man(Ashok Kumar) from a rich and well to do family. Their love affair and marriage could not succeed. They could not live together happily ever after. The social order, bindings and conformist family values did not let them. But the daughter had a different fate from that of her mother. She did have a happy ending after all. She did get married to Salim Ahmed Khan, finally; she did have that dream wedding, a dream wedding that every girl craves for.
The film ends with Sahibjaan going to her groom’s home by a palanquin; a girl standing at the doorway of the “Kotha” sees the palanquin taking Sahibjaan far, far away from the miserable place….The whole thing happen as a dream sequel. Too good to be true it is, right…an ending too good to be true, perhaps; but the ending that every girl dreams of. A dream of a lifetime, a dream worth dying for. Dream comes true of an unfortunate girl with purity in her heart, and that is ‘Pakeezah’, means pure.
We have a sympathy for the women who have to don that kind of life. That is the same reason why we sympathize with the character played by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990). There is a soft corner in our mind for them, deep down, hidden somewhere, though we wouldn’t admit that, not even to ourselves. Because, we will get ‘dirty’, they are ‘cursed’ by our so called social norms and societies. We are too good, too decent, too gentle, too fragile, too clean, too clear, too ‘upper class’, too much prone to ‘dirt’.
Why do we hate them so much? Why does our so called hypocritical society hate them so much? Why? How easily we abuse them, as if those women are not humans. As if they don’t have the right to live. As if they don’t have a brain, two hands, two legs, a heart, a mind, a soul like we do? Don’t they cry? Doesn’t it hurt them? Aren’t they human beings? Aren’t they one of us? Don’t they have the same red blood running through their veins? Why do we consider ourselves ‘better’?Who gave us this permission to think that we are superior? In what way are we the ‘superiors’? As if we took it for granted that we belong to the high class of heaven and they belong to the lowest level of hell, as if the angels came down to earth and whispered this secret to our ears?
If we cannot offer them a good life, cannot rehabilitate them then who are we to curse them and abuse them and point our dirty fingers at them? Who gave us this authority? If they are dirty, then we all are dirty along with our hypocritical mindset, our so called society is dirty.
How easily we segregate them from the rest of us..
As if their lives have no value if we, our so called hypocritical Bourgeoisie society don’t give them respect that they deserve? Why “whore” or “bitch” or ‘hooker” are the most popular abusive words among us, till today? Why is that we hardly find one man on earth who value these women as human beings and respect them? Why do lowkey many men find their lifestyle (having intercourse with different men each night) visually, sexually and sensually so attractive and tempting, why do many men fantasize about having intercourse with them but wouldn’t admit that, why do many men want or they wish that their women acted like them on the bed and took part in erotic sexual rituals with them so they could molest them as much as they wish they could do it to those women and why do many men sniff around their places at nights and curse them in the broad day light? Why?
Let alone men, women are not respectful towards them despite the fact that they are women, too.
We are ….so, so pathetic… aren’t we?
One of the many reasons I admire Meena Kumari is for playing the character of Sahibjan and playing it so beautifully, for the same reason I admire veteran actress Vyjayanthimala for playing the unconventional character in B.R. Chopra’s Sadhna (1958). Making films and acting in such films based on bold and beautiful plots in that era is truly remarkable and undoubtedly praiseworthy. For these are, actually groundbreaking films that play strong and challenging role in changing the conservative (or hypocritical) societies; if not changed entirely then definitely left an immensely strong impact on it or at least pointed at the anomalies of the societies.
Even in today’s Indian films or serials they wouldn’t show marrying off widows so openly and easily. I watch the recent movies and I observe. Even in many modern day movies, if a widow has an affair with a guy they will show that at the end of the story, the lady dies somehow or something tragic happens, they ‘carefully’, ‘intentionally’ and ‘mindfully’ don’t show the happy ending. Which means the society is still not okay or easy with the changes and perhaps it will never be.
It’s funny… how today’s movies show having sex with a stranger or sex before marriage but will hesitate to show ‘Remarriage of a widow’. I remember a movie ‘Kaho na pyaar hain’ it was released 16 or 17 years earlier. It showed, the male and female lead characters who were deeply in love with each other were eventually stranded in an abandoned island but they did not engage in any intercourse. How beautiful was that! They slept under the sky full of stars. It was not physical. It was a pure commercial movie, yet they portrayed it with love and romanticism.
Either over the decade the society has drastically changed or had a cultural downfall or the culture is changing the society. In recent movies the opposite happens. The lead male and female characters engage in intercourse and later they may or may not fall in love. But they will think a million times before showing that a widow is remarrying. This is paradoxical, this attitude. Today, movies have been bold, but in a different way which is anything but positive.
So making positively bold, strong and beautiful films (those were films, not movies) in that era that conveyed important messages to all, of course deserves the heartiest compliments. I will always admire the endeavor of the film makers, the artists, the entire cast and crews and the technicians. These films make an effort to build up the society instead of destroying them.
Benazir (1964) directed by S. Khalil and music by Sachin Dev Burman is another beautiful film starred Meena Kumari as Benazir, Ashoke Kumar as the Nawab saab, Shashi Kapoor as Nawab’s younger brother Anwar, Tanuza and Durga Khote playing the two other important female characters. Benazir starts with the scenes of devastating earthquake that took place in Bihar in early 30s. A guy from neighborhood brought Benazir up as she lost her family in the earthquake. Benazir grows up as a dance artist. Nawab comes from a rich Muslim family who is attracted to Benazir despite being married. He appreciates Benazir’s beauty, charm and her humane qualities. He admires her and wants her more if she agrees to give their relationship a new turn. However he is indifferent to his marriage and ignores his wife. His wife gives birth to their first child. Anwar, his brother visits Nawab on the birth celebration program of the baby boy held at their home. There he falls in love with Tanuza, the sister in law of Nawab.
At this point, Shouket, a distant relative who stays at Nawab’s home creates complications by taking one’s story to another. Shouket is interested in Sahida (Tanuza). Seeing Tanuza and Anwar both falling for each other he creates enmity between two brothers Anwar and Nawab by telling Anwar that Nawab ignores his wife because he has an extra marital affair with Benazir. On the contrary he tells Nawab that Anwar is trying to lure Benazir and developing an affair with her. Nawab loses his nerve as one day accidentally he sees Benazir in Anwar’s arms. He does not find the answer and feels confused thinking why his younger brother is seeing Benazir when he is already in love with Sahida and going to marry her. Benazir, of whom Nawab thought a selfless and virtuous woman gradually started becoming a coquette in his eyes. Ultimately Benazir’s innocence is proved and she helps the family members of Nawab in various ways when they need her help badly. At one point Anwar understands how wrong they all were about Benazir and wants to give her social acceptance and status by marrying her. But it was too late already. She came to know from Nawab that Anwar and Sahida both love each other and Anwar was going to marry Benazir because he owed her and he wanted to give her a social name. Benazir would not let it happen. She cared for them so much that she sacrificed her own love, happiness, dream and life for the wellbeing of Anwar and his family. In the end she went far away from their life so that Anwar and Sahida could live happily ever after.
Benazir is a film written and directed by Bimol Roy. The story is excellent. Film editing has been quite appreciable. The whole film is so well thought-out and scenes are put in a way that the viewers must like and appreciate the film. The direction and cinematography have been excellent.
Meena Kumari’s character in this film is bold, courageous, empathetic and yet charming and graceful. She portrayed this character with gravity, sensibility and thoughtfulness. She is beautiful, sensual and appealing; every man wants her yet she is not a coy. Her kindness is marvelously reflected when Nawab saab fell ill and she not only paid him a visit but also stayed there at his home and prayed for his recovery in the presence of his wife.
On the other hand, teenager Tanuza’s on screen appearance and the juvenile love affair between her character and Shashi Kapoor’s, her constant giggling, laughing with her friend, mischief and constant kidding around were interesting and captivating part of this film as well. (Very few films based on such good stories I have seen were made emphasizing and keeping the teenage audience in mind ). It once again reminded me that teenage and youth is actually timeless. Teenagers and juveniles are same in all era, because they think same, so they act same. They are timeless. You can always relate to them.
Best quote: Hearing bad things about Benazir from Shauket, Nawab was in a dilemma. He could not believe him. But he could not sleep at night. He was talking to his housekeeper. Disturbed and dismantled, he looked troubled. The old housekeeper asked what went wrong. Then Nawab said to him, “Suppose you have a diamond. You know it’s a diamond. But then someone tells you that it is not a diamond in the first place, it is just a piece of glass, a mere replica, then what will you do?”
Then his housekeeper says, “Before believing that ‘someone’, I would first verify if he is actually telling me the truth or not. I would question that ‘someone’ rather than suspecting the diamond.”
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam(1962) is a film directed by Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi. The film was based on ‘Shaheb Bibi Golam’, famous novel of Bimal Mitra, the gifted Bengali writer. Guru Dutt played the role of Atullya Chakrabarty aka Bhootnath(The servant or Gulam), Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu(Bibi), and Rehman as her husband Chhote Sarker(Sahib). The film’s music is by Hemant Kumar and lyrics were by Shakeel Badayuni. Cinematography was by V. K. Murthy.
Meena Kumari as the Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Beyond the traditional relation between a male and a female there is another humane relation; a pure friendship, a bond between two souls that is often misunderstood by the social norms. There is a platonic relation between Chhoti bahu and Bhootnath that has been very beautifully portrayed. It was the time when Zamindari (Haveli dom and feudalism) was decaying, Swadeshi movement against British Raj was going on. Chhote Sarker was alcoholic and like the typical then zamindars more interested in temptress than his beautiful wife at home. But unlike the other zamindars’ wives, Choti Bahu would not give in so easily and she would not stop trying hard to tempt her husband in various ways and bring him back home. Bhootnath was a way for her to connect to the outside world. Bhootnath was more like a soulmate and a friend to her. Bhootnath admired and respected her. She trusted Bhootnath a lot with anything and asked him to do favor to her by bringing “Mohini Sindur” which she believed would bring her husband back to her. Later she also begged Bhootnath to help her get a bottle of wine so that she could portray herself as more interesting and tempting to her husband. Her husband liked women that way. He was not otherwise interested in a typical housewife. But while trying to impress her husband by drinking along with him she herself became alcoholic and could not get rid of wine ultimately. Her effort to please him, restlessness and hopeless agony are obvious in the song, “Na jaoo saiyan, chhora ke baiyan ..kasam tumhari..main ron parungi, ron parungi…” The end of the story was very tragic and it brings tears to one’s eyes.
In this film noticeable things are, the misery of the zamindaars’ wives who were consistently ignored by their husbands and were considered not more than the furniture; the craving that Chhoti Bahu had for her indifferent husband, the way she longed to have him beside her, the tricks that she implied to gain his attention and the way she craved for having him for a night as she could not even see his face for nights after nights. The whispers of indoor-women, their cries and sighs would appear in their songs. From the first conversation between Chhoti Bahu and Bhootnath we can have a glimpse of the inner agony of the zamindaars’ wives, we understand how she and the other indoor women were treated by their husbands.
Chhoti Bahu sent her servant with a message to her beloved husband waited for him to come and pay her a visit. Meanwhile she gets ready and sings a song,
piyaa aiso jiya men samaay gayo re
ki main tan man ki sudh budh gavaan baithi
har aahat pe samajhi vo aay gayo re
jhat ghoonghat men mukhda chhupa baithi
piya aiso jiya men samaay gayo re ……………
She wears a beautiful saree, completes her manicure, pedicure and make up and greets him. Her (Meena Kumari’s) expressions in this song reflect the expectation of a woman and her desires and cravings for her sweetheart.
Bhootnath was a relative of a distant relative (Master) of the zamindars. He stayed at haveli as a part-time servant. He was career driven and had an aim to become an architect. Bhootnath started living at the palace with other servants. In one evening he heard a woman humming inside the palace. It sounded as if someone was in immense pain. Gradually he found that it was Chhoti Bahu and she was a very unfortunate woman. Chhoti bahu considered Bhootnath as a younger brother who is pure and innocent and not touched by narrowness and immorality. Bhootnath’s honesty and simplicity attracted her as she was also a village girl and came to this zamindar house as a bride at a very early age. The character Chhoti Bahu did not have any children of her own. The mother inside her craved for a child and she found a shadow in Bhootnath. In her last conversation with Bhootnath it becomes obvious, as she said to him that he would find a ‘Bahu’ for his Bhootnath soon. The interesting thing about motherhood is, women are naturally motherly and caring. Though Chhoti Bahu and Bhootnath did not have any significant difference in their age yet Chhoti Bahu saw a child in Bhootnath, a child she could never possibly have and probably this was another reason why she cared for Bhootnath so much.
At the end, Chhote Sarker fell ill and he did at some point of time realized that he was wrong, his entire lifestyle and perceptions were wrong. But it was too late. The story ended with ultimate destruction of the zamindars and a very tragic consequence of ill fated Chhoti Bahu.
The exclusive mehfil song add extra glamour to the film. “Saqiyaan aaj mujhe nind nahin aayegi..suna hain teri mehfil mein raat jaga hain..akhon akhon mein yuhi raat guzaar jayegi … suna hain teri mehfil mein raat jaga hain”.. this beautiful and appealing song sung by the evergreen singer Asha Bhosle and performance of the artists were inclusive and remained forever in the heart of the music lovers.
The film was a major critical and commercial success. Meena Kumari‘s performance as Chhoti Bahu is regarded as one of the best performances of Hindi cinema. She won Filmfare Award for Best Actress.
Lastly, we tried to focused on the mesmerizing artist’s three different films of the magical era of Indian film and we don’t know how far we succeeded. I personally admire classic films, irrespective to the country of origin, culture, language, time period because those are like humans and make me wish I was born a little earlier to witness that time and era or if I could travel back in time.
Thank you readers. Have a wonderful life. Enjoy watching good films.