Story of Sahibjaan – Day 886

Film: Pakeezah (1972)                                             
Producer/ Director: Kamal Amrohi

Cast: Meena Kumari ,Ashok Kumar ,Raaj Kumar

The story opens on the dance floor. In between a flickering orange flame and a red chandelier looming large into the frame, a dancer swirls in a flowing dress as the narrator in chaste Urdu recounts the story of courtesan Nargis/ Meena Kumari, who makes the tactical error of falling in love. Shahabudin/ Ashok Kumar rescues Nargis from the kotha but is unable to oppose his father who will not accept her as family. She flees to a graveyard in anguish and dies heartbroken after giving birth to a baby girl who is rescued by her aunt and groomed to become a bewitching courtesan, Sahibjaan.

It was a story of the kotha v/s kothi or rather the courtesan v/s the feudal lord. While both lived in sprawling mansions with large families, the home of the feudal lords in this case Ashok Kumar/ Raaj Kumar was a respectable kothi where as the dwelling place of the courtesan/ Meena Kumari was a kotha. The kotha women painted their faces, hands and feet, shampooed their hair in scented ponds, slept on large fragrant beds with frilled pillow covers often hiding secrets and guarded by transparent, musical curtains. In the evening, they dressed and danced on embroidered carpets, accompanied by musicians and surrounded by lanterns. The courtyard blossomed with colorful fountains every time a guest arrived inside the porch riding a horse carriage. The nautch girls had a life before dusk and Pakeezah gave us a glimpse into the bonhomie where they bonded over fun and mischief, borrowed jewels and shared dark secrets.

Unlike the kotha the women in kothis had no voice and moved freely only when the patriarch was away. The feudal lord/ Sapru and his large family spanning three generations ate together sitting in a large circle and slept in common space separated by beds and curtains. The only thing common between the two worlds is tehzeeb and director Kamal Amrohi portrays the diversity in the concluding scene where the two worlds come together in a wedding and a funeral and where Nawabjaan/ Veena breaks down in dignity Sapru full of remorse mourns in silence!

Pakeezah is associated with its poetry and melody. The haunting background score of maestro Naushad Ali and Ibrahim and poetry of Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Kaifi Bhopali and Kamal Amrohi composed in the music of Ghulam Mohmad are songs for a lifetime. A team of choreographers came together to ensure that every dance was distinctly different so while ‘Inhi logo ne…’ and ‘Thade rahiyyo…’ by Lachu Mahrajj concentrates on abhinaya, Gauri Shankar’s ‘Chalte chalte…’ emphasizes on footwork and ‘Aaj hum apni duaaon…’ onpherras essential part of Kathak dance form. Meena Kumari even though grossly overweight and untrained in classical dance through intricate mudras and mercurial expressions addednavrasas in her role as a seductress to a mehfil of admirers.

When Sahibjaan dressed in ornate costume walks with ringing anklets into Gulabi Mahal and settles majestically, your heart misses a beat.  The story travels two eras and both immortalized by love letters. The first, written by Nargis to Shahabuddin/ Ashok Kumar on her death bed and soaked in tears, reaches Ashok Kumar 17 years later. The second written by Salim/ Raj Kumar after he      invades a train compartment and is enamored by the sleeping Sahebjaan and her beautiful feet. The boat ride ferrying the two on a shimmering lake with ‘Chalo dil dar chalo…’ is the most romantic moment in the film.

The whistling, chugging train is a recurrent motif piercing through dramatic moments in the film. Director Kamal Amrohi transforms every frame into a painting. The film was shot in times when real animals/ birds were used and no activists raised objections. The story made references to cities and singers like Gauhar Jaan and no court cases were registered. The heroine wore real jewellery and no brands claimed credit.  Revisiting Pakeezah you realize where Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Rekha find their muse as a filmmaker and as an actor.

Bhawana Somaaya/ Tweets @bhawanasomaaya