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Monday, 7 June 2010

Mesmerising Meena (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam)

I'm upset. In a documentary, aired yesterday, featuring onscreen beauties of the past few decades, a mention of Meena Kumari was conspicuous by its absence. In the 50s, Kumari was a sought-after actor. Her beauty was legendary, her performances superlative. Dexterously handling a variety of roles, Kumari proved that she was definitely bankable. And, those docu-makers turned a blind eye to such an enigmatic personality! What were they thinking? Or not thinking, to be precise...
Miffed sufficiently, I rummaged through my collection to fish out a Meena Kumari classic. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam surfaced. An attempt to explore the mysticism and passion that Kumari portrayed in this 1962 Abrar Alvi classic, a perfect balm! Though we could launch an endless debate on the immaculate portrayal of the decadence of feudalism in Bengal in the late 19th century, my mind focussed on the enigma called Chhoti Bahu, Meena Kumari's best peformance ever.
Based on Bimal Mitra's novel of the same name, this is a fascinating mood movie made by people gifted with acute sensitivity. While Alvi's direction is superb, he had the able assistance of Guru Dutt (the producer) to ensure that the final product was a masterpiece. There is a controversy regarding whether Dutt ghost-directed his protege's film. But on that, we'll deliberate some other day. The nostalgic and poignant drama is peppered with a fabulous score by Hemant Kumar, giving us path-breaking songs by Asha Bhonsle and Geeta Dutt. In the opening credits, there is a mention of Kumar as the male playback singer. In a film that has no songs lipsynced by a male, that looks like a silly mistake!! Whatever...
The film seduces you from the very first frame. A middle-aged architect, Atulya Charkaborty (Guru Dutt), is overseeing the works at a dilapidated old haveli. The eerie fact that he has been to the place before sets him reminiscing. To the haunting strains of Koi door se awaaz de, this architect flashbacks to the haveli's halcyon days.
Here he is Bhootnath, a village simpleton who has just come to this haveli to his relative. He is ignorant of city life and its pushy ways. He is extremely gullible, but good-natured. He gets a job at the nearby Mohini Sindoor factory, where he is attracted to his employer's daughter, Jaba (Waheeda Rehman).
But, back to the haveli, he is drawn to Chhoti Bahu, as he feels for her sorry condition. She is married to the youngest zamindar of the palace, who is disinterested in his wife and seeks entertainment at brothels from the enticing nautch girls (a done thing the Babus those days). He spends his days and nights in a drunken stupor and neglects his wife. Bhootnath discovers that Chhoti Bahu is a very beautiful but a very lonely woman. She requests him to bring her a box of Mohini sindoor that she thinks has magical properties. She believes its application will help her garner the love of her estranged husband. But...
Bhootnath and Chhoti Bahu come close, and if I may say, form a platonic relationship of understanding and trust. This enables Bhootnath to see the life of Chhoti Bahu through her perspective, the life she is doomed to live.
The film has Meena Kumari as its magnetic centre. She plays the complex, flawed but spirited Chhoti Bahu. She is the stunning wife in a feudal era who chafes at the bonds constricting her. She eventually crumbles due to a hopeless love and a debilitating addiction, but depicts that there can be dignity even in desperation.
Meena Kumari is a cinematographer's delight. The first scene where we are introduced to Chhoti Bahu, the camera moves from her feet to her face. Her feet are like the lotus, painted with aalta (traditional red paint that is used to decorate a bride's feet) and embellished with the payal. Then the camera moves to her face...sigh...
She is a beautiful vision, an ethereal charm, her eyes will invigorate like the madeira. Resplendant in a benarasi silk and gold jewellery, Meena Kumari is what dreams are made of... Her voice has that soft yet exciting pitch and her smile has the allure that lovers swear by...
In the song Pia aiso jia mein, Geeta Dutt suffuses a kind of deliciousness in her voice. Getting all dressed up to meet her husband, she is the epitomy of grace. The song is a poignant exploration of a woman's expectations and sexual desire. With the sindoor on her hair parting and a big bindi on her fair forehead, she looks like a devi. When those curly ringlets envelope her perfectly oval face, you can't take your eyes off her...Fascinating!
If this song has an heavy undertone of desire, Na jao saaiya is a signature of sadness and desperation. The scene where Chhoti Bahu is forced to drink alcohol by her cruel husband, played impeccably by Rehman, is the most heartwrenching. She gasps, stroking her neck, tortured by the burning sensation that the spirit hits her with, we empathise with this divine woman as she unwillingly walks down the aisle to her end.
And then, the musical masterpiece. Never ever had an inebriated woman looked so enchanting. Kumari's disheveled hair accentuate her perfectly melancholic face. Her eyes, mirroring her tormented heart, are absolutely intoxicating... When she sings, "Jo humse nazrey chura rahe ho, to hamari itni araj bhi sunlo", you can relate to her plea. She has almost given up her life and honour for this indifferent man. Is a little bit of attention and love too much to expect?
Even after that humungous moral sacrifice for the sake of getting some attention and affection from her husband, Chhoti Bahu is left alone. Rehman is bored of his gorgeous wife's company. It is then that you see the lovely wife transform into a ranting tigress accusing her husband for her misfortune and barren life. She angrily tells him how she has prostituted her basic values and morals to please him...
In the last few sequences where we see the haveli shorn of its majesticity and regal aura, Meena Kumari is a representation of the destruction that is about to hit the zamindar family. Instead of her rich attires, she is wearing plain sarees. Most of her shiny ornaments are gone. She has to barter her bangle for alcohol...
V.K Murthy's cinematography is astounding. Note how Minoo Mumtaz is bathed in light while the dancing girls stay cloaked in shadow in the song Saqiya aaj mujhey. Astute art direction create the period atmosphere in an authentic manner. Rival zamindars exhort their pigeons to fight each other while freedom fighters battle the British. The shallowness of the zamindars's lives could not have been underlined better.
Now coming to Guru Dutt. The most fascinating aspect of this fluidly-narrated film is the bonding between Bhootnath and Chhoti Bahu. Replete with emotional highs, the nature of their ambiguous relationship is subject to interpretations. Bhootnath's feelings for his Chhoti Bahu often give rise to a stab of jealousy in Jaba's heart. For, she is not able to comprehend the relationship in a clear light. Bhootnath's transformation, though subtle, from an apprehensive simpleton to a stronger person, happens through his interactions with Chhoti Bahu. He ultimately musters up the courage to jolt her into realising that she should not drink. But, he is too stunned with her scathing remark, "Tu ne mujhey haat lagaya, ek paraya stree ko haath lagaya..." Though totally considerate of her sacrifice, Bhootnath's respect for this woman is a tad dimmed... He realises that her end, though slow, is inevitable now...
Jaba, Bhootnath's sweetheart, is the naughty and mirthful contrast to Chhoti Bahu's dejection. In the song Bhavra bada nadaan hain, she teases her prospective lover. She playfully fights with him, knowing that he is too meek to talk back, but in her heart she is already smitten. She is the one who eggs him on to realise that he too loves her. Initially a bit rude, Jaba softens once she meets her match in the now wise Bhootnath. She sings another lovely melancholic number, Kuch baat rahi mere man ki...Awesome music!!
I read some trivia regarding Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Guru Dutt often toyed with the idea is introducing Biswajit into Hindi films as Bhootnath. Thank God, good sense prevailed...
Also, Waheeda Rehman wanted to play Chhoti Bahu. But Guru Dutt was adamant and cast Meena Kumari in the role. For, he said that Waheeda was too young for the role. Don't know about that. But, without Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam would have been empty and half-hearted. Almost like aam ras without the essential sugar...


  1. @Feral child: Total Recall on Times Now!! :)

  2. Hi Sharmi,
    Very pleasant take on that most ambiguous and profound of triangles, even quadrangles! I wonder whether you might not have said something about the title, and its obvious desire-filled abysses...
    I'd love you to come and tell me what you thought about my reactions to the movie (
    Thanks again,

  3. Ah, another of my favourite films! I reviewed this a while back, too, and reading your review brought it all back to me. One of those utterly haunting films that stay with you long after you've seen them.

    BTW, a coincidence: didn't Uttam Kumar act in a Bangla version of the same story, as Bhootnath?

  4. @Sharmi: Fascinating write-up of a fascinating movie.
    Though there’s no extra spark in the portrayal of the rotting babu culture in Bengal (many Bengali films have done it better) there’s novelty in the sensuous visualization of chhotibahu, divorced from reality --- much like the babus themselves --- and hurtling towards self-destruction.
    Though Bimal Mitra had made the job easy for the director, it’s commendable for Alvi and the cinematographer to delicately romanticize chhotibahu's masochism with a pervading sense of gloom and doom.
    I feel this film divides viewers along the lines of gender: a woman is bound to feel more deeply for chhotibahu than his male counterpart. It’s natural. Just see the song Pia eiso jia... --- where her shringer is poetically portrayed --- and you understand how differently our brains are wired. Similarly, for a male viewer, Na jao saiya... is a very beautiful song; for a woman, it’s a vicarious last-ditch appeal on which hinges her life and death.

  5. @Yves: Thanks for your comment Yves. You know, it is a nice angle that you have talked about, the title..hmmm. That the unfortunate Bibi takes refuge in the care and kind words of the ghulam, is of course another way of looking at the triangle. I'm off to read your write-up. Will let you know what I think. Cheers :)

  6. @Dustedoff: Yes Madhulika, Uttam Kumar was Bhootnath in the Bengali version of this film made in 1956. Chhoti Bahu there was played by Sumitra Devi (my mother says she was breathtakingly beautiful). I remember only patches of that film.
    She also played the drunken man's wife in Raj Kapoor's Jagte Raho. She was quite a known Bengali actress and then eventually went to Bombay to do some Hindi films.
    Ya, you're right. The film stays on with you long after it's over. It's so beautifully tragic and haunting. Thanks for the comment. I'll read your write-up on it and let you know. Cheers :)

  7. @Dwaipayan: Fantastic comment. You are right. The way a man looks at Chhoti Bahu's appeal will be diametrically opposite to how a woman looks at her. Great write-up by you, great analysis. Thank you :)

  8. The unfaithful husband, the love-lorn wife and the devoted servant...what an awesome combination. But the film truly belongs to Meena Kumari. Her stellar and mesmerising performance has glorified pain and agony of a woman who desperately wants her unfaithful husband's affection and attention. She doesn't mind stooping low to win him over, but fails miserably. She's vulnerable and dejected, but yet strong enough to abandon her hang-ups about alcohol. She even starts drinking to please her indifferent husband. Love is, I guess, more intoxicating than spirit. And she was high on both to have met a tragic end. The scene where years later Bhootnath (the architect) discovers Chhoti Bahu's bangles from the ruins of the haveli is very poignant and conveys how she must have been abducted, killed and then buried there. I must say, your review is as good as Meena Kumari's performance, and it is indeed a pleasure to read. Keep writing!!! Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool next?

  9. @Sharmi: Just wondering... What would've been the outcome had this film been directed by Ray...
    He did deal with obsessions: Monimala's OCD (in Monihara, one of the trilogies of Teen Kanya), makes her lust for jewellery more than her life. It hastens her end just like Chhotibahu, though in a different context, pays the price of the lethal cocktail of extreme devotion and alcohol.
    The scene in which Bhootnath stumbles on the skeletal remains of Chhotibahu with a gold bangle still intact in her right hand reminds one of the climactic scene in Monihara in which Phanibhushan finds her dead wife's skeletal hands, still decked in jewellery, making a go at the gem box by his bed.
    Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was released in 1962; Monihara a year earlier. Ray's first attempt to depict OCD on screen was his 1960 film Devi, in which the father-in-law of a teenage bride deitifies her as Devi or God and which ends in her (Sharmila Thakur) --- presumably losing her mental balance --- vanishing in the mist...
    Apart from all similarities, all the three films show the decadence of the Bengali zamindari at the end of the nineteenth century.
    Is it a coincidence that all these films were made within two years of each other?
    PS: Had Ray directed Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam in Hindi, would he have incorporated any song? Would he have kept Meena Kumari in the lead? Would he have roped Shakeel Badayuni as a lyricist?

  10. @Shilpi: Thank you Shilpi. I feel so humbled :)
    Pyaasa definitely. Kaagaz ke Phool in a short while. Those films are important classics. Have to ponder on them for a while before I write on them. BUt, I will do them surely. Than you again. :)

  11. @Dwaipayan: Great observations. Though you have drawn some similarities between Monihara and this film in terms of OCD, I feel this film is far better in terms of execution. Monihara, according to me, is not one of Ray's best. It does not conjure up enough scare or rather suspense and the narrative is a tad tedious. Also, as discussed, Ray would not have taken Meena Kumari as the lead. And, I cannot imagine the film without her! Also the songs take the narrative forward. If done by ray, he probably would have resorted to Rabindrasangeet. Not very appealing!
    I think the depiction of the fall of the zamindari system in films made during that time is quite obvious because it was a big thing. Society was changing and what better a medium than celluloid to depict that.
    And, you've mentioned Devi. That film is superb. But, in that I feel Biswas's OCd is more to do with blind religiosity and superstition. Nothing like a female's OCD with love for jewellery or for a man!

  12. Lovely!!! You've been watching all classic movies! And I envy you for it. I haven't been able to see many movies of late :-(
    This is one of my favourite films. Meena Kumari looked really ethreal here. And what a performance it was. Music was beautiful and so was the way this movie was executed. Again like dustedoff mentioned, this is one of those movies that have lingering effect.

  13. @Sunheriyaadein: Yes, that I am, fortunately. You know, what my biggest fear is? Some day, I wake up and see all my old film dvds gone!! I think I'll have a heart attack! Ha ha!
    Meena Kumari was a superlative performer. I can't have enough of her (except for her later films such as Baharon ke Sapne and so on). You know, she had a defective left palm (half of her little finger was missing). Hence, she always hid that hand fromm the camera, with the help of her saree pallu and so on.
    Today I saw two entertainers, Mr & Mrs 55 (whole thing on youtube!) and Professor(for the nth time). Will put them up here shortly. Take care and keep watching these masterpieces :)

  14. True...I adore Meena Kumari. And loved her all the more in films like Kohinoor and Miss Mary . It's Baharon Ki Manzil if you are talking about the one with Dharmendra where he plays her doctor. That's one movie I really had to struggle to sit through.
    But again, I loved her in Mere Apne.
    I had seen Dil Apna Preet Paraye and Sharda to do a post during her Death Anniversary, but just didn't have enough time to do it. Will remedy that soon.
    One of my cousins had told me about her missing little finger and I had tried so hard to catch a glimpse of it in Hum tere pyaar mein saara aalam as a kid.
    I am not very fond of Mr. and Mrs. 55, but it has some lovely numbers. Professor is one of my all time favourites. I recently saw it again for the nth time too.

  15. @Sunheriyaadein: Yes, yes Baharon ki Manzil it is. That was bad. Kumari was fat and over madeup. And, what was Dharmendra doing playing her doc-cum-lover?
    I love Kohinoor, especially the song Dil mein Baji pyar ke shehnaiya...Kumari is so exuberant!
    Have to see Miss Mary and Sharda. Haven't done that yet!! God, so may films, such a small life :)

  16. @Sharmi Joining the party pretty late, much has been already said by your legion of readers! Truly, Meena Kumari is the soul of this film. Its her luminance that lights up all other characters. I feel Chhoti Bahu's character had a lot of resonance with Meena Kumari's personal life. Her marriage to the much older Kamaal Amrohi was on the rocks and she had become an alcoholic by then. Her turbulent relationship with Amrohi played a significant part in her getting under Chhoti Bahu's skin so well that we can't imagine this film without her.
    Sometimes I think she was not "acting out" the pain she was just "showing" it because it came from within.
    No wonder she was called the Tragedy Queen.
    And about Guru Dutt ghost directing the film, I think there's no doubt about it. The film bears a Guru Dutt stamp. Abrar alvi was part of Dutt's team for too long not to be influenced by him. Even if we assume it's just Dutt's 'influence' it is still his film.
    When did we ever hear somebody calling Saheb Bibi Ghulam as an Abrar Alvi film?:)
    Sharmi a truly mesmerising review and now looking forward to Kagaz ke phool!

    1. No she had not started drinking during the making of the film...a common misconception...she separated from her husband in 1964 after Which she started drinking...sahib biwi aur ghulam was released in fact she used to ask kamal amrohi about how a drunk woman would behave and use to sniff concentrated eau de colonge to get the droopy heavy look of a drunk person...that is why this is her gratest performance...

  17. @Abhi: No problem for being late. My forum here is always open :)
    You know I really feel sad when i see Meena Kumari's beauty taking a beating due to her alcoholism. She turned fat and outright ugly later. That's really really sad. What a talent wasted :(
    Right, the very disturbing nature of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam bears a very Dutt stamp. A guru is bound to influence his protege :)
    Kaagaz ke Phool??? Hmmm...Ok, give me some time. :)

  18. Lovely post :-)...I remember this movie distinctly because of Na Jao Sainya and the superlative performance by Meena Kumari...why don't u write on some well-known Bengali movies?

  19. @Swarnava: Bangla????? Okie thik achey...but after I have finished a lumpsum of my favourite Hindi and English films. The thing is I can always write on Satyajit Ray's films, they are a marvel. But after that I might get restricted to Uttam-Suchitra only, and that I don't want. And, who knows may be I will start another blog on Bengali films only. But, for that I really bhalo korey have to watch those films again to grab the nuances. And they don't have my favourite Shammi Kapoor. Okay, I've been rambling enough. But, regarding Bengali movies I will definitely consider your advice. Thank you Dada for this comment :)

  20. hi... nice review!
    Love Sahib Bibi aur ghulam like anything! Have seen it a number of times.. still can't get enough of it. The whole packgae is just too good.. hemant da's music perfectly complements the screenplay.. Meena Kumari was Chhoti Bahu incarnate and with Geeta Dutt as her playback voice.. the magic is bound to engulf the viewer. "Piya aiso jiya mein...", "Na jao saiiyaan..." and "Koi door se aawaaz de..." are examples of a golden voice laden with pathos! Meena Kumari and Geeta Dutt- both - lived their lives in the movie and gave it an ethreal and convincing portrayal.

  21. and ya one more thing which I would like to point out is - you pointed out that there is a mention of Hemanta Kumar as playback singer in the credits but there is no song in the movie lip synced by a male. The latter part is true but the story goes like this - When the film was released, it had a mellow number in Hemanta Da's voice played in the background when bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu are travelling in the horse carriage. Initially, the scene was like this - Chhoi bahu rests her head on Bhoothnath's lap while the hemant kumar song plays in the background. but following a public uproar, Guru Dutt cut the whole scene alongwith the song. So what we have in the DVD is a dialogue b/w Bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu, followed by the attack. Thus, Hemanta Kumar is credited as the playback singer but the song is not in the final print.

  22. @Punya: Thank you so much Punya for this bit of interesting trivia. Love it when I get to learn such things from like-minded moviebuffs :)

  23. @Punya: Thank you Punya for this interesting bit of trivia. I love it when I get to learn these small facts from such moviebuffs like me. Yes, Meena Kumari is just so fascinating in the film. It is difficult to take your eyes off her. This is a movie that can never be remade!!!

  24. The hindi version was good but the ending marred it and diluted the tragic fervour .Rehman was brilliant and both Meena Kumari and Sumitra Debi were apt but Guru Dutt could not bring out the real rustic amazement and wonder which was needed for the character of Bhootnath ,he looked much sophisticated and lacked the naivety.