Some films (Palki, Deedar-e-Yaar) seek to buy classic status with massive budgets and crumple under the pressure of their pageantry.
Pakeezah is lavish in its treatment of a
courtesan’s turbulent story, but its splendor
fills the eye, stirs the senses. And it ultimately showcases the heart beating at the
Pakeezah’s chandelier-heavy, fountain-adorned Gulabi Mahal is draped in flimsy
curtains and inhabited by statuesque
women with trailing dupattas. There is
nothing stark here.
Producer-director Kamal Amrohi narrates a story imbued with the despair and
the euphoria of human desires so deftly that
you are caught up in the swirl of the visual
maximalism in the fanciful, almost surreal
setting. And by the romanticism of the
It helps that the stage is occupied by
Meena Kumari. That she was a great tragedienne enhances the impact of her performance as a woman grappling with the duali-ties of her life. And that voice, even when
not uttering a sparkling gem, has a lyrical
quality that resounds through the film.
Meena Kumari has a double role in the
film. As the blonde-haired Nargis, she seeks
to escape her kotha (brothel) by eloping
with her lover Shahabuddin (Ashok
Kumar). The patriarch of Shahabuddin’s
family refuses to accept her and Nargis flees
to a graveyard. On her deathbed, she writes
him a letter asking him to come for his newborn daughter.
Her sister (Veena) arrives first, finds her
dead and takes away the daughter back to
There’s something wistful about the way
Shahabuddin eventually gets the letter.
Nargis’ belongings have been sold and several years later, a book lover finds her letter
in her book. Shahabuddin comes to collect
his now adult daughter, Sahibjaan (Meena
Kumari again). But Sahibjaan’s furious aunt
takes her niece and flees by train.
On the train journey, a dashing young
man (Raaj Kumar) enters the sleeping
Sahibjaan’s plush compartment and, enchanted by her feet, leaves behind a note: ‘Aap
ke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe
zameen par mat utariyega; maile ho
The queen of movie tragedy couldn’t have
asked for a more befitting climax to her life
and career, feels Dinesh Raheja
jayenge (I saw your feet, they are very beau-
tiful. Don’t place them on the ground; they
will get dirty).’
Ironically, as a courtesan, Sahibjaan has to
put the same feet on the floor and figura-
tively dirty them by dancing the mujra to
entice men. The note gives Sahibjaan hope
even as she avoids unwelcome attention
from her patrons.
Amrohi effectively uses two sound motifs
throughout the film — the train’s piercing
whistle, which reminds Sahibjaan of her
admirer and hope; and a soulful alaap by
Lata Mangeshkar, which mirrors her
moments of sadness.
‘Baba’s romance with
Meena Kumari was dignified’
good music. “For Pakeezah, Ghulam Mohammed was chosen
because Baba wanted an old-feel to the music,” Tajdar says.
Mohammed was Naushad’s associate, and the latter
stepped in only after Mohammed’s death.
Tajdar says at some level his father knew he was making a
masterpiece. “Whenever we used to ask him for new clothes
or place any of our demands before him, he would say, ‘Will
get you after Pakeezah.’”
Amrohi’s genius lay in both the little and the big moments
of the film. In working with Meena Kumari who wasn’t a
dancer, he focused on her expressions during songs, lending
an ethereal quality to the dances.
The concluding shot of the film was pure Amrohi. The shot
of a woman’s face who was never seen in the film as she
watches Raaj Kumar whisk away his bride Meena Kumari,
surprised many. The portion was chopped off by editor D N
Pai. When Amrohi saw the final cut, he was aghast.
Amrohi and Ashok Kumar, who played the key charac- ter of Shahabuddin, were friends. “They shared a great comfort level and you could see that on screen,”
Tajdar says. “Baba was close to Dadamoni (Ashok Kumar)
and Pradeep Kumar, too, but otherwise he was a recluse.”
Amrohi had made Mahal with Ashok Kumar in 1949 — the
film that started the trend of supernatural movies in Hindi
cinema. It was Ashok Kumar, then the producer at Bombay
Pakeezah is Amrohi’s claim to fame, but he had bigger things in mind. According to Tajdar, his father, who was an admirer of William Wyler and David Lean, had
began work on a film titled Majnoon, which he thought
would be his swan song. The film could never be made.
Tajdar’s only regret is that his father was under-valued in
“I feel he should have been feted when he was alive, but
then when I think about it, he was not the sort of man to
hanker for attention. His work speaks for itself.” ;