PAKEEZAH: AN UNDERRATED CLASSIC

I have always loved the film ‘Pakeezah’ and in the last year or so have become both utterly obsessed with it…and its hero ‘Salim’ (Raaj Kumar), the unknown lover of the courtesan ‘Sahibjaan’ (Meena Kumari) on whom he confers the name ‘Pakeezah’ (pure). The songs of Pakeezah are widely acknowledged as classics, and for good reason; they constitute one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever composed. However, I strongly feel that the film itself, though well regarded, remains considerably underrated. Any short article or fleeting reference to the movie always states something to the effect of “Pakeezah received a lukewarm reception/flopped upon release, and became a big hit, acquiring cult status on Meena Kumari’s death”. This statement is true to the extent that Pakeezah’s commercial success may, at least partially, be attributed to the premature death of it’s heroine, the talented and extremely popular Meena Kumari. The film may well have flopped otherwise. However, the statement is unjust in that it totally ignores and undermines the tremendous intrinsic merit of the film itself, whether evinced in its poetic, understated and nuanced dialogue, powerful characterisation, authenticity of representation, or aesthetic beauty. The last point is amongst the most commonly mentioned, with the first three scarcely being acknowledged. I do believe the grand sets were integral to the film and important in evoking a certain atmosphere and time period, as well as being a manifestation of Kamal Amrohi’s highly developed and refined aesthetic sensibility. However, the greatness of any film, particularly ‘Pakeezah’, cannot predominantly be attributed to a bunch of exotic and beautifully finished sets. They merely comprise one significant factor amongst several other (more important) ones. In this post I would like discuss some of the more neglected aspects of Pakeezah.

Stylistically, Pakeezah is extraordinarily subtle and understated for a Hindi film, and is heavily metaphorical. Key visual metaphors include the ‘ghungru’ which adorn Sahibjaan’s feet, the train, the entrapped bird which has its wings clipped by the brothel madame (Nadira), and the torn kite which Sahibjaan likens to herself, as “kati hui, namuraad, kambakht” or “torn and uprooted, unnamed, and ill-fated”. Sahibjaan’s friend Bibban (Vijay Laxmi) seeks to dissuade her from building hopes upon the letter penned by her distant lover, and says “yeh paighaam tumhaare liye nahin….us waqt tumhare paon me ghungru nahi bandhe the”..i.e. “this message is not intended for you..the ghungru (dancing anklets) were not bound around your feet then”. Nature vs Artificial civilisation also constitutes an important trope, with the romance between Sahibjaan and the gentleman stranger developing and unfolding in it’s environs, away from the artifically adorned Gulabi Mahal (Rose Palace) or the magnificently constructed bazaar in which the ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ song is picturised. (1) Colour is also key; when in her own element, away from the artifice her profession requires her to espouse, Sahibjaan is usually wearing white. (2) When pleasurably reflecting on her lover’s note with her head leaning on the edge of the fountain, or when with Salim, during their third encounter, Sahibjaan sports white, as does he- a colour representing purity. When she sings of her heartache and unfulfilled prayers at Salim’s (aborted) wedding, giving expression to her genuine grief, she is again in white, as is he.

waterfall 1

waterfall 2

waterfall 3

A seriously neglected aspect of the film is Raaj Kumar’s powerful role and performance as ‘Salim’, the gentleman smitten by Sahibjaan’s beautiful hennaed feet, and who proceeds to take on his grandfather and break away from the family home in asserting his right to love and protect her.  Raaj Kumar has been endowed with an extremely attractive character in the film, being extremely shareef, generous hearted and courageous.  For me, Raaj Kumar as ‘Salim’ is one of the most attractive male protagonists to have ever graced the Indian silver screen. He plays an integral part in many of film’s most powerful scenes. Indeed,  I think one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes both within Pakeezah, and in the history of cinema, is when having broken away from the family home, the couple are standing on a bridge with a picturesque yet roaring waterfall in the background. Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is aghast and internally tortured at his having forsaken home and family for her sake.

Salim Ahmad Khan: Tum shayad hameesha apne aap ko bhul chuki ho, aur ab mujhe yaqeen ho gaya hai ki tum koi nahi ho sirf meri taqdeer ho. Udhar deko..saara alam tumhaare qadmo par jhuka hai, aur ye subh tumhe salaam karahein hain.

Perhaps you have forgotten yourself forever. Indeed, now I am convinced that you are no one, but my destiny.  Turn that way, the world is bowed at your feet, and this morning offers its salutations to you.

Pakeezah: Lillah! Chup hojaiye. Intne pyar se meri jaan mat lijiye. Main iqraar kiye leti hun, mujhe sab yaad hai ki mai kya hun, kaun hun.

Dear God! Please be quiet! Don’t take my life with so much love. I confess, I remember everything, what I am, who I am.

Salim: Kaun ho tum? Kaun ho?

Who are you? Who?

Pakeezah: Main beqasoor hun. Aap ne yeh samjhaya tha. Aap ayen. Apneh khat likha aur phir aap ne kabhi mujhe chain se sone nahi diya. Haar raat aap mujhe pukaarte hue guzarte rahe. Har roz, meri ruh meri badan se khich ti rahi. Door hi door main aap ki hasrat mein doob kar mar jaati, magar aap ne mujhe doobne bhi nahi diya. Main bhaag jatin, lekin aapke kheme ne mujhe gher liya. Aap agaye, aur aap ki dil ki dharkano ne ye mujhe keh ne bhi nahin diya ke main ek tawaif hun!

I am without guilt. You taught me this. You came. You penned that letter, and then you took away all respite. Every night, you passed by calling out to me. Everyday, my soul tore away from my body. Far away, I would have drowned, consumed by my longing for you, but you wouldn’t let me drown. I would have run away, but your tent encompassed me. You came, and the beating of your heart didn’t even permit me to say that I am a prostitute!

The extent of his love for her, his idealisation of her, and his evocation of all natural creation bowing at her feet, tears at her heart. Her knowledge of her reality, the artificially adorned yet sordid environment from which she has come, compel her to cry out. At the same time, her words ‘Main beqasoor hun’/’I am without guilt’ are a fundamental affirmation of her inherent innocence; her profession is something she was born into, something the film adverts to as ‘dozakh’ or ‘hell’,  with it being near impossible for women entrapped in it to extricate themselves from it.  More important than what is said, in this scene, is what is left unsaid. The way she falls sobbing at his feet, and the tenderness with which he picks her up, after a pause, means much more than all that preceded it. I have always found the part where he lifts up and comforts her very moving, the music in the backdrop also  being key to the effect created. While this film certainly employs very cultivated sounding Urdu, none of the characters are overly voluble in it, and it’s understated character and extensive employment of metaphor is something rare in Hindi cinema. An example of this understatement is where Pakeezah and Salim are riding away in a horse drawn carriage. They are doggedly pursued by a ‘Hashim Khan’, one of Sahibjaan’s former patrons who has recognised her, and attempts to accost her. Salim inquires of Pakeezah ‘Kaun hai ye?’ -who is this? And she responds ‘kis kis ka naam poochenge aap’ –(this is harder to translate but roughly means ‘how many names will you ask of me?’).

tent 1

tent 2

tent 3

Another scene which is both deeply romantic and accurately captures the manners and sensibilities of the era is where Salim enters upon Pakeezah in his tent, who overwhelmed and made acutely self conscious by his arrival, feigns sleep. Having observed her feet, and recognised her he walks outside the tent and addresses her from the other side of it (improvised purdah).  He begins with a ‘tasleem’ (a sort of more ornate word for salaam) and proceeds to ask her about herself. Now, I am pretty sure that the practice of purdah had very regressive implications,  and did severely curtail women’s opportunities and thier capacity to interact with and experience the broader world. That said, this particular scene did for me bring out a certain beauty and charm in it. The respect and courtesy he wishes to accord her, and his desire not to affront her by addressing her directly, is evident in his chosen means to conduct the conversation with her. As he is about to leave the following day she coyly speaks from behind the tent side saying ‘sunye, raat hone se pehle zaroor laut ayega’/‘please return before night fall’ and he smilingly responds ‘zaroor’- /‘most certainly’. It was simply another age. While the movie was released in 1972, it is obviously set in and captures the aura of an earlier period. The total absense of modern forms of transport and utilities (excluding trains and telegrams which had been around for ages) suggests that it was set prior to independence (pre-1947) or even earlier.  It is  just so difficult for people today, to envisage romance of that sort, relations between the genders were far more restricted then but when there was interaction of this kind (which was itself very modest and restrained), perhaps its pleasures and charms can only be grasped at fleetingly by us.

hakim saab 1

The movie is incredibly authentic in how its portrays North Indian Muslim upper-middle class culture of that era. We only see fifteen minutes or so of Salim Ahmad Khan’s family, and yet the portrayal is highly authentic and not overstated. The house (or haveli), the manner and conversation of its inmates, the intimidating visage that is Salim’s grandfather ‘Hakim Sahab’ (played by Sapru) all appear quite true to life. The character of Hakim Sahab was evidently a representation of Kamal Amrohi’s own father, and some of the exchanges between Salim and the head of the household, are verbatim reproductions of domestic exchanges which took place in Amrohi’s own household. E.g. the line “Jo log dudh se jaljaate hai woh chaon bhi pukh pukh ke peethe hain”/”those who are burnt by milk take care even in drinking the froth” and Salim’s response “absos ki log dudh se bhi jal jaate hain”/ “It’s a pity that people are even burnt by milk” constitutes one such line extracted from Amrohi’s own life. (3) Domineering, intimidating and tyrannical patriarchal figures were not, in those days, just the stuff of story books. Many families of that period would have a comparable reference point, and Salim’s actions required great courage and conviction, given the times. His parting lines “Yeh kisi dal dal kohre se bani hui havelli hai..yeh kisi ko panah nahi de sakti hai…yeh bari khatarnaak jaga jai…chalo yahaan se”/”This mansion is made of fog…it cannot offer anyone protection…this is a dangerous place…let us leave here” is a powerful indictment of the society which he seeks to break with – one without compassion, harsh, rigid and rendered fragile by it’s pompous self-importance.

new giggle maid 1

“Tu bya toh kar, mai tujhe kade hi kade pehna dunga”/ “First marry, and I’ll fill your arms with bangles”

giggly maid

“Maine toh apna kar liya, aap ke intezaar mein kab thak baithi rahtein?”/ “I have already done so, how long was I going to hang around waiting for you?”

home 3

I also like smaller details which are etched out and are (and are meant to be) highly suggestive of character. When Salim first takes Pakeezah to his home, the nature of his interaction with the women of the family and others, shows the kind of man he is, and we adore him. His affectionate and playfully reassuring demeanour towards his (I think) grandmother who breaks down crying when she relates that Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) is ill at a government hopital in Hyderabad. His respect and observance of ettiquete towards the older women of the family, his more casual kindliness towards his other cousin, and lol…his gallantry and amusement when the giggly maid (I think milkwoman) flirts with him.  Yet, she can try to flirt with him so openly and make passes at him without fear, because she knows he’s a decent man. Her overtures will never be presumed upon. I’ve seen the movie so many times that even its minutae is very memorable for me. The scene where Salim takes Pakeezah to the mosque to be married, and she flees from the marriage ceremony crying “Nahi!..Nahi!”/ “No! No!” in response to the Kazi’s (priest’s) solicitation of her consent to the marriage is another powerful scene, as is her return to Gulabi Mahal (the Rose Palace) where she likens prostitutes to adorned corpses, whose souls are dead.

fleeing marriage

The film is not without flaws: Admittedly Meena Kumari is a little too passive in the first half of the film, with the first half being a little too languidly paced. Amrohi has deliberately kept it so, but I do think he becomes slightly self-indulgent at the expense of the viewer. Though not something one would term a ‘flaw’, one also can’t help wishing that Meena was as beautiful in the latter part of the film as she was in the first half. Several of the romantic scenes bear the stamp of her illness and deterioration (and yet succeed in being deeply romantic). I think some of the inflections of tone and acting are also reflective of the demeanour and gravity of an older woman, not the seventeen year old she is playing. Though the song is intensely romantic as it is, just think of the even heightened romantic potential of the “Chalo Dildar Chalo, Chand ke Paar Chalo”/ “Come beloved, let us go beyond the moon” song had Meena been able to show her face, with the camera being able to focus more on this joyous couple, and less on their surroundings. She is so young and beautiful when around all these creepy, dissipated nawabs, but when the real hero of the show comes along, we have a considerably older and very ill Meena Kumari.

chalo dildar chalo

I totally melt at Raaj Kumar’s expression here.

However, these are things that could not be helped or avoided (given the background to the completion of the film; Meena’s separation with Amrohi, subsequent alcoholism and illness). Thank God they still decided to complete Pakeezah! Kudos to Sunil and Nargis Dutt for their intervention. To think that such a film and such songs might never have seen the light of day. Ghulam Mohammad, the music composer of Pakeezah, died in poverty and obscurity well before the release of the film. His  relatively early death, and inability to ever see the huge impact his sublimely beautiful songs would have, remains a real tragedy. For Meena Kumari, completing the film in her condition (she was virtually a dying woman) was no mean feat, and must have required tremendous will power. The film remains an extraordinary achievement for all those involved in it’s making, and though considered a ‘cult classic’ it has not yet recieved the kind of recognition and appreciation it merits. ©

pakeezah bride

(1) Shweta Sachdeva Jha, “Frames of Cinematic History: The Tawaif in Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah” in Narratives of Indian Cinema (ed) Manju Jain. Primus Press, 2009.

(2) Ibid

(3) An interview with Tajdar Amrohi: “Celebrating 40 years of Pakeezah” at Rediff Movies. See http://www.rediff.com/movies/slide-show/slide-show-1-40-years-of-pakeezah/20120305.htm

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24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. liquid dubstep
    Nov 19, 2012 @ 03:39:19

    Not what I was expecting but wonderful anyway! Nice one!

    Reply

  2. Freddy Lefew
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 23:17:14

    Hey there from across the ocean! This is just what I was expecting, and you nailed it. Thank you

    Reply

  3. silverambrosia
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 05:06:21

    Thanks Freddy! I didn’t realise I had to approve comments pending in the spam section, and just saw your comment today. Thanks 🙂

    Reply

  4. Rahul Kumar Singh
    Dec 16, 2012 @ 15:14:42

    It made for a captivating reading..infact my stumbling upon this article coincides with an apparently not so significant event that happened a few hours back..It so happened that I was having a discussion with one of my friends with respect to the usage of the salutation “Tasleem” and the other Gentleman made a statement that it’s used only by the noble Women and that too it has become almost rare..to which I was not very convinced..Now this article puts the ambiguity continuing in my mind to rest by mentioning the scene..Where the protagonist Raj Kumar Sahab greets the object of his desire/reverence as “Tasleem”..anyways a really wonderful piece of writing..

    Reply

  5. silverambrosia
    Dec 16, 2012 @ 20:46:59

    Thanks Rahul! 🙂 Actually, the word is almost totally out of use amongst North Indian muslims in the regular everyday context…To be honest I didn’t even know what it meant when I first heard it in the film…This apparently was not formerly the case, and though ‘Tasleem’ was a respectful address (sort of like a combination of ‘salaam’ and seeking admission) it was far more frequently used, and not just amongst the upper echelons of society…this is my impression at least….

    Reply

  6. Rahul Kumar Singh
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 15:42:56

    Perhaps you are right..infact I have been in Lucknow for the last almost 5 years and it so happened that on a few occasions, got to see the usage of this specific word..My impression about this word was that it is used in a semi-formal occasion when the other person doesn’t necessarily be greeted in an utmost formal fashion..and yes on a concluding note..would like to mention that your comments are reflective of an intricately ornate mannerism..

    Reply

  7. silverambrosia
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 21:27:26

    Hehe..It’s very kind of you to say so…u’re actually giving me way more credit than I deserve….Though I have visited India quite a number of times, I have never actually lived there…and quite a bit of the stuff I’ve said about authenticity has been gained from older relations and friends…E.g. With reference to the scene where Salim first enters his home with Pakeezah, the ladies of the house are engaged in various chores and the little girls in the family are seated on the ‘charpoys’ in the kind of ‘aangan’ (or semi-courtyard kind of thing) reciting their lessons: a relation of mine said the scene, the setting, exactly captures her own childhood mornings. Through reading and talking to people, you do gain a sense of the times, and a lot of the film has a very authentic feel to it. The domestic scenes at Salim’s home absolutely have this feel….On the points of language I am very much a novice, but am learning and am making an educated guess as to the whole ‘tasleem’ thing…I was prompted to write this article because of my love for the film ‘Pakeezah’…actually Bollywood films such as ‘Pakeezah’ and ‘Mughal e Azam’ have had a significant role in motivating me to improve my Urdu/Hindi language skills, the language of the former film being far simpler, scarcely ornate at all, but retaining a smooth elegance and fluidity of its own…..gosh….that was a long response to your comment…thanks for visiting 🙂

    Reply

  8. Rahul Kumar Singh
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 15:24:03

    Well going by your interests..perhaps it would make sense for me to recommend the names of two other classics which encapsulate the essence of an era long bygone..they are “Mere Huzoor” and “Umrao Jaan”.
    Apart from the above, two other classics of my personal choice for their essence and lyrics would also warrant a reference here..they are “Kabhi Kabhie” and “Aandhi”..for this comment would have been incomplete without having mentioned them on a concluding note.

    Reply

  9. silverambrosia
    Dec 18, 2012 @ 18:31:42

    Thank you for the recommendations! I saw ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ as a child, don’t remember that much of it….and should certainly give it a rewatch. ‘Aandhi’ I had not heard of, but it certainly looks interesting. I have seen both ‘Mere Huzoor’ and ‘Umrao Jaan’ and didn’t really care for either. Raaj Kumar admirer as I am, I found ‘Mere Huzoor’ insufferable and this is basically how I feel about pretty much all of the ‘Muslim Socials’ of the 1960’s….some lovely songs and genuinely funny Johnny Walker side plots were their only redeeming qualities….I wouldn’t go to the extent of calling ‘Chaudvin ka Chand’ cheesy and affected like all of the others but some lovely songs and brilliant camera angles can’t make up for a messed up plot and lack of substantive content.
    ‘Umrao Jaan’ is different in that it is a well-made, well-researched film with good performances as well as good songs…I don’t quite how to explain myself but it just didn’t really have any effect on me…I guess the plot didn’t really appeal to me, even though it’s apparently based on real-life courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada. I really hope I haven’t offended you with my blunt comments… A lot of people really like ‘Mere Huzoor’ and most people regard ‘Umrao Jaan’ as a classic…I guess likes and dislikes vary…Thanks again for your comments 🙂 and I’m looking forward to seeing both ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ and ‘Aandhi’….

    Reply

  10. Mansour
    Dec 19, 2012 @ 06:42:34

    silverambrosia
    pleas remenber beautiful dialogue returning Sahebjaan to gulaabi mehel
    and what mean “Torgibaazi or Turkibaazi”?
    Thank you

    Reply

    • silverambrosia
      Dec 19, 2012 @ 23:14:29

      Yes..her dialogues when she returns to the Gulabi mahal are very memorable ones…”Mai bhi aisi khuli hui kabr ki ek besabar laash hun jisse baar baar zindagi warghala ke bhagha lejati hai”/ “I am one such restless corpse of an open grave, lured by life again and again” . I don’t think the words ‘torgibaazi’ or ‘Turkibaazi’ appear anywhere in the film. Perhaps they were there in the subtitles, or in a dubbed version of the film?

      Reply

      • Mansour
        Dec 24, 2012 @ 15:22:48

        Tahnk you wery much.
        This is the dialogue i have write from screenplay:
        895
        02:10:00,626 –> 02:10:09,569
        Aisi koleri qabr ki
        ek bisabr laash hon,

        896
        02:10:09,568 –> 02:10:18,568
        Jise baar baar zindegi,
        warghala kar bhaga le jaati hain.

        897
        02:10:34,526 –> 02:10:41,526
        Leken ab me aapni saawar ki,

        898
        02:10:41,700 –> 02:10:48,039
        Aur zendegi ke is torgi baazi se
        bizaar hogaye hon,

        899
        02:10:48,040 –> 02:10:51,040
        tar gaye hon.

  11. Mansour
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 16:27:24

    1-Mughal-e-azam after dancing Suraiyaa what say Salim to durjaan?
    2-Pakeezah on entrance Salim to here house i hear something this:
    “Rasural ek guaa aab le diyaa”
    what mean this please?
    thank you

    Reply

  12. silverambrosia
    Feb 08, 2013 @ 23:27:27

    1) Suraiya doesn’t dance in the film. Do you mean the scene which follows soon after the ‘Mohe Panghat pe’ song, where Suraiya informs Saleem of Anarkali’s feelings, and Durjan is present?
    2) Salims’s grandmother says ”Rasulan, e bua ab le bhi aa”. Rasulan appears to be the name of the maid or domestic help. While ‘bua’ can mean aunt, it is in some contexts used to refer to domestic help. Salim’s grandmother is just asking Rasulan to bring something (probably some food item).

    Reply

  13. Mansour
    Feb 09, 2013 @ 11:26:50

    Thank you.Suraiya’s dancing is in black and white version
    (Originale).When Akbar-e-azam sends Durjan with
    “bando bast kaaghazat” to Salim.After this dialogue
    of Durjan “Sire, I have seen anger in The Emperor’s eyes
    Unless you stop this dangerous game, the rumours will begin”.
    Suraiya singes(Lata) “ae ishq yeh sab duniya waale”.
    It is deleted scene in color version.
    If you have not B/W version don’t worry.Thank you very much.

    Reply

  14. Mansour
    Feb 16, 2013 @ 14:00:21

    Pakeezah:
    Sahebjaan in Kothi Bebban meet a girl wants something
    “kal bas ek din ke lie tumhare taqti hum hai chahie”
    What is TAQTI?Is this correct? Taqti=tika=maang-tika?.
    Thank you.

    Reply

    • escortdiary
      Dec 30, 2013 @ 10:37:05

      Thank you for expressing your beautiful insight on this masterpiece. I am a modern day courtesan, and I feel the words and emotion so deeply from this film. Yes, Salim is truly doing the work of God by accepting Sahib jaan and fighting the barriers of society to protect her.

      Reply

  15. ANIS YUSUF
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 23:29:15

    WOW I totally agree that this is not only beyond a classic but a great marriage of the
    hindi and urdu languages i.e totally Indian
    To borrow from Latajis comment on Rafi Sahibs voice
    Aisa film na khabhi aya hain na khabi aaye ga
    Thank you for a wonderful assessment
    Timeless!

    Reply

  16. silverambrosia
    Mar 27, 2014 @ 13:58:49

    Veerbadhra. I approved your comment. I don’t know why it isn’t appearing..Maybe somethings up with wordpress? I agree…Salim was awesome.

    Reply

  17. NRO
    May 08, 2014 @ 04:13:30

    If I have to name one perfect Hindi film – it would be Pakeezah. From casting to acting to music to dialogues to direction it is simply unmatched by any other movie.

    Reply

    • silverambrosia
      May 08, 2014 @ 05:14:24

      From an objective view point I would place ‘Pakeezah’ amongst the top ten Hindi films ever made. Personally, it’s my favourite Hindi film (but here a fair bit of subjectivity enters). It is, as you say, a beautiful film. There’s a lot to love and admire about it.

      Reply

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