screencap 1

Anarkali confiding her fears to her ever optimistic sister Suraiya

‘Mughal- e-Azam’ is a film I have a somewhat odd relationship with. It is a film I (like many others) rate very highly, and can watch over and over again. Yet, as a love story it has never meant anything to me. What then repeatedly draws me to it, despite the minimal emotional impact it has always had? The fact that it is so superbly written. Ninety percent of the film has aptly been described as pure poetry. There are so many stunning lines and exchanges between the characters that leave you going ‘OMG’ or ‘wow…that was some comeback!’ It is an astoundingly well written film, and that is where Mughal-e-Azam’s immortality lies. Though, of course, you have the grand sets, Naushad’s wonderful music, and for many viewers back then the battle sequences were novel and exciting. Obviously, a wonderful script has to be brought to life by good actors, and K. Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ features some excellent performances. I think that the standout performance in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is that of Madhubala’s as ‘Anarkali’, followed by that of Prithviraj Kapoor’s as ‘Akbar’, then Nigar Sultana’s as ‘Bahar’, and finally Dilip Kumar’s as ‘Salim’. Why does Dilip Kumar come last in this list of four? Dilip was a very capable actor, so it wasn’t so much a case of him exhibiting poor acting skills (though in my view Madhubala certainly gave the superior performance). It was more to do with the fact that ‘Prince Salim’ as interpreted by Dilip, was not a particularly likeable person, and apparently K. Asif gave him free rein to play the part of Salim as he saw fit. The character of Prince Salim, has a lot to do with why Mughal-e-Azam, for me, does not work that well as a romantic film. But more on that below.

The script for Mughal-e-Azam was penned by Aman, Kamal Amrohi, Wahajat Mirza and Ehsan Rizwi, and these guys made the movie the literary feat that it is. It was very commonplace for people to know the film off by heart, and recite the lines to one another. Even in my home ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ was played repeatedly, and to tell the truth I was always rather bored. As a child, I was scared of Akbar when he was angry, and fled the room in the scenes which featured him fuming. That was really the only response ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ elicited in me…until a couple of  years ago when I saw the film again after a long gap, and appreciated it for the very first time. Soon, I knew it off by heart as well. While I understand it, I don’t feel quite competent enough to translate it, and am also unwilling to make a further hash out of something which already translates very poorly into English. But, because it’s something I wish to share, I will still try, though it is very difficult to narrow down one’s choice of dialogue. The script as a whole is so good that you may as well take down eighty percent of the film verbatim.

My favourite lines from the film have to be the following:

Salim, viewing statue

Salim: Santarash ka dawa yaqeenan sahi tha. Beshak is behpanah husn ki taab pathar hi hila sakta hai. Budho ki khudai tasleem karne koh jih chahta hai

Salim: The sculptor’s claim was indeed honest. Undoubtedly, only stone could withstand and encompass such boundless beauty.  One wishes to concede the divinity of statues.

Durjan: Sahib-e-Alam par budh parasti ka ilzam lag jayaga.

Durjan:  Saheb –e- Alam (the Lord of the Worlds) will be accused of idol worship

Salim: Magar wafa parasti ki daat bhi mil jayegi

Salim: but he will also be lauded for his worship of love

A more literal translation of ‘wafa’ is loyalty, but ‘worship of loyalty’ would not adequately convey what is being expressed here.


These are scenes which I also really admire:

This is the scene where the statue commissioned in honour of Prince Salim, is about to be unveiled. Bahar ( a higher ranking servant of the court) suggests a ploy by which the unveiling may prove fatal to Nadira (about to be conferred the name of ‘Anarkali’).

anarkali statue

Bahar: Kaneez ek tajwees pesh karne ki ijazzat chahti hai

Bahar: The slave seeks permission to present a proposal

Akbar: Ijazzat hai

Akbar: Permission granted

Bahar: Afsano mein hai ki mujasamo ki niqab kushaiya teeron se bhi hua karti thin

Bahar: In fables of old, statutes were unveiled by arrows

Akbar: Khoob, tajwees pasand ai. Shekhu, Afsaane Haqeeqat me badle jaa sakte hain?

Akbar: Well said, the proposal is to our liking. Shekhu (a term of endearment he has for Salim), can fables be transformed into reality?

Salim: Zil-e-Elahi, hukm ki tameel hogi

Salim: Shadow of God, your order will be obeyed

Akbar: Subhan Allah, maloom hota hai ki kissi farishte ne aasman se uttar kar sange mar mar me panah leli hai

Akbar: Glory be to God, it appears that an angel has descended from the heavens and found refuge in marble.

Anarkali: Kaneez farishta nahi, insaan hai

Anarkali: The slave is not an angel, but is human

Akbar: Magar tujhe Budh banne par kissne majboor kiya?

But who compelled you to become a statue?

Anarkali: Aap ke sultanat ke ek ziddi santarash ne jo gumnaami ke parde se nikalna nahi chahta

Anarkali: An obstinate sculptor, from within your realm, who does not wish to come out of the shadows of obscurity

Akbar: Santarash ka yeh anokha fun yaqeenan daat ke qabil hai. Lekin, teer chalte waqt tu khamosh kyun rahi?

The sculptor’s unique art is indeed praiseworthy. But, when the arrow was about to leave the bow, why did you not speak?

Anarkali: Kaneez dekhna chahti thi ki afsaane haqeeqat me kis tarah badle jaate hai

Anarkali: The slave wanted to see how fables are transformed into reality.


After having performed before the royal family on the occasion of Krishna’s birth, Anarkali is besotted with Salim (for reasons best known to her). She is in love with him, but believes that their love has no future. Because of the vast gulf between them in terms of status and rank, she does not want his reputation to be tarnished because of his association with her. Contemplating all of this silently, she has gone into a shell of sorts. Her mother arrives, and questions her on this new desire for solitude.


Anarkali’s mother: Nadira, tum yakayak is tarah gum sum kyun ho gayi beta? Kahin aana jaana, logon se milna agar chor baithegi, to log kahenge khitaab se sarfaraz hote hi maghroor ho gayi.

Anarkali’s mother: Nadira, child, why have you become quiet all of a sudden? If you leave off going places and visiting others, people will say that having been distinguished with a title, she has become arrogant.

Anarkali: Allah, Majboor ko maghroor kaun kahega?

Anarkali: God, who would call helplessness arrogance?

Bahar (Nigar Sultana) now arrives in their presence.

Bahar: Dushmano ki zubaan kahin roki jaati hai, Behno ki kahaniyan tum kya jaano?

Bahar: Who can stop the tongues of enemies, what would you know of the tales women weave?

Anarkali’s mother: Aao Bahar, zara isse bhi apne saath rakha karo

Anarkali’s mother: Come Bahar, you should keep her close to you

Bahar: Aap fikar na karien main isse apne saath le jaane ke liya haazir huin hun.

Bahar: You need not worry, I have come to take her with me

Anarkali’s motherToh phir samhalo isse, main chali.

Anarkali’s mother: Then handle her, I shall leave

Bahar: Anarkali, kitna khoobsurat hai tumhara naya naam.

Bahar: Anarkali, how beautiful your new name is

Anarkali: Haan, jaise jalte aur pighalte hue moem ka khoobsurat naam Shama hai

Anarkali: Yes, as beautiful a name as that of the flame which burns and melts with wax.

Bahar: Ab shama ban chuki ho to parvano se kyun daaman bachati ho?

Bahar: When you have become that flame, then why evade the moths?

Anarkali: kaise parvane?

Anakali: What moths?

Bahar: Jaise ki hum…kabhi apne Hujre se hamari mehfil me bhi aao.

Bahar: Such as us….sometimes leave your quarters and join our gatherings.

Obviously here, the wordplay present (maghroor and majboor) is lost in translation, but the language throughout the scene (and really, throughout the film) has been so elegantly employed, that it’s just a pleasure to listen to.


Akbar compels Anarkali to put up a facade of opportunism and false love.

Aarzooen barh jayengi

Akbar: Humme yaqeen hain ki qaedkhano ke khaufnaak andhero ne teri arzoo-on me woh chamak baaqi na rakhi hogi jo kabhi theen.

Akbar: I am sure that the fearful darkness of the dungeons has diminished the light of your aspirations.

Anarkali: Qaedkhano ke andhere kaneez ke arzoo-on ki roshni se kum the

Anarkali: The darkness of the dungeons were less than the light of the slave’s aspirations

Akbar: Andhere aur barhadiye jayengi

Akbar: The darkness will be increased

Anarkali: Arzooen barh jayengi

Anarkali: My aspirations will increase

Akbar: Aur barhti hui arzoo-on ko kuchal diya jayega

Akbar: And these heightened aspirations will be crushed

Anarkali: Aur Zil-e –Elahi ka insaaf?

Anarkali: And the justice of Zil-e-Elahi (Shadow of God)?

Akbar: Kamosh! Hum ek lafz aur nahi sunna chahte. Akbar ka insaaf uska hukm hai.

Akbar: Silence! We do not wish to hear another word. Akbar’s justice is his order.


Following on from the ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya?’/ ‘When one has loved, why fear?’ song where Anarkali has made an open declaration of her love, an internally seething Akbar proceeds as follows.

zil-e-elahi ke faragh dilli se yahi umeed

Akbar: Yeh teri bekhauf mohabbat, ye raqs, ye dilchasp andaz-e-bayan yaqeenan humare inaam ke mustahiq hai.

Akbar: This fearless love, this dance, this engaging mode of expression, is surely deserving of our reward

Anarkali: Zahe naseeb. Zil-ellahi ke faragh dilli se kaneez ko yahi umeed thi

Anarkali: My good fortune. This is what I expected from the largeness of Zil-e-Elahi’s (the Shadow of God’s) heart.

The cool confidence with which these lines are spoken make them stand out. As Akbar calls on the guards to transport Anarkali to the darkest dungeons of the palace, the look of vulnerability, yet pride and longing, Anarkali throws at Salim is noteworthy.


There has been a verbal confrontation between Akbar and Salim over Anarkali. The Queen (Salim’s mother) Jodha reproaches her son for arguing with his father over a mere court servant.

magar iska soodh mujhse na wasool kijiye

Rani Jodha: Salim, Mahapali ka saamna ek laundi ke liye?

Rani Jodha: Salim, confrontation with the King over a slave girl?

Salim: Nahi! Uske liye jo mere ahad mein khudaar Mughlon ki aabroo aur Hindustan ki malika banegi.

Salim: No! For her who will become the Queen of India and the honour of worthy Mughals

Rani Jodha: Khudaar Mughlon ki aabroo itni halki nahi ki ek naacheez laundi ke barabar tul jaye. Aur humara Hindustan tumhara dil nahi ki laundi jiski malika bane.

Rani Jodha: The honour of worthy Mughal’s is not so light as to be weighed up against a worthless slave girl… And our India is not your heart, over which a slave can preside.

Salim: Toh mera bhi dil koi aap ka Hindustan nahi jispe aap hukumat karein.

Salim: Nor is my heart your India, over which you can rule.

Rani Jhoda: Tumhaare dil pe humara joi ikhtiyar nahi, lekin khud tum par hamara adhikar zaroor hai. Akhir tum humaari aulad ho.

Rani Jodha: We have no right over your heart, but we certainly have rights over you. After all, you are our child.

Salim: Haan mai aap ki aulad hun. Lekin, mujh par zulm dhaate hue aap ko yeh sochna chahiye ki mai aapke jigar ka tukda hun, koi ghaiz ya ghulam nahi.

Salim: Yes I am your child. But in inflicting cruelty on me you should remember that I am a part of you, not a servant or slave.

Rani Jodha: Nahin Salim, Nahin! Tum humari barsoan ki pratna ka phal ho. Humari zindagi bhar ka sarmaya ho. Humare ladle ho.  Magar yeh Rajneeti hai. Tum isme humaari mamta ko awaaz na do. Humari garden mein apni mohabbat ki zanjeer dal kar humme humare farz ke daere se bahar mat kheencho. Humari zimedari aur apne martabe ke lehaz karo. Ruswai aur badnami ke garhe mein mat aao.  Anarkali ko apne dil se nikaldo. Main tumhe apne dudh ka vaasta detin hun.

Rani Jodha: No Salim, No! You are the fruit of years of prayer, the hope of our lives. You are the son we dote on. But this is politics, do not place the noose of your love around our necks, and divert us from our duty. Respect our duty and your stature. Don’t draw close to shame and disgrace. Remove Anarkali from your heart. I bind you by my milk.

Salim: Aap apne dudh ka mujhse muavza maangtheen hain?

Salim: Are you exacting payment from me for your milk?

Rani Jodha: Nahi Salim, Nahin.

Rani Jodha: No Salim, No

Salim: Toh phir u nahi. Wahi aapka dudh jo khun ban kar meri raghon me daur raha hai. Kahiye toh sab aap ke qadmo mein bahadun magar uska mujhse soodh wasool na karien.

Salim: No? That milk of yours which is flowing as blood in my veins. If you wish, I will drain it all at your feet, but don’t exact interest on it from me.

These lines are awesome…but they really translate so poorly into English, ‘don’t exact interest on your milk’? That just sounds so strange in English. Any non-Urdu/Hindi speaker will be like ‘huh?’ What do non-Indian’s make of Mughal-e-Azam?….Most of the time, they must really be wondering what all the fuss is about, and probably simply attribute the film’s status to the scale and grandeur with which it was made.


After the battle between father and son, Akbar has sentenced Salim to death. Anarkali agrees to forfeit her life in exchange for Salim’s freedom. She will be walled up alive after administering to Salim the scent of a flower which will render him unconscious (and allow Akbar to finish her off without external interference).  Akbar is ordering Anarkali to act in accordance with their agreement.

kaneez kab ki mar chuki

Akbar: Agar aisa na hua to Salim tujhe marne nahi dega aur hum Anarkali tujhe jeene nahi denge.

Akbar: And if this does not happen, Salim will not let you die, and we, Anarkali, will not let you live.

Anarkali: Kaneez toh kab ki marchuki. Ab janaaze ko rukhsat ki ijaazat dijiye.

Anarkali: This slave has been dead long since. Now, release the funeral procession

Akbar: Tum jaa sakti ho

Akbar: You may leave

Anarkali: Shahenshah ki in behisaab bakhshishon ke badle, Kaneez Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai.

In return for the Shahenshah’s (King of King’s) endless favours, this slave forgives Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar her blood.


At the end of the film, where Akbar is obliged to keep his promise to Anarkali’s mother, he releases the Anarkali with these parting words.

shayad tum humme maaf kar sako

Akbar: Bakhuda hum mohabbat ke dushman nahi, apne usulon ke ghulam hai. Ek Ghulam ki bebasi par ghaur karogi to shayad tum humme maaf kar sako.

Akbar: By God, we are not the enemy of love, we are simply slave to our principles. Observe the helplessness of a slave, and then perhaps you will be able to forgive us.

Obviously, the train of thought this exchange leads to is never really pursued in the film: If it were, the premise on which Mughal -e-Azam is constructed would collapse and the basis around which the central conflict evolves would dissolve. If the precise scope and content of Emperor Akbar’s ‘duty’ or principles were expounded, they could be demolished with great ease. Akbar cannot accept Anarkali as his daughter-in-law and prospective queen because she is a mere court dancer. And this view of Akbar’s is never really directly attacked by Salim on the basis of human equality, Anarkali’s worthy character, her courage and loyalty making her a worthy potential queen etc. K. Asif deliberately ensures that his writers consistently portray the conflict as one between ‘farz’ and ‘mohabbat’ or ‘duty’ and ‘love’.  Akbar’s allegiance to a particular (very faulty) conception of what duty entails, is not subjected to vigorous direct criticism in the film. If it was, how then could Akbar ultimately be hailed as ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ or ‘the Great Mughal’ at the end…and this convenient angle which K. Asif has decided to espouse, does work quite well for the film.


Mughal-e-Azam as a Romance

Coming back to why I have never regarded Mughal-e-Azam as a great love story, this view of the film is strongly connected with my response to the character of Prince Salim. Yes, he confronts Akbar, and orchestrates a rebellion against his father for Anarkali, but all this really just fits into the rhetorical arch of the film: the court dancer who defied the Emperor, and the Prince who relinquished his prerogatives as Prince for his love. Ultimately, both prince and court dancer willingly embrace death in asserting their love for one another etc. But when we look at how he actually conducts himself towards Anarkali, Prince Salim has no humility, or tenderness or warmth as a lover. Granted, humility was probably not the strong point of Mughal princes, but when he says to her ‘Main aaj bulandi aur pasti ke deewar gira dena chahta hun…bhool jao ki tum ek kaneez ho’/ ‘I wish to do away with this wall of hierarchy and class…forget that you are a servant’, this is purely rhetorical. The fact is that the master/slave dynamic is strongly reflected in every interaction between them, even in the so-called most romantic/erotic scene in Hindi film history, where he is stroking her face with a feather. For all his passion for her, a certain imperiousness is ever present in his deportment towards Anarkali. When Akbar imprisons Anarkali, and coerces her into falsely indicating that she never loved Salim, what is Salim’s response? He never considers that she may have been placed in false position, or may have temporary faltered under intense pressure. He calls her a whole lot of nasty things (‘daghabaaz, buzdil laundi, sharmnaak badnaami ki daagh’/ ‘treacherous, cowardly slave, a shameful stain on him’) and then proceeds to hit her hard across the face. Some prince charming. He places the onus of proving love, on a person who is already very vulnerably situated. The modern Indian equivalent to this, is a well to do person falling in love with their maid or driver and saying ‘If you really love me, then shout it out to everyone, take on the world right now….and if you can’t do that, it means your love is a sham, and you yourself are worthless trash’. This is really what his actions amount to. Audiences in 1960, may have been more willing to overlook this, or may have been allured by the ‘grand narrative’ of the film, but ‘Prince Salim’ does not go down well with me.

salim slaps anarkali

Shahzade Salim, You were no prince charming

A key writer of Mughal-e-Azam, Kamal Amrohi, was at this time also directing the film ‘Pakeezah’ which was not released until 1972. Some surface parallels can be drawn between the ‘Salim’ of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and the ‘Salim’ of ‘Pakeezah’. Both rebelled against authority and defied societal convention for the women they loved. But they were fundamentally different men in terms of how they conducted themselves towards the objects of their affection. ‘Shahzada Salim’ is obnoxious (high-handed, intimidating, without empathy) and ‘Salim Ahmed Khan’ is someone you fall in love with. More broadly, for me, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ is a film you admire (a lot), but ‘Pakeezah’ is a film you love.

Interesting trivia:

Mughal-e-Azam was in the making for over a decade, and was an intensely anticipated film. You can gain a real sense of what a huge deal the movie was when it finally came out, by watching this fascinating short documentary (the documentary film itself was made in the 1960’s). It is here:  The commentary for the two reeler film was scripted by Aman (one of Mughal-e-Azam’s writers) and Shakeel Badayuni  (the man who wrote the fabulous lyrics of the songs of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’). People were queuing for tickets weeks in advance, and spending nights sleeping on footpaths while in the queue. Mughal-e-Azam’s premier was very glitzy, large scale affair and there is considerable footage of it in the documentary film.  I was watching another CNN-IBN documentary on ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and, interestingly, it is noted therein that while the premier was a massive star studded event, the actual response to the film at the premiere was pretty lukewarm….many of the attendees felt that the film was too long and dragged considerably in parts. I actually agree with this criticism to some extent. I also find that the battle scenes, the scene which precedes the battle, and the scene where Prince Salim is about to be finished off with the canon, do drag a bit. However, there is so much else in the film to make you go ‘wow’, and this does make the response of the premiere attendees much less reasonable.  A quite lengthy, more recent documentary on Mughal-e-Azam, containing a lot of interesting trivia can be viewed here:

The Colourised Version

Finally, I really disliked the colourised version of Mughal-e-Azam. It wasn’t just a question of limitations in terms of the craft not having been perfected, and the end result looking artificial, but the choice of colours as well- sharp incongruous colours being dashed together. It seemed a case of ‘now that we’re colourising it, let’s put in as many colours as possible in the most unseemly combinations; It doesn’t matter if it looks completely garish, it has to be clear to the audience that Mughal-e-Azam is now in colour!’ Except in the odd scene, the film was not well colourised. It was not even consistently colourised. In the original 1960 release, apart from the ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’/ ‘When one has loved, why fear?’ song, the last twenty minutes or so of the film are in colour, and Anarkali is attired spotless white. It is meant to signify a shroud of sorts as Anarkali has willingly embraced death. In the colourised version, in the scene immediately preceding this (in which she is wearing the same outfit) they have coloured it grey. Not only does it look plain bad, but the symbolism is kind of lost as well. Unfortunately, I have been obliged to provide screencaps from the colourised version as that is the only version available online. The copy of the original (largely black and white) Mughal-e-Azam I own, is actually in the form of an old cassette, which I cannot really obtain screen caps from. ©

recolourisation 2

The white shroud like yet beautiful, dress in the 1960 original version

recolourisation 1

The very same dress in the 2004 recolourised version



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