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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pakeezah: the ultimate tale of love, desire, sensuality and despair in feudal India

Raat gayi, baat gayi  (The night has passed and so has the matter), Meena Kumari was rumored to have said this to one gentleman who had gone to meet her enthusiastically the other day following a night spent with her, according to an anecdote included in autobiography of Vinod Mehta.

How was the life of this star in Hindi Cinema whose personal life was quite different from that of most others? I am not exactly knowledgeable person about the field but this extraordinary character caught my attention when I read some lines about her in Mehta’s autobiography. Months later when website of Outlook magazine published one chapter detailing her unusual movie Pakeezah from her biography written by Mehta, the urge to watch the movie was irresistible. Then I downloaded and watched it. 

It was devastating; I mean, a brilliantly artistic portrayal of the life of young women who are used in various identities to satiate the lust of rich and powerful men. (One powerful portrayal of such character can be found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. One recent Hindi movie Dirty Picture also pretty well depicted the melancholic lives of such women.) With awareness of the troubled relationship between Meena Kumari and her husband, Kamal Amrohi, the writer/producer/director of the movie, the travails in the reel appear all the more realistic. 
The exoticness of nearly every scene of the movie can be partly explained by the fact that Pakeezah was the ultimate gift from Amrohi to his wife which cost him 15 years of time and a staggering Rs. 1.5 crores at that time. That, however, falls short of explaining everything. Many people choose to credit the (un)timely death of Meena Kumari for the commercial success of the movie but here also there is definitely much more. 

To me, the movie is of special importance because it gives a realistic impression of the bygone days in India when the Muslim aristocracy used to have big financial clout and had its cultural ramifications including holding ‘Mujra’ dances. The sublime way in which Amrohi advances the story brings both the panorama of the culture and his artistic shrewdness as the director together. The sad reality that the creator of great and unparalleled classic music like in songs ‘Inhi Logon ne’ and ‘Chalte Chalte’, in the movie,  Ghulam Muhammad, was destitute and grief-stricken before passing away ( also before the movie was completed) speaks about another dimension of the Hindi Cinema.

Apparently Pakeezah is not alone in depicting the lives of such women known in Urdu as ‘Tawaif’s. But it is successful to bring the perspective of the tawaifs themselves in the cultural milieu of feudal society, an aspect that is ordinarily forgotten. How long does the physical beauty last? And what happens later to those who depend upon it for their livelihood? While the nuances between the then tawaifs and today’s ordinary prostitutes are significant, yet the matters boil down to same point: everybody is ready to give them attention and many remunerate them after service but none gives them dignity and respect. Once vicious cycle starts, the prospects of ever getting out of it become grimmer by the day. When they realize magnitude and gravity of the problem, it is usually too late to gain any dignity or respect. 

It is this portrayal of torment of these women that makes Pakeezah special. This exact torment takes so heavy a toll in the mental health of the lead character, Sahebjaan (played by Meena Kumari) that the paradox of entire life makes her nearly insane when a Nikah is about to take place with Salim (Raaj Kumar) after he dares challenge his feudal grandfather to elope with her. The choice of her new name as ‘Pakeeza’ or the ‘pure’ for her by Salim (while she did know how ‘pure’ she was) is only one among the dozens of striking uses of symbolism to illustrate the paradoxes in life. 

The tumult in the personal life of the tawaifs apart, both their longing for ordinary life and the intractable despair resulting from inability to achieve that normalcy forms the backbone of the story. Till the very end of the movie the past crimes come to haunt Sahebhaan again and again until even Salim plunges into vengeful retaliation inviting her for a Mujra for his marriage with another girl. What happens then should probably remain a suspense for those who are yet to watch the movie. 

Beside the movie itself which is an excellent piece of creativity, the attachments and travails of people like Amrohi, Meena Kumari and Ghulam Muhammad to the movie, on their own ways, make this movie special. Before closing this, one of Meena Kumari’s poems (by the way, she wrote beautiful poems and this was apparently written about her relationship with Amrohi):

टुक्रे टुक्रे दिन बिता, धज्जी धज्जी रात मिली,
जिस्का जितना आँचल था, उत्नी ही सौगात मिली

जब चाहा दिलको सम्झें, हँस्नेकी आवाज सुनी,
जैसे कोइ कहता हो, ले फिर तुझको मात मिली

मातें कैसी घातें क्या, चल्ते रहना आठ पहर,
दिलसा साथी जब पाया, बेचैनी भी साथ मिली

Read the excerpts from Mehta's biography of Meena Kumari, in a chapter about making of Pakeezah here.

This is the second movie review in this blog. The first one was the combo review of 'Three Idiots' and 'Avatar' a version of which was also published by Speaking Freely, Asia Times Online. Read the original review in this blog here.

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