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31 March 2016

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)

Directed by: Abrar Alvi
Music: Hemant Kumar
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Starring: Rehman, Meena Kumari,
Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman,
DK Sapru, Protima Devi,
Harindranath Chattopadhyay,
Krishan Dhawan, Dhumal,
Nasir Hussain
Today, as I come to the end of  a month of celebrating women's films, I go back to the decade I skipped - the swinging sixties. The reason I kept this decade for later is because today is the 44th death anniversary of one of my favourite heroines, and I wanted to dedicate this post to her. (Some time soon, I will dedicate an entire month to her.) An actress par excellence, Meena Kumari attempted to live her life on her own terms, and fought - heroically, even desperately - for her personal happiness. Somewhere along the line, she failed, and died at the age of 40, a lonely, miserable woman.   
This film that I chose to represent this decade is considered her tour de force. The film's heroine dies fighting for her rights as a wife, as a woman. She dies because she has the effrontery to attempt to control her own destiny, instead of passively waiting for the men in her life to decide her path for her. And therefore, she's punished for stepping out of the lakshman rekha that is drawn to keep women confined to their place in the house and in the society at large.
Atulya Chakraborty (Guru Dutt) is overseeing the demolition of an old ruined haveli. As the workers break for lunch, a deep sadness overcomes the middle-aged architect. He remembers how the haveli once looked - back in its days of glory when he was a naïve young man, then called 'Bhootnath', the name his bua had given him. 
The film moves into the past: Bhootnath, fresh from Fatehpur, is welcomed by his jijaji (Krishan Dhawan) [Bhootnath is his late wife's rakhi brother], who is pleasantly surprised to see him in Calcutta. He takes Bhootnath up to his rooms in a grand haveli, with a strict warning - if Bhootnath wants to remain here, he should be blind and deaf to what's happening around him.

Bhootnath's brother-in-law had come to the haveli to tutor the children; his pupils had ended their studies a long time ago, but the haveli's owners were benevolent - they paid 'Master Babu' (as they called him) a salary, and allowed him to stay on in the house. Bhootnath could stay there with him. Master Babu informs Bhootnath that he had found him employment at the Mohini Sindoor factory - they will pay him the princely sum of Rs7 per month; lunch is free. Bhootnath is highly gratified at the thought that he can eat as much as he wants. 

There's only one fly in the ointment. The owner of Mohini Sindoor Factory, a Suvinay Babu, is a Brahmo Samaji. Everyone knows Brahmo Samajis are mlechchas ('foreigners'/not of the same caste), says Bhootnath.
He's not to worry, says his brother-in-law reassuringly; Suvinay Babu has employed a Hindu maharaj (cook) to cook his meals. They are interrupted by someone calling for Master Babu; the British soldiers have allegedly opened fire in the bazaar. Hearing that, Master Babu abruptly leaves Bhootnath to 'rest' while he takes off with his caller. Since he doesn't return immediately, Bhootnath, left to his own devices, falls asleep. Suddenly, he's awakened by a haunting melody, though he cannot see the singer. 

The next morning, Master Babu takes Bhootnath to meet Suvinay Babu (Nasir Hussain), who seems slightly disturbed upon knowing that Bhootnath comes from Fatehpur, Nadia District.
Even as Bhootnath begins to ask him if Fatehpur is familiar to his host, Suvinay Babu interrupts to ask him his name. 'Bhootnath', he replies, and is greeted by merry laughter from a corner of the room. The owner of that laughter is Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), Suvinay Babu's daughter. 
Bhootnath is not offended - everyone laughs at his name - and Suvinay Babu smiles at his simplicity. 

Bhootnath begins his new job at once; as days pass, he becomes acquainted with the residents of the haveli - Majhle Babu (DK Sapru), the middle brother, and Chhote Babu (Rehman), the youngest one, are the only living siblings - the eldest brother passed away some years earlier. The brothers while away their time in the company of sycophants, spending money like it's going out of fashion - Majhle Babu had earlier confiscated a poor peasant's land, and now, he's marrying his pet cat to a select Persian at an exorbitant cost. What with all this, and dancing girls to entertain him in the evenings, Majhle Babu is content. 
His younger brother is no less dissolute. He spends his time - and money - on tawaifs and drink, leaving his beautiful young wife to sing plaintive songs of waiting. It is her lament that Bhootnath had heard on the night of his arrival. (All this, Bhootnath learns from Bansi (Dhumal), Chhote Babu's personal servant.
Meanwhile, Bhootnath has to deal with Jaba - whose sharp tongue scares him a little - and the maharaj, who doesn't give him enough to eat, but threatens Bhootnath with the loss of his employment if he dares complain. Fortunately for Bhootnath, Jaba overhears the threat; unfortunately for him, Jaba is furious - at him - for being so cowardly as to suffer the maharaj's behaviour silently, and for assuming that she was responsible for not feeding him. The forthright young woman ticks him off quite competently, but underneath all the teasing and the anger, she has a kind heart and Bhootnath is both intrigued by, and attracted to, her. 
On his way back, Bhootnath runs into Bansi who has ventured out in search of his master. Chhoti Bahu needs to break her fast and she can do that only if her husband returns home. However, Chhote Babu, who they find in drunk abandonment in Chunnibai's (Bimla Kumari) kotha, cannot be persuaded to return home. 

Bhootnath begins to understand how desperate Chhoti Bahu's situation is, when she sends Bansi to call him to her private quarters. It has to be at night, and in secret. Bansi promises that no one will know of Bhootnath's visit. (It doesn't reassure Bhootnath, however.) It turns out that the youngest daughter-in-law of the house has seen the advertisement of Mohini sindoor (which claims to bring estranged lovers back together), and is both desperate enough and gullible enough to believe that it will work miracles. She knows that Bhootnath works at the sindoor factoryhence the surreptitious summons. 

Bhootnath's day is ruined before it's even begun and it doesn't help that Jaba is back to her teasing ways. Bhootnath is once again caught between being attracted to the beautiful young woman, and being irritated by her.

That evening, Bansi waylays him on his way to his room, and takes him to Chhoti Bahu's quarters. On the way, they almost run into Badi Bahu, who's washing her hands for the nth time. (It's a regular ritual.)
Once she retires, Bansi hurries Bhootnath along to Chhoti Bahu's rooms, where the young lady sends Bansi away. Bhootnath's nervousness increases. He's so shy, that when she asks him to step forward, he keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the floor. But she is so kind and so gracious, and her matter-of-fact acceptance of his name - Bhootnath - soon has him feeling completely at ease
So much so (much to her amusement), he's telling her all about Jaba. Chhoti Bahu guesses that Bhootnath is completely besotted with Jaba. Bhootnath, equally suddenly, realises that he's been chattering on a little too familiarly; he begs to take leave of her, but Chhoti Bahu has a favour to ask of him - would he get her a little box of Mohini sindoor? It works, doesn't it? Bhootnath is lost - what works? He assumes it will. So Chhoti Bahu asks him to make some discreet enquiries of people who have used the sindoor. He shouldn't mention the matter to Jaba - she's unmarried; besides, she may not understand. Bhootnath is perplexed at all the secrecy, but he promises he will do as he's told. 

However, he uses the question of the sindoor  to subtly tease Jaba, and more than slightly jealous, the affronted Jaba leaves. 
Bhootnath then checks with Suvinay Babu - does the sindoor really work? He doesn't exactly get the reassurance he seeks, but that evening, he takes some sindoor to Chhoti Bahu, who's been eagerly waiting for him. She accepts it gratefully. 

The next day, Bhootnath discovers an unpleasant truth. A chance meeting with his jijaji, Master Babu, in the marketplace reveals that the latter is a patriot. Some British soldiers are looting the stores, and Master Babu, having shoved Bhootnath to the side, flings a bomb at them. When they open fire in retaliation, a stray bullet wounds Bhootnath. When he recovers consciousness, he finds himself being looked after by Jaba - a very annoyed Jaba, because even in his delirium, Bhootnath had been calling out for Chhoti Bahu.  
Before he can express his real feelings towards her, they are interrupted by Bansi, who informs him of the sindoor's failure. The evening when Bhootnath had handed Chhoti Bahu the sindoor, she had ordered Bansi to bring her husband to her quarters the next afternoon. If he refused, Bansi was to tell his master that Chhoti Bahu was ill. An excited Chhoti Bahu, all her hopes pinned on the sindoor, had eagerly dressed up for her husband.
Alas, Chhote Babu was not one to be seduced by his wife's beauty, or her arguments, or even the magic sindoor. It was difficult to watch Chhoti Bahu's despair, laments Bansi.

Bhootnath is devastated. If only he'd not believed all those tales about the sindoor. It's all his fault. He decides to leave Suvinay Babu's house; he cannot stay there any longer. Bansi takes him to a secret room in the women's quarters at the haveli; Chhoti Bahu has specifically asked that he be taken there; all the responsibilities of Bhootnath's treatment will be borne by her.

While Bhootnath is still recovering, it appears that Chhote Babu has changed; one day, Chhoti Bahu finds him in her quarters. Unfortunately, her happiness is short-lived. Her husband has no time for her - 'Main mard hoon, Chhoti Bahu, chhabiyon ka ye guchcha nahin hoon jo sada tere pallu se bandhi rahoon.' ('I'm a man, Chhoti Bahu, not a bunch of keys tied to your sari.')  
She begs him to tell her how she might please him so he will remain at home, remain with her, only to be rebuffed. The tawaif whom he regularly visits, her husband tells her cruelly, can sing and dance, and drink, and... can she do that? Chhoti Bahu is shocked, but driven to the edge of desperation by his neglect, she takes his taunts to heart. Bhootnath is deputed to bring her liquor. She's in no mood to listen to his shocked entreaties - she must have liquor, she will have it. 

Later, alone with her husband, her courage deserts her when she has to drink it, but her husband pours it down her throat. 
Meanwhile, Suvinay Babu has sent for Bhootnath - the knowledge that he has been selling false hopes has caused him to fall ill. Dejected, he has closed down the sindoor factory. He gives Bhootnath Rs500 as compensation for ending his employment, and also gives him a letter of recommendation to a friend - the man will give Bhootnath a job. But he also has a very unpleasant surprise in store for Bhootnath; Suvinay Babu has arranged Jaba's marriage - to Supavitra (Jawahar Kaul), another Brahmo Samaji.
How will all this resolve? Will her drinking help Chhoti Bahu gain (and retain) her husband's affections? Will Jaba's and Bhootnath's unspoken love story find a happy ending? Or will the Fates play havoc with these (wo)men and their desires, as is their wont? When and how did the haveli fall into the ruins that the much older Bhoothnath is now excavating? Where is his Chhoti Bahu?  

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, based on a novel by noted Bengali author, Bimal Mitra, is the story of a young upper-class woman, unhappily married to the debauched youngest scion of a once-renowned feudal family. It is set during the British Raj, during the days of the decline of the feudal system (and the concurrent rise of the Brahmo Samaj). 

In showing the valiant, yet ultimately doomed attempt of Chhoti Bahu to become the wife of her husband's desires - companion, wife, sexual partner - the film is a strong indictment of the brutal world in which women were seen as little more than commodities. Wives were respectable' women, whose job was to uphold their husbands' honour, and provide male heirs; mistresses were used to provide pleasurable companionship that included sexual favours.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two songs that show the disparate sides of female and male desire - the tremulous Piya aiso jiya mein so filled with hope, and the sensual Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi, which focuses as much on the dancers and their song, as it did on the lascivious gaze of Majhle Babu and his cronies. 
VK Murthy's camera work was brilliant - most especially in this sequence, which had the background dancers shot in silhouette, while the camera focused on Meenu Mumtaz, and in the Koi door se awaaz de sequence both songs were masterly displays of light and shadow. So also the way he framed Meena Kumari.  

Hemant Kumar's sensual score complements the chaotic emotions that are displayed on screen - from the pathos of Na jaao saiyyan (as Chhoti Bahu attempts to seduce her husband) to the despair of Meri baat rahi mere man mein to Piya aiso jiya mein to the haunting Koi door se awaaz de chale aao... Geeta Dutt's voice dripped with the pain and pathos mirrored on screen by Meena Kumari. (It seemed rather appropriate - both Meena and Geeta were, at the time, were extremely saddened by their personal lives.)   

Originally meant to star Shashi Kapoor (who didn't have the dates) and then, Biswajeet, Guru Dutt stepped in when it became clear that they didn't have a hero when shooting began. Similarly, the role of Chhoti Bahu was first offered to Meena Kumari, then to Nargis and Chhaya Arya before it came back to Meena. (Waheeda herself wanted to play the role, but was rejected by Guru Dutt; she even did a photo shoot. It was only when cameraman Murthy told her that Guru was right, Waheeda didn't fit the role, that she accepted the rejection.) Can one imagine anyone other than Meena Kumari in this role? 
Her eyes, suffused with despair; her voice, husky with emotion; her ability to submerge herself into the character - all this made Chhoti Bahu more than just a maudlin housewife who disintegrates into alcoholism when rejected by her husband. Meena Kumari, who appears almost 40 minutes into the film, was its soul, turning in an electrifying performance as the tormented, desperate wife who stakes her all into winning the attentions of her husband. If you look at Piya aiso jiya main as an exploration of a woman's sexuality and her pathetic desire to be more than 'just a housewife', then Na jaao saiyyan is a poignant plea to be accepted, even though she's fallen from grace. 
When even that fails, and she spirals into alcoholism, her husband's contempt sears her - Hindu ghar ki bahu hokar, kya sharab pee hai kissine? (Has any Hindu daughter-in-law ever drunk liquor before?) she snaps, her hurt palpable in her moist eyes and her quivering voice. 
Meena Kumari's performance encapsulated all that Chhoti Bahu felt - her searing sexuality, her doomed attempts at seduction, her desolate heartbreak, her loss of self as she finds solace in alcohol... Finally beyond enduring the insults and the humiliation, she accuses her husband of impotence. Yet, when he returns to her, paralysed and helpless, she still has hope that he will finally be hers; after all, he has repented.  
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam wouldn't have been the classic it is, if it weren't for this towering performance from an accomplished actress. In Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography, journalist/author Vinod Mehta quotes from Meena's diary as saying that Chhoti Bahu troubled her a great deal; she was 'sick of her'. As Chhoti Bahu, Meena was alternately gentle, loving, coquettish, seductive, bitter, angry, desperate, and tormented, sometimes multiple emotions warring with each other across her expressive face. This is one of the finest performances by any actress in any language.  
Waheeda, in the secondary role which, according to her, Guru Dutt didn't want her to accept, was perfect as the chirpy Jaba, who taunts and teases and maddens the simple Bhootnath, with her behaviour. She is 'modern', educated, independent, even flirtatious, but paradoxically, agrees to accept the husband whom she is not even aware that she is married to; of course, fortunately for her, it turns out to be the man she loves. Is it that, despite her education, she cannot shake off the shackles of the centuries of traditionalism that is part of her background, if not her upbringing? Does nature score over nurture here? Her father obviously wants her to marry someone else...
...so why does she, a strong, independent woman, choose to remain married to someone to whom she was married when she was but a year oldwho may turn out to be a dissolute wastrel, and who may or may not accept her because she's now a Brahmo Samaji?

These two primary women characters - Chhoti Bahu and Jaba - form a study in contrasts. The former is an upper-class woman, trapped in a marriage where her husband tells her: 'Gehne tudwaao, gehne banaao. Aur koriyaan khelo. So aaram se.' ('Break jewellery, get it made again, play with cowries and sleep well.'
That's what women of her class do. She is supposed to remain a dressed-up doll, and to provide a male heir. She has no right to want to be loved, to be seen as a person in her own right.  

Jaba, on the other hand is, because of her Brahmo Samaj background, educated; she is intelligent and beautiful, and in some ways (not all), the master of her own fate.  However, she's 'rewarded' for staying within the boundaries of what is acceptable, while Chhoti Bahu is punished for her 'transgression'. (So one wonders what the final lesson is, for women, here.)  
What I find interesting in these two women characters is that it is the uneducated, tradition-bound Chhoti Bahu who's the stronger of the two - Jaba has the means and the support to rebel, but she chooses not to; Chhoti Bahu, on the other hand, has neither the support nor the wherewithal to attain her dreams, but she makes use of all the means at her disposal to {try}claw her desired future out of her bleak present. 
Her relationship with Bhootnath, beginning with gratitude on her side, and ending with an unquestioning support on his, was beautifully characterised - her gentle smiles and affection for this simple man dissolving into tears and desperation and even anger as she begs for his help to attain her goal. (There are also moments of ambivalence - does Bhootnath love his Chhoti Bahu? It appears that she thinks he does - Tum mujhe chaahte ho, na? [You love me, don't you?] she asks him, at one point.) And even if she falls into alcoholism due to that hopeless longing for something more than just a social position, she infuses a dignity into her downfall.
Alongside are the other two daughters-in-law. The eldest, a widow (Protima Devi), immerses herself in religious rituals. The middle one is taken up with jewellery and clothes, spending money as lavishly as her husband does. The latter doesn't understand 'Chhoti'- why does she yearn for her husband's company? Chhoti is a disgrace to the Chaudhary women.
Guru Dutt, never a great actor, was competent as the naïve Bhootnath, who unwittingly becomes the friend and confidante of the young Chhoti Bahu.  His awe of her, as evidenced by the look on his face the first time he sees her (the camera lovingly follows his gaze from her feet to her face), changes into a deep sympathy and a loyalty that never falters, despite his love for Jaba. 
As the 'ghulam', he's the outsider, through whose eyes we 'see' the disintegration of a social order, and through whom, we discover the fate of the unfortunate Chhoti Bahu. I usually find Guru Dutt the weakest of all the actors in a frame, and even here, where he's given an better-than-expected performance, he's outclassed by Meena Kumari and even by Waheeda in the scenes they have together.  

Rehman, playing the 'Sahib' of the title, was appropriately debauched. He is a fine actor at the best of times, and here, as in other roles, he gives his Chhote Sarkar a gravitas that imbues an unsympathetic role with an edge. In Na jaao saiyyan, for instance, after he forces his wife to drink alcohol to prove her love for him, one can see the different emotions shift across his face - his initial indifference giving way to a momentary lust, which alas, turns into sheer boredom by the time his wife is laying herself at his feet.
Alongside is a very important character, albeit a lifeless one - the haveli that is at the heart of the film, where slowly, but surely, the tragedy of Chhoti Bahu plays out. The haveli is both dark and claustrophobic, and one gets the feeling of being increasingly trapped within its walls. For the women who cannot cross its threshold, it is nothing less than a prison.  
The haveli stands testimony to a decaying age, and like all good mansions, has a resident lunatic - Ghadi Babu (Harindranath Chattopadhyay, in a cameo), who prophecies that the haveli and its indolent, debauched denizens will fall prey to the ravages of time.

Years later, as the haveli's ruins are excavated, the now-middle-aged Bhootnath /Atulya Chakraborty discovers that the past and his Chhoti Bahu still have a stranglehold on his memory; neither are so easily interred. 
So. Eight decades. Eight films. A dozen women characters. Not all of them had happy endings, not all the 'happy' endings were conventionally happy. These women, they came from different economic and social strata, they were housewives and working women, even prostitutes; they were educated, or not. But all of them had one thing in common - none were passive spectators in their own life. Within the parameters of the roles they played in the social and familial set up of their times, they took the reins of their lives in their own hands. 

They had something else in common - they all came up against patriarchal rules and mores that dictated how they should behave, and they all fought against the shackles of tradition that dictated their 'place' in society. If some of them didn't succeed, they still paved the way for others in their positions to raise their voices against social injustice. What is intriguing - and frightening - when you look at the eight films that I chose to represent eight decades of film making, is how little things have changed for women. 

Yes, we have made progress; yes, many things have changed; but it appears to me that everything is coming full circle - we are still told how to sit and how to stand, how to dress and how to behave, how to be good daughters and wives and mothers, as if that is the only reason for our existence. We are excoriated for the way we speak, slandered for being 'too aggressive' if we speak up, sexually harassed both online and in real life, verbally or physically - and if we dare to complain, we are told that we are being 'too sensitive' and to 'grow a thicker skin', 'don't take it personally', 'ignore' those who harass us. 

We are told it is 'our fault' that we are eve-teased - 'What did you do?' If a woman is raped, the response - even from the authorities - is 'Boys will be boys' or 'She was asking for it - why was she dressed so 'provocatively'/'out alone so late at night'? (Both, statements made by various political leaders in the wake of high-profile sexual assault cases in India.) If we raise our voices, we are told we are pulling the 'women /victim' card.

Everything has changed, and yet... nothing has.

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