This trip back home I bought a truck load (quite literally) of books and movies to bring back. Most of the movies were old classics that I had seen a while back but wanted to own. Pakeezah was one of them – it’s a beautiful collector’s edition DVD. I had mentioned the movie in an old post, more than anything it’s the music of the movie I love.
Watching it after a a few years now, I was surprised at how I had almost completely forgotten how clichéd and cheesy the movie really is. It didn’t make me love the movie any less, however. Pakeezah, for all its flaws, is deeply endearing.
Tawaifs have been fodder for Hindi movies since forever  and Pakeezah tells the story of one such courtesan. The movie has Meena Kumari in (something of) a double role – she is the blonde haired, light eyed Nargis whom Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) falls in love with and decides to marry. When his family rejects her, she runs away and starts living in a cemetery where she gives birth to a daughter before dying. The infant is raised by Nargis’s sister in the world of kothas in the Chowk district of Lucknow and by the time (a number of years later) Shahabuddin finds out he has a daughter she has already become a famous as a tawaif called Saheb Jaan (Meena Kumari again). When Shahubuddin confronts Nargis’s sister about his daughter who he wishes to take back home the aunt hastily shifts to Delhi (I think) with Sahib Jaan.
It’s while the train stops at a station (named Suhag Pur(!)) en route to their new destination that Salim (the wonderful Raaj Kumar) enters the Sahib Jaan’s compartment by mistake. It is this moment that gives us one of the most famous moments of Hindi cinema – taken in at the sight of the sleeping Sahib Jaans feet, beautifully adorned and coloured, peeping out of the sheets, Salim writes her a note that says “Aap ke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega. Maile ho jayenge” . For Sahib Jaan the note becomes a hope of a life different from the one she is living, of a man who might truly love her. When circumstances do reunite the two, Salim wants to marry Sahib Jaan and she faces a whole new set of questions – should she acquiesce and sully her beloveds name and reputation? She is, after all, a courtesan.
The deep irony of the movie is encapsulated in the note that Salim writes Sahib Jaan. Don’t ever put your feet on the ground, he says. This when her livelihood comes from dancing for clients. The tawaifs of North India were famous for the high culture of dance and poetry, being companions of rich nawabs and teaching them etiquette and manners. And yet, they were never respectable. As the movie has it, it is for the man, then, to rescue the courtesan from ill fate. It is not surprising that when Salim accepts her, he renames Sahib Jaan Pakeezah – the pure one. (This is not a movie that was out to make any revolutionary point.) Sahib Jaan herself is strangely passive; she seems in some cases to want to be more miserable, making proceedings somewhat frustrating.
All that said, this is a very romantic movie. Over the top romance. That, despite the many contrivances and inanities of the plot the romance doesn’t fall flat, rather comes off as truly captivating and charming, is what really makes the film. (Did I mention that I really love Raaj Kumar as Salim?). Pakeezah is not a subtle film – eye popping colours, massive over the top sets, gorgeous clothes, melodrama – so I think the magnified sense of romance goes with that. It adds to the charm of the movie in that it hints at a world that no longer exists. The movie also captures the decadence of the time – no wonder decline was just around the corner.
Finally, Pakeezah would not be the movie it is without its utterly gorgeous songs. This is probably my favourite Hindi soundtrack of all time. There is not one bad song here. It’s not surprising that Derek Malcom calls it one of the most extraordinary musical melodramas ever made. Ghulam Mohammed died after composing only a few songs following which Naushad took over. If I am not mistaken, Mohammed finished the background score, which is especially lovely in some parts, such as some of the scenes set in the Chowk areas. You can almost imagine a tawaif across the building practicing before her performance, in the background.
The songs are almost sub stories in themselves. The wonderfully flirtatious and telling Inhiin Logon Ne (le liina dupatta mera)  – these are the people who have taken away my modesty. Sahib Jaan singing about the chance encounter with a stranger in Chalte Chalte. Or Teer- e- Nazar Dekhenge, where Raaj Kumar breaks my heart. And my absolute favourite Chalo Dildar Chalo about travelling together to the far side of the moon. The video below (and picture above) is of Thare Rahiyo , wonderfully choreographed, and where Meena Kumari looks her loveliest in the movie . Watch and enjoy.
 The other movie on a similar theme I dearly love is Umrao Jaan. I have wanted to read Mirza Mohammed Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada and I finally have it. A reviewing of the movie after I finish might be in order
 “I saw your feet; they’re very lovely. Don’t set them down on the earth—they’ll get soiled.”
 A clip of the initial shooting of the song, in black and white, here.
 I haven’t seen the 2006 version of Umrao Jaan (I am loath to) but the song Salaam has a lot of steps that seem very inspired from this song (and many more from the other tracks in Pakeezah, though that could be due to the similarity in the themes of the movies). Meena Kumari was not really a dancer, but I find Thare Rahiyo very subtle, graceful and suggestive. Aishwarya on the other hand is, I think, very jumpy and there’s something about some of her movements in the song that irritates me but I can’t put a finger on what. Views may vary of course, but what do you think?
 Pakeezah famously took more than a decade to complete. Director Kamal Amrohi and Kumari’s marriage broke up soon after the filming began. By the time Kumari came back to finish the movie she was already an alcoholic (she died of cirrhosis of the liver soon after the movie released). It’s not very difficult when watching the movie to figure out which parts had been shot earlier. In some scenes Kumari looks significantly older and puffier.