Feb 6, 2016

Pakeezah - a (belated) review

I have enjoyed the songs of this movie - Pakeezah - over the years. Since my interest is more towards film music and I have very little patience for sitting through 2 or even 3 hours of movies, I never watched the movie. I did buy a "Video-CD" of the movie in Singapore back in late 90s DVDs were much rarer but tapes out of fashion. But that too was used to watch the songs, skipping the movie itself, thanks to the menu system.

Browsing through various blogs and websites, the first of which I stumbled across by accident kindled an interest in the movie. This movie is unique in one respect at least in that it took 14 years to film. I kept reading more and more about the filming, the marital troubles of its Producer/Director Kamal Amrohi and leading lady Meena Kumari and various other gossip. All of this forced me to search for the old VCD and watch it. The quality was atrocious, this being a VCD with low resolution but I still was able to enjoy the film, doing a mental interpolation of how the various scenes would have looked with a better recording and in the big screen. (I have decided to buy the DVD and watch it again since watching it at a movie theater will never probably happen). And I have to admit, my Urdu is quite weak so I probably missed some of the poetic dialogues which add to the mystique and cult status the film has come to enjoy.

Apart from these factors yet another difficulty will have to be faced by anyone reviewing this movie - how to stay aloof from all the legends that circulate about the filming, the personalities, the huge cost, the tragic death of Meena Kumari and so on. While they are part of the mystique, they should ideally not bias a review. I will try to do that.

Bollywood films have often been criticised for adhering to fixed 'masala' themes that repeat film after film. You know the grind - brothers separated at birth, reunited by a 'family song', oppressive mother in law/landlord/Seth/Lala, unfilial son and so on. A few do manage to stay clear of this morass and attain status of classics, or even cult classics. Sure Pakeezah is one such film, regardless of what this (or any other) reviewer thinks about it. That is a fact. Question is what is in there that justifies it?

One can split the problem in to pieces and analyze each one in isolation. The screenplay, music, acting (or absence thereof), editing, picturisation or cinematography and so on. Obviously a film and its magic is more than a sum of its parts. Many films have bombed at the box office even if quite a few of these components were of the highest quality. Some do even if almost all of them were great. In fact, Pakeezah nearly failed, landing perhaps 20 years too late to an audience that had moved on. It appears to have been rescued primarily due to the tragic death of Meena Kumari.

Nevertheless, awards including Oscars are given for specific roles even though they may or may not have made a film successful or popular on the whole. From this perspective let us look at each of the pieces that make up this film


I am mentioning this first as this appears to be the weakest link. Yes, the story of a 'tawaif' (prostitute) leaving behind her past and settling down to normal married life after many trials and tribulations has enough emotive appeal. But screenplay is not just a big picture theme. It is also the way the story moves and reaches a "logical" end. Here we use the term logic quite carefully, since you have to suspend lot of credulity and rationale for any movie and even more so for a Bollywood movie!

While one coincidence can be excused, the story has one too many. The main character, Sahibjaan finding the hero (Raaj Kumar) twice by serendipity is somewhat difficult to digest. There are other scenes or twists that are strange to say the least. The final scene where the girl's aunt cum guardian tells her dying father (he's just been shot) he will be accepted by her as one only if he gets her married! Salim the hero who dared to defy his family over the marriage promptly agreeing to another (presumably arranged) one, and rubbing salt in the wounds of his lover Sahibjaan by inviting her to dance at his own wedding is another silly turn I just couldn't appreciate. After all, if the guy is sensitive and sensible enough to marry a courtesan, he should also know the sort of pressure and ridicule she is facing from a patriarchal and conservative society that forced her to walk out of the marriage. We also don't know what happened to that poor bride who is now left adrift for no fault of hers! Unless of course, we are to believe he married both, allowed under Islamic law.

Mind you, we are not judging the film by the usual masala standards here.

I would perhaps give a 5/10 for the quality of the story.


This is one of the main reasons for the cult status of the film. Raaj Kumar's reputation for his Urdu diction and "dialogue delivery", Kamal Amrohi's dialogues that are more like poetry than formal prose or even conversational Hindi have made many one liners and entire paragraphs popular even to this day. My favorite is not the usually cited "your feet will get dirty, don't step down" but the loaded "Aap kis kis ka naam poochenge" response of Sahibjaan when Salim asks her who is the guy that's trying to harass her. Though just six words, it is so difficult to effectively translate to English, even using lots more, a testimony to the power of Hindi/Urdu in conveying complex ideas with few words, as well as Kamal Amrohi's talent for dialogue writing.

There the poor ex-prostitute appears resigned to face more of such harassment in the hands of the town's male folk and the futility of explaining the past to her husband. Eventually this reaches a breaking point and she runs away from the wedding refusing to say "I do" but screaming "No".

What makes the dialogues even more effective in this movie is the fact that there aren't that many. Unlike lengthy lectures, teary sermons and fifteen minute death bed speeches that are usually featured in Indian movies, it is the pauses and silence that are used by the director with great effect. For instance, when Sahibjaan who was pretending memory loss finally confesses to her beau Salim, not only is the key t-word drowned in music, there are no further words. The scene simply dissolves into the song sequence - Chalo dildhar chalo.

Have to give 9/10.

Songs and Music

As I mentioned earlier I have enjoyed these songs for years, initially just for the sweet voice of Lata Mangeshkar and the excellent music of Ghulam Mohammad and subsequently taking the trouble of listening carefully to the lyrics, finding meaning for the odd tough Urdu word whose meaning escapes non native speakers and experts. It is one thing to produce one or two hits and quite another level of accomplishment to produce six or seven of them, each one likely to stand the test of time and remain popular for ages. Forty years have not dulled their magic, another hundred is not likely to.

The music has a 50s feel, though shot through the 60s and released in the early 70s. That is actually good because Hindi film music has only seen decline from the mid-60s with noise and poor imitations of western pop and other genre substituting for good soft melody and gracious tunes often based on Indian classical music. Ghulam Mohammed manages to capture the elaborate complexity of a western style orchestra, for the most part using simple Indian instruments like Sarangi, tabla, even claps.

What impressed me most about the songs was the fact that most of them stayed true to the main story line and carried deep meanings and conveyed deep messages, yet remaining so sweet you could simply forget everything and just listen to them, not even understanding one word. Though almost all were rendered by Lata Mangeshkar with Rafi-saheb playing a minor role in the only duet, they don't sound repetitive or boring. Far from it.

If the first song "Inhi logon ne" neatly transfers the blame for a prostitute's societal status to its male members who are often her customers, the best of the lot (IMHO) "Mausam hai"  powerfully conveys the woman's desire for true companionship, not the sort she is paid for each night but a different one that she can cherish as hers. The poor logic of her longing for a gentleman she's never even seen once gets washed away in the beautiful words and dulcet tune and background music, and her own strong desire to be 'normal'.  This is the night she is waiting for, the "shab-e-intezar' (night of waiting, longing) that she hopes will be become brief (mukhtassar) as the earlier song Chalte Chalte so beautifully conveys.

Having said that, I really could not fathom the meaning of the climax song. Not the words, but the real meaning, I mean. The taunting tone of the song where Meena Kumar says "want to see wounded hearts" is odd considering she is the one that rejected the wedding. But then that takes away nothing from the music director or Lataji.

10/10. Nothing else will do justice.


In any great movie, it is not just the main actors that have to do a good job, pretty much everyone has to be good. Even a minor role played by an indifferent actor can spoil the show. On the contrary a good actor, even in a minor role, can dominate the scene and capture the hearts of the viewer. In Pakeezah, it can be safely said most if not all have done a decent job.

Meena Kumari  has been cleverly under exposed by the director, for a variety of reasons as we learn from reports - her illness, her reputed inability to dance, huge age difference caused by the long hiatus (that shows up clearly in many scenes) etc. You see a lot of shots from the rear, distant ones, veiled ones etc. Yet whenever she does appear with her face facing the audience, she does a great job, clearly and convincingly expressing the inner turmoil and the contrived smiling face of the courtesan.

The other actors, for a movie of this length, get even less screen time. Primarily because of the long dance sequences, songs and the camera's focus on the wider landscape with close-ups showing just the eyes on many occasions (like those Sergio Leone movies). Yet they perform creditably. That is not surprising given their reputation. Ashok Kumar, Raaj Kumar are actors known for their versatility and competence. Nadira is an actress of no ordinary merit (Shree 420). Despite the 6 year age gap with Meena Kumari, Veena who plays her aunt looks great in addition to doing a good job.

Although the script offers enormous scope for what one may term "over acting" thankfully none of the actors can be held guilty of that, with the possible exception of  Sapru who plays the old family patriarch Hakeem saheb.

Perhaps 8/10?


Kamal Amrohi wears several hats. He wrote the story, the screen play and dialogues, produced the film and also directed it. Given this fact, it is very hard to assess his role as a Director. After all where does one role start and the other ends when you control so many of them? Reminds me of the classic conversation between the Vicar and Jason Rudd (played by Rock Hudson) in the movie "Mirror Crack'd". Producer is the one that gets the ulcer because the Director over spends! Furthermore, when you have a person of the calibre of Josef Wirsching behind the camera, it becomes even harder to assign the appropriate credit (or debit as accountants would say) to the right role.  The magic one experiences in any particular scene is a good mix of all of these, even ignoring the actors involved. The producer that wants the best, regardless of cost, the perfectionist Director that makes the cameraman sweat for the right angle and distance, the cinematographer that has a knack of filling the scene with a painting instead of just a movie frame. You see a bit of all in Pakeezah.

Producer Amrohi has obviously given a free hand to the Director Amrohi. The lavish sets capture the luxuriously decadent lifestyles of Lucknow Muslim elite which should be quite familiar to the Producer/Director being one himself.

Coming back to the direction, I find it hard to justify the cult status simply on this count. There are a few 'touches' like the golden caged bird, Kite, snake and so on that convey complex symbolism and meanings. There is also the clever use of the train's whistle that constantly remind us (and Sahibjaan) of her fleeting encounter and the promise it holds.

As with the dialogues and acting, even the direction is, for the most part, understated and subtle. Even the sole fighting scene is devoid of the usual dishum dishum of Hindi movies. Not even once is Meena Kumari shown in bed with or in the arms of a 'customer' despite her profession made obvious. (The river barge scene too is tastefully done with Meena Kumari sitting on the other end of the bed).

The climax was disappointing though. Apart from various things I have highlighted earlier, it just felt too 'filmi' or 'Bollywoodish' for a movie that stays several notches higher in most other respects.  The entire story line collapses for want of logic. Everyone has a sudden change of heart. Meena Kumari agrees to the wedding, her aunt (who, as cited earlier, spirited her away overnight to avoid handing her over to Ashok Kumar) seeks out Sahabuddin and informs him in public about his daughter, when nothing much has changed. Having more or less acted as a pimp for her niece for years, she suddently wants to see her married. The grand old patriarch Hakim who plays the of harsh Uncle, too becomes a dove. The song itself and the bizarre blood soaked dance finale adds to the effect. The only one other than the hero, who maintains his character throughout the film is Ashok Kumar who never disowned his daughter and in fact spent years searching for her. But then again, I am mixing up the story with Direction..can't be helped in this film.

Have to give 6/10


Like I said earlier, it hardly matters, since the cult classic status of this film is secure and I myself would probably watch it again and again for various reasons. Somehow the various ingredients and circumstances, some tragic, come together as if by magic to create even bigger magic, leaving us with an end product that would stand the test of time.