BY RUBY CHINGU
“I am now convinced you are nothing but my destiny,” said Salim.
Directed and written by: Kamal Amrohi
Starring: Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar, Ashok Kumar
Pakeezah, or Pure Heart, tells the story of a Lucknow tawaif (courtesan) named Sahibjaan. Her mother, Nargis, also a courtesan, died a few weeks after giving birth to her. Nargis conceived Sahibjaan during an affair with an aristocratic man, Shahabuddin. He wanted to marry her but the match was opposed by Shahabuddin’s father, resulting in Nargis running away and disappearing from his life.
Sahibjaan was raised by Nargis’s sister, Nawabjaan. Like her mother, she became a skilled dancer and singer. By the age of 17, she became well-known and sought after by many suitors. Shahabuddin, who discovered the existence of his daughter only seventeen years later, came to search for her in Nawabjaan’s brothel. Next morning, Nawabjaan and Sahibjaan moved to a new town to escape the man and along the way, Sahibjaan met with a man, Salim Ahmed Khan, who fell in love with her just by looking at her beautiful feet.
It doesn’t make any sense in the modern world but in the old days, I believe that could happen. Perhaps tawaif had prettier feet than ours.
A few incidences happened which ended with Sahibjaan eloping with Salim. They planned to get married. However, everywhere Sahibjaan went, the men seemed to recognize her as a courtesan who used to sing and dance in front of them. Haunted by her previous reputation, she refused to marry her lover and returned to the brothel. Salim then decided to marry another woman a few months later and Sahibjaan went to his family mansion to perform, only to discover that her father, Shahabuddin, was Salim’s uncle.
Shahabuddin’s autocratic father tried to shoot Sahibjaan but the bullet hit Shahabuddin instead, who shielded his daughter. Prior to his death, Salim and Sahibjaan agreed to marry each other.
Theme:1 – Honour, Dignity and Reputation
This film deals a lot with dignity. Tawaif, though a respected profession, is not deemed a profession of dignity. This is proven by the repulsiveness of Shahabuddin’s father to accept a tawaif as his daughter-in-law. It is ironic in many sense. The tawaif was an industry created to entertain the upper and aristocratic classes during the Mughal empire in India. Their establishments were often visited by this men and some of the visits might result in intercourse.
However, when it comes to a legal bond, or marriage, tawaifs were the women one should avoid. Why? Because it was not considered honourable to marry a tawaif. But they said nothing of dignity when they paid the tawaifs to perform for them. See the double standard there? They saw the tawaifs only as a commodity for entertainment. They respected them for their artistic values. BUT they did not regard them as human of equal dignity.
Men could love women much but this kind of love does not include respect.
Tawaifs, however, must be differentiated from prostitution. Indeed, I believe the practice of prostitution varies according to history. Based on Wikipedia, tawaifs used to be one of the artistic communities and the pioneers of many classical Indian cultures like ghazals, poetry and literature.
What I Love About The Film: The Visual Details
It depicted lifestyle in India before Independence where the tawaif culture was still in existence. There are a lot of Kathak dances shown. The music is a strong element in this film. Safe to say, the tawaif culture is the backbone of Pakeezah. The film is driven by the portrayal of Sahibjaan and the tawaifs around her.
I love Meena Kumari since I saw her in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. She had a beautiful round face with a small stature and a soft husky voice. She rarely played comedy roles and was known as the Tragedy Queen for her skills in playing sad characters. In Pakeezah, she embodied the innocence of Sahibjaan, a woman with a pure heart but less-than-pure destiny. She was beautiful but trapped in the life meant for a courtesan. She was loved by many men but she loved only one man – who was beyond her reach.
It is to be noted that this film took more than 14 years to be completed. Why? Kamal Amrohi, the director and Meena Kumari, our main actress who played Sahibjaan, were married when they began filming. Along the way, they were divorced. It was an unhappy marriage. Plus, Meena was the third wife. Thus, after the divorce, production halted. Only after persuasion by their close friends that they resumed filming. By that time, our heroine, Meena Kumari, in her late thirties, was very ill. There were many of scenes of her sitting down or lying on the bed, most probably because she was too ill to walk.
Meena Kumari died a few weeks after this film was completed.
More than just a love story, Pakeezah, for me, is also a form of social commentary into the lives of women in Indian society. The profession of a tawaif had the ability to accord a woman an independent income, fame and stability. However, to climb through the upper ranks in society and to find love become impossible. Men who love tawaifs have to embrace the fact that their beloveds are desired by many men. That, alone, causes terrible heartaches into the lives of tawaifs.
Being a society historically entrenched to caste system, the profession of tawaifs was determined mostly by family lineage. If a mother is a tawaif, it is most likely that the daughter would also train to become one. It is some sort of a cycle, a destiny that had to be accepted. To leave the cycle and going against the caste system necessitates elopement. That is what Sahibjaan, the heroine, tried to do in order to marry her lover. However, due to her fame, she could not escape the attention of men around her, wherever she went and was ostracized by the men who paid to see her sing and dance. Unlike Sahibjaan who did get her happy endings, many of her peers suffered the fate of being ignored by society after their glory diminished. They had fame and sorrow, celebrated but mournful lives.