We’ve grown up adoring and anointing the fallen woman, the filmy tawaif with the heart of gold who gives herself in love selflessly. From Meena Kumari in Pakeezah to Sharmila Tagore in Amar Prem to Madhuri Dixit in Devdas, they’ve all risen to great heights of sublimity by playing the fallen women.
It’s a shocker, I know.
Waheeda Rehman’s Gulabo in Pyaasa which was released on February 19 , 1957 has always been the most empathetic among the celluloid sex workers. She is the impulsive all-giving child-woman, offering her love, prayer-like, unconditionally to the emotionally and spiritually bereft poet-hero Vijay (Guru Dutt).
Quite a glaring contrast to to the film’s other female protagonist Meena (Mala Sinha) who dumps her boyfriend Vijay when she sees he is incapable of giving her the life she desires. In other words Meena sacrifices ‘love’ (as represented by the fallen woman’s unconditional decision to ‘go away’ with her man at the end) for a good life.
No wonder Mala Sinha never got applauded for her astonishingly honest performance in Pyaasa. Tell me, which critical analysis of Pyaasa has ever done justice to her character and performance? Meena is seen as the crass gold digger. The kind of material girl who marries for money and sulks in the shadows for the rest of her life.
No major heroine wanted to touch Meena. Mala Sinha was always a daring diva. In Yash Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool she was the first unwed mother of Hindi cinema. In B R Chopra’s Gumrah she plays a wife who secretly carries on a relationship with the man she loved before marriage.
Mala Sinha’s Meena in Pyaasa is one of the most complex female protagonists in Hindi cinema. She loves the poor underdog of a poet Vijay, but won’t marry him only for her love. She would rather marry the affluent publisher (Rehman) because she knows what every girl of today accepts: love on its own is of no use unless it’s validated by a solid income.
In Hindi mainstream cinema good heroines don’t repudiate love for practical reasons the way Mala Sinha did 58 years ago. For being so ahead of her times Mala Sinha paid a heavy price. She is not regarded among the screen greats of the golden era. Waheeda Rehman is.
20 years after Pyaasa nothing had changed. In Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada Aur Makaan which slyly reprised the Pyaasa love triangle, it’s Zeenat Aman who plays Mala Sinha, shunning the jobless hero Manoj Kumar’s love to marry the posh industrialist Shashi Kapoor. Moushumi Chatterjee played Waheeda Rehman’s role from Pyaasa of the woman who doesn’t care how much money her man has in his bank account as long as she can make him happy.
Significantly the role of the woman who would rather marry money without love than love without money, was offered to Sharmila Tagore. She turned down the role. She wanted to play the other heroine in Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, the ‘Noble Fallen Woman’ Tulsi (played by Moushumi).
Gulabo in Pyaasa, Sahib Jaan in Pakeezah, Tulsi in Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, Pushpa in Amar Prem — heroines who were socially stigmatized and yet so sublimely in love, they put the Fallen Woman on a pedestal.
Mala Sinha refused to be perched up there. Critics don’t think her to be one of the screen greats because she didn’t aspire to deify the characters she played. She would rather be human. It was goodbye to the halo for this unconventional screen diva. Takes guts to do that.