Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam embodies sensuousness and self-destructive decadence
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam portrayed the ugly reality of patriarchy and feudalism in an age now past, but it did not for one second romanticise this reality despite its sensuous storytelling style.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 8 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
We hear Meena Kumari’s voice almost a minute before the camera rests on her face for the first time, about 49 minutes into Abrar Alvi’s Hindi film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (The Master, The Wife And The Slave). The set-up is fascinating, and a fine example of why VK Murthy’s cinematography is so crucial to the storytelling in this 1962 classic.
Bhoothnath (Guru Dutt) is called to the zenana to meet the Choudhury haveli’s Chhoti Bahu (meaning: younger daughter-in-law, played by Kumari). Until then and thereafter, the story is told from his point of view, most literally so in this scene. As the shy young man enters Chhoti Bahu’s quarters, his lowered eyes travel from the checkered floor to a mat laid out for him and across a carpet before falling on her embellished feet. At her urging, he seats himself on the mat, and she exchanges pleasantries with him while those feet move across the carpet, stopping before a chair where she too sits down. He cannot bring himself to raise his eyes and so we do not see her face yet, but when she does not laugh at his name – as is the wont of most people he has met until then – he looks up in surprise, and from that moment on, is captivated: by her beauty, her words, her kindness, her pain.
Bhoothnath is the sutradhar of sorts of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, but although the film begins, ends and stays with him throughout and although Chhoti Bahu walks into the frame late in its running time, it is her story.
Based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra, produced by Dutt and directed by his long-time collaborator, Alvi, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is an account of the feudal elite of pre-Independence Bengal, and how their decadent lifestyles finished them financially just as their regressive attitudes robbed their wives of lives.
When it was released, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s place on India’s cinematic firmament was immediately cemented by the rave reviews it received and multiple awards including the National Award for Best Hindi Feature Film. Conservative viewers at the time reportedly did not buy into the possibility of a platonic relationship between a man and a woman, namely, Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath, but the film has gone on to acquire a cult status among cineastes.
Too many historians, however, have unfairly described it in the terms used by a book I otherwise consider my Bible, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema: a sentence in the entry for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam reads thus, “At times compared to Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958) as a commentary on Bengal’s decaying feudalism, Dutt’s film is a romantic and somewhat nostalgic tale about a bygone era...” and about Jalsaghar (The Music Room) it says, “Ray’s nostalgic portrayal of the end of an era that saw feudal oppression but also sustained India’s classical arts is often compared to Guru Dutt’s film on the same theme, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), both portraying the feudal elite in sensual terms, reclining amid silk cushions, smoking hookahs and drinking, and because both directors rely on straightforwardly melodramatic idioms.”
There is nothing straightforward about either film. Ray’s Jalsaghar (Bengali) though was indeed indulgent towards its protagonist – an aristocrat who has fallen on hard days and holds one last extravagant cultural soiree to outshine his nouveau riche neighbour – but Alvi’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam shows no sympathy or nostalgia for feudalism as represented by the Choudhury brothers, Chhoti Bahu’s husband Chhote Babu (Rehman) and his elder sibling Manjhle Babu (D.K. Sapru). On the contrary, it repeatedly underlines their hypocrisy, heartlessness and pride. Chhoti Bahu herself embodies the destruction they wreak
The film begins with Bhoothnath, an educated youth from a lower-class background, coming to Kolkata to earn a living. He is soon employed by the manufacturer of a brand called Mohini Sindoor but resides in the Choudhury family’s haveli with a relative.
From the vantage point of his room, Bhoothnath observes the goings-on in this sprawling home, he hears Chhoti Bahu’s soulful prayer, he sees her husband leaving the house for long hours and returning home drunk, and when she summons him to procure Mohini Sindoor – since she has heard it has the power to lend a spark to her flailing marriage – they strike up an unusual friendship defying class divides.
Chhote Babu is devoted to alcohol and courtesans, but demands propriety from his wife and fidelity from his favourite tawaif. Paradoxically, he taunts Chhoti Bahu for not being able and willing to do with and for him all that his Chunni Daasi does – sing intoxicating songs, consume alcohol and sway before him in a state of inebriation after all-night drinking sessions – while also declaring that the Choudhury name would be dragged through the mud if he were to accede to her request and allow her to accompany him on his wanderings.
Twenty years later in 1982, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth revisited the impossibility of this wifely ideal in a scene in which Shabana Azmi’s Pooja confronts her husband Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and his girlfriend Kavita (Smita Patil) at a party. “According to our scriptures,” she tells them in a fit of rage, “a wife must sometimes take on the role of a mother in the service of her husband, sometimes she must be a sister to him and in bed she must take on the role of a whore... Give me one more chance, Inder, I may fulfil this need too.” Once Pooja has calmed down, she shows no inclination to follow through on her angry rant. Chhoti Bahu, however, is so lonely, so desperate for her husband’s time, love and attention, that she takes him at his face value and turns to drink to give him company in the hope that this will keep him at home.
Meanwhile, Manjhle Babu indulges in pigeon fights, is unruffled by his younger sibling’s waywardness but is suspicious of Chhoti Bahu’s relationship with Bhoothnath. The arrogance of these philandering men makes them vulnerable to manipulation by those they look down upon and in the end, causes their financial ruin.
In a world away from Chhoti Bahu, Bhoothnath becomes romantically involved with Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), the spirited daughter of Subinay Babu (Nasir Hussain) who runs the Mohini Sindoor factory and is also a committed member of the Brahmo Samaj. Bhoothnath later moves on to working with an architect and finds his calling.
The contrast between the wealthy Chhoti Bahu and the upper-middle-class Jaba’s experiences illustrates the differing burdens patriarchy places on women of differing social strata including those of so-called privilege who are straitjacketed to a point of being crushed. The rise in Bhoothnath’s station parallel to the decline of the haveli is an indicator of the fall of the aristocracy and the gradual emergence of a newer elite.
In a constellation of stupendous performances in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Meena Kumari stood out with her brilliant turn as a woman driven to alcoholism by her despair and deservedly won the year’s Filmfare Award for Best Actress.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s cast rounded off what was a near-perfect package: Biren Naug’s luxurious production design of the haveli versus the simpler interiors of Jaba’s house, Bhanu Athaiya’s opulent wardrobe for Chhoti Bahu and her family versus the less luxuriant clothing worn by other characters, Hemant Kumar’s rich soundtrack, Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt’s voices, and Murthy’s elegant frames.
Guru Dutt’s association with Murthy – who won the Filmfare Award for this film and later went on to be a Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner – has long been a point of conversation among students of cinema. In a Doordarshan documentary, National Award winning filmmaker-writer Arun Khopkar pointed out that the lighting of their shots was always designed “such that it contributes to the film’s meaning”. He delved in detail into one particular iconic sequence from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, the song Saakiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi: “…the way the team of Guru Dutt and Murthysaab used to blend light and shadow such as in that (song), barring the main dancer all the other dancers are like puppets, they are shadows, so it is like this era that is passing and in this era there are many figures who are being destroyed and they are haunting that edifice, this is the kind of feeling you get in that scene.”
I first watched Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam on Doordarshan as a child and was taken in by Chhoti Bahu’s heartbreak, the visuals and the music. The film initiated me into an understanding of how much meaning every single element can add to a film, well beyond the sheer entertainment value they hold, which is why I have included it in this series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me.
Sadly, many historians have denied Alvi his due for his masterly work on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam: it is still generally assumed that Dutt directed the film although he himself never said so, not even when he took home the Filmfare Award for Best Film (as its producer) and Alvi the Filmfare Award for Best Director. Alvi reportedly stated that he directed the film as a whole but that Dutt directed the songs, and several persons associated with the film, including Waheeda Rehman and the editor Y.G. Chawhan, have confirmed on the record that Alvi was at the helm. The fact appears to be what Alvi conceded, since in the aforementioned Doordarshan documentary, Asha Bhosle described in detail how Dutt oversaw her recording of Bhanwara bada nadaan, haaye.
The central question for me, however, is not who directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, but whether it can be interpreted as a feminist narrative. After all, unlike Arati in Ray’s Mahanagar (Bengali, 1963) and Karuthamma from Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen (Malayalam, 1965) – the first two films featured in this series – Chhoti Bahu does not overtly rebel against patriarchy at any point. The answer to the question on my mind is best illustrated by this conversation between the leading lady and the Choudhury family’s Manjhli Bahu (meaning: middle daughter-in-law) when Chhoti Bahu laments her husband’s constant absence:
Manjhli Bahu: “Why are you shamelessly complaining? My brother-in-law is a mard (man). If a man from a rich home does not spend his nights in revelry, what kind of man is he?”
Chhoti Bahu: “I am the daughter of a poor family, Manjhli Didi (sister). All I know is that a woman’s life is for her husband alone. If the husband is not at home then what is all this jewellery for, what is all this shringar (dressing up) for, what is this life for?”
Manjhli Bahu: “Chhee chhee chhee chhee, have some shame... You have ruined the name of the Choudhury family. Never till today have I seen a woman longing for a man as you are.”
My 21st century sensibility finds Chhoti Bahu’s choice of word for Chhote Babu, “swamy”, revolting since it is a synonym in Hindi for “husband”, “lord”, “master” and “God”. Note though that in spite of her conformist vocabulary, the mere fact that she is dissatisfied with her circumstances makes her disgusting in her elder sister-in-law’s eyes. And the film’s empathy in this scene is not with Manjhli Bahu but with Chhoti Bahu, just as it lies with her and not Chhote Babu from beginning to end (even during a quarrel in which she virtually accuses him of being sterile when he abandons her for the nth time).
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam portrays the ugly reality of patriarchy and feudalism – including what is known in common parlance as “honour killing” – in an age now past, but it does not for one second romanticise this reality despite its sensuous style. In the pantheon of Indian feminist cinema, there is space for Arati’s evolution in Mahanagar, for the troubling questions raised by Romita and Jhinuk in Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan, for Chhoti Bahu who strains at the straitjacket but makes no attempt to throw it off and Karuthamma from Chemmeen who finally does.
All images from Twitter.
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