Who does Pakeezah belong to? A look back at the cult classic as legal battle ensues over Kamal Amrohi's film
The manner in which Pakeezah continues to remain a part of our lexicon reveals why there continues to be a fight for it.
One of the all-time greats in Hindi cinema, Pakeezah (1972), survived filming across a decade and a half. The crests and troughs of a relationship between its creator, Kamal Amrohi, and its star, Meena Kumari, even after 45-years of its release, continues to be discussed as fervently.
Pakeezah is also subject of a legal tussle between DB Realty, a real estate development company that bought Kamal Amrohi’s ‘Mahal Pictures’, who claim that they own the rights to the classic film and the legendary filmmaker’s children, who believe that Pakeezah was never a part of the sale.
The ownership battle is perhaps just a new chapter in the chequered history as well as the legacy of the film. Originally planned in black and white by Amrohi in 1956, Pakeezah was supposed to be his ode to both the actress and the woman within Meena Kumari, his then wife. Amrohi had wanted to come up with a subject that would be worthy of Meena Kumari’s stature and the writer-filmmaker had made it amply clear that the concept was ‘irretrievably fixed with his love for his wife.’
By the mid-1950s Meena Kumari had established herself as one of the top box office stars but Amrohi felt that no film had even come close to capturing her essence. The actress echoed this sentiment as well and for years she publically acknowledged that Pakeezah is Meena Kumari. Amrohi took a few years to round up the cast that included Ashok Kumar as the leading man and the crew that featured Josef Wirsching as the cinematographer and Ghulam Mohammed as music director.
A few months into the shooting Amrohi decided to restart the film all over again as the colour format had become the norm. Then a few years later with the arrival of Cinemascope, Amrohi began the film all over again in yet another format and Pakeezah would eventually become India’s first colour film in Cinemascope.
Besides being an intricately detailed production of the grandeur of Lucknow’s bygone nawab culture, Pakeezah is also a great treatise in filmmaking in India. The film’s lavish production design was matched with a technical finesse that was rarely seen in Hindi cinema and the folklore surrounding it are a testimony to it. Legend has it that Amrohi had hired a Cinemascope lens from MGM but found some inaccuracy in it and when he complained MGM refused to believe it.
Later when the error was confirmed MGM not only refused to take any money from Amrohi but also presented him with the same lens as a token of appreciation.
As with most film projects that involve a real-life couple Pakeezah’s destiny was intrinsically linked to the fate Amrohi and Meena Kumari’s relationship. In 1964 after eight years in the making, the film came to an abrupt halt as Meena Kumari separated from Amrohi. The real-life drama surrounding Pakeezah was perhaps as intense as the one that was being filmed on reel.
The late Vinod Mehta in his 1972 book Meena Kumari- The Classic Biography, the first biography of the actresses who had succumbed to liver cirrhosis at a relatively young age of 38, succinctly captured the trials of the making of the film. Meena Kumari had wanted their divorce to be finalised before commencing Pakeezah and finally when it happened a lot had changed. Mehta’s book contains the letters the filmmaker and his estranged wife shared as they came around to completing the film and reading them makes you realise the hallowed status the film had attained not only for the two but also people around them.
In 1969 when Amrohi got back to Pakeezah Ashok Kumar was too old to play the lead and the story underwent an overhaul where a younger hero would be added. There were several contenders ranging from Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra, and Rajendra Kumar but Amrohi ultimately selected Raaj Kumar. Many film aficionados often talk about the brief scene where Dharmendra featured in the film – the scene where we see Raaj Kumar’s back as he enters the train is in fact, Dharmendra, who was briefly cast – but was later replaced.
Legend has it that the rumours of an affair between Meena Kumari and the then young rising star, Dharmendra, were one of the reasons why Amrohi replaced him. Two of the most important crewmembers Ghulam Mohammed and Josef Wirsching died during the course of the making of the film and while Naushad composed the background score for the film, many top cinematographers contributed to completing the film.
What made Pakeezah the stuff of legends all through its making was its journey from conception to screen.
Meena Kumari was battling illness all through the final mile of the filming and although she felt that the film was a milestone, the initial audience response to Pakeezah was rather lukewarm. There is no real reason for this but could it be that the audience failed to see the brilliance of the film thanks to the ‘other’ reasons it remained in news for? Could the ease with which Meena Kumari transformed into the character of Sahibjaan or Pakeezah or the manner in which the film’s look and details were maintained evenly across 16-years of its making reduce the film’s magic?
Irrespective, Meena Kumari’s death a few weeks after the film’s release saw the audiences throng to the cinema halls and transform the film into an instant cult. The manner in which Pakeezah continues to remain a part of our lexicon reveals why there continues to be a fight for it.
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