As “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” completes fifty years in the hearts of connoisseurs of Hindi cinema this month, its screenplay gets a literary form.
Five decades after the saga of platonic love and feudal decay left audiences spellbound with the mysterious charm of Meena Kumari and the meltdown of medieval thought, “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” continues to intrude into the conscience, remains open to interpretation. Like Bhootnath's innocent infatuation with Chhoti Bahu, every time you look at Abrar Alvi's adaptation of Bimal Mitra's novel, you find a new meaning, a fresh appeal in its multiple layers that leaves you agape, reducing recent proclamations like ‘new age cinema' to hollow bluster. For here is a film that broke many a taboo, displayed what could be done between black and white way back in 1962 without showing off. Every time you enter the dimly-lit room of Chhoti Bahu in the crumbling haveli you find the air heavy with emasculated desires, every time you engage with Jaba, a whiff of hope caresses your soul.
Celebrating this uplifting contrast, Om Books International and Vinod Chopra Films have come together to bring the film's screenplay between covers. Compiled by Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari, seasoned writers on cinema, the book lends the literary gravitas that the screenplay deserves and goes on to put things in perspective by adding points of view of people associated with the film.
Raheja describes the ambiguous yet strong bond between a late 19th Century housewife and her youthful male confidante, simply captured through just six meetings between Chhoti Bahu and Bhootnath, as the most intriguing exploration of a platonic relationship in cinema. “In films like ‘Andaaz' and‘Kaajal' it was just a plot device,” says Raheja comparing it with films that also delved into platonic relationships.
“Here one's interpretation of the relationship depends on one's own perspective. How you will see it, I might not be able to fathom. It leads to debate and dialogue and perhaps that's what keeps the film alive.” But what makes it a compelling watch, adds Raheja, is the way it counterposes the plight of Chhoti Bahu, a product of a patriarchal society where the husband is considered the lord, with the situation of Jaba, the educated daughter of the progressive owner of the sindoor factory where Bhootnath works. “She is more in control of her destiny. She is joyous and there is a clear sexual tension in her interactions with Bhootnath.” There is more. Jaba's father is a follower of the Brahmo Samaj but runs a family company which promises that its Mohini sindoor has the power to bring drifting men back to their wives.
Guru Dutt and Alvi did shoot a scene where Chhoti Bahu laments to Bhootnath if only Chhote Babu were like him leading to a song where she rests her head in his lap, but it was deleted from the final cut because as Raheja says it would have diluted the impact. “It is the enigma about the relationship, the desire to read between the lines that make ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam' worth revisiting,” says Raheja pointing out the lack of absolutism in the complex characters that dotted Guru Dutt's films. Chhoti Bahu taking to alcohol and the late signs of redemption in Chhote Babu subtly reflect his constant dialogue with right and wrong.
This brings us to the oft repeated question, who actually helmed the film. Raheja says Waheeda Rehman told him she was not happy with the rushes of the song “Bhanwara Bada Naadan Hai” and went to Guru Dutt to do something. “He reshot the song and according to Waheedaji he was present during her scenes, but then most of her scenes were with him. The production manager of the film, Shyam Kapoor, says that Guru Dutt made Abrar Alvi rewrite many scenes and when Meena Kumari asked about his absence he soothed her concerns by saying that the film is being shot from his point of view.” Kothari says after the failure of “Kaagaz Ke Phool”, he didn't want to lend his name to his films. “He did start films like ‘Gauri' and ‘Raaz' but they could not be completed because apparently he was slipping into depression.”
Guru Dutt often used to say he had seen both success and failure. What more has life to offer?
Kothari has found a common link between Guru Dutt's last three major productions: “Kagaz Ke Phool”, “Chaudvin Ka Chand” and “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam”. “They explore the limits of human experience and each of these reflects Guru Dutt's fascination for period settings. As he doesn't headline his settings, today you might not get it easily but ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool' talks of the studio system of the 1930s and ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam' is set in a time when the feudal system was crumbling, when buses were drawn by horses and roadside lamps were lit up manually. For him social comment was a tool for rich detailing and political observation was a means to add layers. But the primary concern was the human condition explored through imploding relationships. There was never a dull moment though. Every time Chhoti Bahu starts to get on to your nerves, Jaba livens up the proceedings,” says Kothari pointing out that the use of side characters and the flashback technique ensure that the proceedings don't turn sappy.
As for the performances, though Alvi ensured that nobody got trampled (you even relate to the concerns of Rehman as the debauched Chhote Babu), Meena Kumari is the heart and soul of the film. “Her portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is arguably the greatest performance ever seen in Hindi cinema. In fact 1962 was a great year for her, as ‘Aarti' and ‘Main Chup Rahoongi' were also released in the same year and she was nominated for all three at the Filmfare Awards,” Kothari reminds us.
Interestingly, Waheeda Rehman wanted to play ‘Bibi'. She even did a look test but then herself realised she was too young for the mature role. However, when Alvi offered her the role of Jaba, she accepted it despite the fact that it was a secondary role to Meena Kumari. Guru Dutt felt the role didn't go with her box office status and forewarned her that her name would come after Meena Kumari's in the credits but Waheeda was game. The film was shot at Dhankuria Mansion near Calcutta but Meena Kumari didn't come to the haveli at all, as its interiors were recreated on a set in Bombay. “Today we go to all possible places on earth to shoot but still don't get the impact, and these people could create such enduring mystery with limited technical equipment,” says Raheja saluting the work of cinematographer V.K. Murthy. “The use of light and shadow accentuates the atmosphere of loneliness and neglect and adds to the mystery to Meena Kumari.”
This is a rare film where black and white cinematography becomes part of the narrative. You will never find a demand to turn it into colour. “Saqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Ayegi” where Murthy captured Meenu Mumtaz in light while the background dancers remained silhouetted continues to be a masterpiece of cinematography.
Guru Dutt was a reluctant actor. It was only after Dilip Kumar refused “Pyaasa”, finding the script on the same lines as “Devdas” that Dutt decided to play the role that changed his image forever. “Here again Shashi Kapoor was his first choice for Bhootnath and when he refused he even discussed it with Biswajit but eventually it fell into his lap. Waheeda Rehman found him a little older for the role and she stands by her observation!” notes Raheja. As Guru Dutt's favourite S.D. Burman was not well, the composer's baton went to Hemant Kumar. When Sahir refused, Shakeel Badayuni was brought in for lyrics. But in the end nobody was missed! The film turned out to be a more than a moderate commercial success, won numerous national and international awards. “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” made it to the pantheon of Hindi cinema, and young devotees like Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia continue to draw from it.