Sahibaan remains unheard

Many Indian filmmakers seem to be so convinced of the legendary status of certain folktales and short stories that they fail to consider them as products of a different time. Tales from our ‘hoary’ folklore, such as Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu, and Sohni-Mahiwal, were outputs of a period when both the political system and the social settings were loaded against the lead women. Though in many stories, the names of the women characters — Laila, Sohni, Heer — figure first, the narrative is undoubtedly male-centric.

Mirza-Sahiban is no different. The story, set in Jhang and Faisalabad districts of medieval Punjab, reaches its ending with Sahiban — who has fled with her lover Mirza — facing a moral dilemma. She has to stand by Mirza while not jeopardising the lives of her family-members. Sahiban opts for the middle-path: She breaks Mirza’s arrows, with which he is likely to kill her family. She thus gives an impression of betraying the faith he has placed in her, while in reality she is pre-empting an episode of mutually-assured destruction. At this point, the lady shows her thinking to be more evolved than that of her feudalistic family members and her boorish lover. However, from the way writers, and directors, have seen and presented the story, Sahiban ends up coming across as a vamp.

Filmmaker after filmmaker has held on to this misconception and shown Sahiban as the fickle temptress. They chose to place the blame on the lady rather than the period which her character sought to transcend. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Gulzar, through Mirziya, fall into the same trap. By just poetically recreating the narrative favoured by films like Mirza-Sahiban (1947) and Mirza Jatt (1967) rather than re-interpreting it, they are guilty of perpetuating the myth that Sahiban’s ambivalence was to blame for Mirza’s final denouement. The story-telling of Mirziya — including the lyricism — is entirely male-centric, the well-educated Suchitra shown having little more agency than her mythical counterpart from generations earlier.

It would not have been out of place to expect Rakesh Omprakash Mehra — who so successfully challenged the good-bad, Ram-Raavan binary through films like Aks and Delhi-6 — to re-interpret the legend by challenging it. Neither would it have been ill-conceived to trust Gulzar, whose cinematic oeuvre is filled with strong women characters — including an aborted attempt to see Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas through the eyes of the two women characters — with providing an alternative conclusion. The disappointment with the end product is hence manifold.

When it comes to the Mirza-Sahiban tale, one film that was somewhat successful at reworking the medieval tale from a 21st century vantage point was the 2012 Punjabi blockbuster Mirza — The Untold Story. It gives the animosity between Mirza’s family and Sahiban’s brothers a better context. Mirza, a police informer, infiltrates the drug smuggling gang headed by Jeet, Sahiban’s eldest brother, with the intention of busting it. That Jeet and his colleagues are responsible for the death of Mirza’s journalist brother adds another layer to Mirza’s hostility to him.

The motifs from the original story are given a modern take. In a rather delightful way, the childhood affection between the two ill-fated lovers is shown in the form of comic-book panels. Baggi, Mirza’s vehicle of choice, takes the place of Baggi the horse from Mirza-Sahiban. Sahiban is shown as an independent, ambitious woman with artistic tastes of her own. However, in a mark of continuity with the original tale, the director does not seek to explore why an individualistic Sahiban, one who does not believe in fate or predestination, falls for a mysterious Mirza, incorrigible in his faith in destiny.

Director Baljit Singh Deo is here more interested in presenting Mirza (Gippy Grewal) as an angry young hero, bent on avenging his brother’s death and annihilating the drug mafia in Vancouver. Deo is seemingly less involved in giving his love story with Sahiban (Mandy Takhar) greater cohesion and intensity.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 8:51:17 PM |

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