Right outside the village of Kheiwa in Jang district of Punjab (now in Pakistan) lies a mosque from the medieval age. Legend has it that it is the same mosque where the protagonist of popular Punjabi folklore, Mirza-Sahiban studied together and fell in love with each other. As the narrative goes, when the entire village was burned down by Mirza’s brothers in the 17th century, this one mosque miraculously managed to survive, and still stands still as a mark of tribute to the love between Mirza and Sahiban.
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Interestingly though, even while the mosque holds up the memory of the fabled love affair, it lies abandoned, cut off from the locals who discourage their kin to visit the physical evidence of a relationship that goes against the social propriety of the community.
Mirza-Sahiban is the fourth among the four tragic popular romances of Punjab that includes Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal and Sassi Punnun. It is believed that after Mirza-Sahiban, the tradition of folk romances died out in Punjab due to the moral decadence of their love story having reached its lowest.
The story of Mirza and Sahibaan has inspired filmmakers for decades now. The 17th century story was first seen on the silver screen in 1939 and was directed by lyricist D N Madhok. In the following years it was recreated several times as Mirza Sahibaan (1947), Mirza Sahiba (1957), Mirza Jat (1967) and Mirza: The untold story (2012). In both the telling and the several retellings of Mirza-Sahibaan, a theme that has continued to intrigue both the story tellers and the audience alike is the ambiguity in the feelings of the female protagonist, Sahibaan.
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The story goes that Mirza Jatt fell in love with his cousin, Sahibaan while studying together as kids. But Sahibaan’s parents, unhappy with their love affair, decide to marry her off to another man. On the day of her wedding, Mirza eloped with Sahibaan on the historic horse, bakki. Once away at a safe distance they decided to take rest and Mirza slept off despite the protests of Sahibaan. Meanwhile, Sahibaan’s brothers were out frantically searching for the couple. She feared that Mirza would kill them with his bow and arrows. Hence she broke each of Mirza’s arrows while he lay asleep. When her brothers found them, they killed Mirza straight away while he remained puzzled as to why Sahibaan betrayed him.
When Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra set his heart on recreating the folk lore for his upcoming movie, Mirzya, the one question he had on his mind was why did Sahiban not protect her lover? Sahiban, unlike Heer or Sohni was never held up as the ideal lover. Her flaw lay in wanting the safety of her brothers just as much as that of her lover’s. But her love for both her partner and her family led to her unpopularity, both as a lover and as a daughter.
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The complexity of Sahiban’s character lay in a kind of Punjabi literature made popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was a moment in history when reform movements were at their peak. Indian reformers at this point in time were interested in cultural transformations of the kinds that would give the Indian society a sense of superiority. Particularly imperative for this purpose was the role and position of women in society.
Folk literature, especially the popular romances had a very important role to play in spreading the message of social reform. Historian Anshu Malhotra in her work The emergence of bazaar literature explains how by popularising folk romances in the 19th century, writers and publishers were boosting their image in their support for the message of the social reformers. The question of the woman’s character was foremost in this upsurge of local literature. Women as wily, manipulative creatures threatening patriarchal status quo was a consistent feature in these stories.
The impact of these ‘reformist’ folk tales can still be found in contemporary society. It is particularly evident when one is made aware of the fact that the Siyal tribe in Punjab, to which the character of Sahiban is said to have belonged, is known to have practiced female infanticide with the idea of preventing the birth of another Sahibaan.
Mehra’s film is set to hit the silver screen on October 8. While the trailer does not tell us much about the extent to which Mehra has redefined the character of Sahiban in modern setting, it might be useful to analyse her through the time period in which she was created.