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The Perfect Swansong

Meena Kumari’s last film is an enduring classic.

Written by Harneet Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: July 27, 2014 12:23:49 pm
Meena Kumari’s last film is an enduring classic. Meena Kumari’s last film is an enduring classic.

A woman dances in front of a burning flame in a kotha. She appeals to her “Sahab”, her lover, to whisk her away from this life. He promises to come for her, soon.

Right from its first frame, Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah is seeped in symbolism. This is a magnum opus of a movie whose each frame, dialogue and pause makes you want to linger. Pakeezah is Amrohi’s most accomplished film (Mahal, Daera, Razia Sultana complete his directorial filmography). The vein of glorious melancholy that runs through Pakeezah makes it an enduring classic.

Pakeezah is a lyric of a film. It evokes a fragrance and a romance that is possible only by the use of Urdu. Pakeezah is about the sound of a distant whistling train. It’s about the visual of a beautiful Meena Kumari sleeping in a train compartment with only her feet visible as a stranger looks at them.

The image of her hair dipped in a pool as she reads the words the stranger wrote about her feet. “Inhe zameen par mat utaariyega, maile ho jaayenge,” he writes. Of course, he doesn’t know she is a courtesan. Oh the irony!
Pakeezah is about the conversations, some unspoken and some wistful. When the stranger (dashing forest officer Salim played by Raaj Kumar) meets Sahibjaan (Meena) again, he recognises her feet and explains their first meeting as, “Aap so rahi thi lekin aapke paav jaag pade aur mere hosh-o-hawaas se khelne lage.” In another instance, a fellow courtesan tells Sahibjaan, “Ek din ke liye tumhari taqdeer hume chahiye, parso lauta denge.” Sahibjaan replies: “Haan haan zaroor le jaana, phir chaahe waapis bhi mat dena.” And then there is the defining moment when Salim bestows the highest honour to the woman he loves and declares in the masjid, “Inka naam Pakezaah hai.”

Pakeezah is about Ghulam Mohammed and Naushad’s music. The former passed away before the film’s release so Amrohi called on Naushad saab, who recorded the hauntingly beautiful background alaap by Lata Mangeshkar. The poetry in the songs complemented Amrohi’s visual wizardry. Can anything be more beautiful than, “Yeh chiraag bujh rahen hain… mere saath jalte jalte”? When Lata sings, “Zindagi khatam bhi ho jaaye agar… naa kabhi khatam ho ulfat ka safar” in Chalo dildaar chalo, the echos transports you to another world. Incidentally, the entire song was filmed without Meena, who was too ill to report for shooting.

The story of Pakeezah is as much about its making as it is about the personal life of Amrohi and Meena. The film took 14 years to complete. In his biography on the actress, Vinod Mehta mentions that the idea of Pakeezah was “irretrievably fixed with Kamal’s love for his wife. He hoped to create a film which would be worthy of her as an actress, and worthy of the love he felt for her as a woman. Thus, the creation had only one central character and around the fortunes of this character the fate of the film revolved.” Amrohi’s PR man told Mehta, “Shah Jahan made Taj Mahal for his wife, Kamal Sahab wanted to do the same with Pakeezah.”

Amrohi started filming his dream in 1956 in black and white. It is said that he planned to star in it at the time. When colour photographic films came, Amrohi started afresh and eventually got the Cinemascope lens from MGM for the shoot. In 1964, the film was in limbo when he and Meena separated. Years later, Sunil Dutt and Nargis advised them to reshoot the film. Meena was critically ill with cirrhosis of the liver but she agreed to complete the pending footage of Pakeezah. To return to the studios for Pakeezah, she was paid the token sum of a gold guinea.

The casting went through many changes. Ashok Kumar was initially signed to play Salim’s role but as the film was delayed, he eventually played Shahabuddin. For Salim, Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar and Sunil Dutt were also considered, until Raaj Kumar bagged the role. The film released on February 4, 1972. At the premiere, Meena sat between Raaj Kumar and Amrohi and was very pleased with the film. When Khayyam complimented her with “shahkar ban gaya” (it’s priceless), she was in tears. Meena died two months after the film’s release, and there couldn’t have been a better swansong. She will always be Pakeezah.

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