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Pakeezah one of a kind

On February 4,1972,India’s first colour film in Cinemascope,Pakeezah,hit the screen and wrote a chapter of its own in Hindi cinema. Considered the swan song of the legendary Meena Kumari,the epic,four decades down,has not lost an iota of its sheen

Written by Rajiv Vijayakar |
March 9, 2012 4:03:19 pm

The last word

Pakeezah (which in Urdu means “The Pure One”) remains the last word among the dozens of Hindi films revolving around the tawaif or nautch-girl,as they were known. It is the only film apart from Mughal-E-Azam that took so long to come to the marquee ––14 years –– and yet became not just a blockbuster but a cinematic milestone. In 1972,in a year of major blockbusters like Amar Prem,Dushmun and Beimaan,it was the third biggest hit at the box-office after Victoria No.203 and Seeta Aur Geeta,.

Pakeezah,which ran for 50 weeks,was erroneou-sly later touted to have picked up at the box-office only after its ailing leading lady,Meena Kumari,passed away on March 31. But the fact remains that no theatres would have kept it going for the 9-week interim unless the film was doing well and going by that logic,Meena’s last release later that year,Gomti Ke Kinare,should have proved a hit too. Nevertheless,it is Pakeezah that is considered the actress’ swan song.

The music by the late Ghulam Mohammed was also a benchmark score. Arriving bang in the midst of the peak era of R.D.Burman and Kishore Kumar ,it brought back classic melody of the timeless kind and won a Gold Disc from Saregama,which was then called HMV,for outstanding sales.

The unforgettable storyline

Nargis (Meena Kumari),a tawaif,dares to fall in love with a nawab,Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) and escapes from her life in the red-light area,but his family disowns her. Heartbroken,she dies after giving birth to his daughter Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari again).

The grown-up Sahibjaan encounters a noble forest officer Salim (Raaj Kumar) who is actually her father’s nephew. They gradually fall in love,but history is repeated and Sahibjaan is invited to dance at Salim’s wedding to an upper-class girl. At the wedding,Sahibjaan encounters her father. A happy ending follows.

It was the poignant post-climax that made

Pakeezah truly unforgettable: A young girl from the kotha (brothel) watches wistfully as Salim with the marriage procession takes Sahibjaan away—to a life of freedom,respectability and love.

This young anonymous girl from the kotha was the true Pakeezah of the film,not Meena Kumari: Amrohi’s concept was awesome: Sahibjaan’s tale had a happy ending,and here was this young girl,trapped in the same world from which Salim was taking Sahibjaan away,watching the baraat and hoping and daring to dream of a similar baraat coming to take her too away some day.

The film’s editor,the late D.N.Pai,was doing his job and thought that this shot was extraneous and irrelevant as this girl was never seen before in the film! He was planning to cut it out completely when Kamal Amrohi explained the concept,Pai asked him,“But who will understand that she is the real Pakeezah?” Amrohi replied that even if one person understood,he would consider himself vindicated.

In 1973,a young man called up the filmmaker and asked for a still of this girl,as he felt that she was “the real Pakeezah.” Amrohi was delighted and called up his editor to say: “This young man has really watched my film!” He then sent the young man a personally signed letter of authority,stating that he should never be charged money for tickets anywhere in the country if he went to watch the film at any cinema hall.

Myths and facts

Like any cult film,Pakeezah was huge enough to have myths spun around it,like the box-office story mentioned earlier. There were widespread stories that every hero had been in the race for the role of Salim. But the fact was that only Rajendra Kumar and Sunil Dutt were considered for this role. When Raaj Kumar was finally signed,his character as originally written by Amrohi was modified to that of a forest officer to match his rugged build because this was the role originally assigned to Ashok Kumar when the film was launched in 1958. Ashok Kumar’s role,in turn,was to have been essayed by a much-younger character artiste Sapru.

Yet another myth was that Kamal Amrohi was a “slow filmmaker”,just because the film took 14 years to make. The truth was that Amrohi launched the film in black-and-white and decided to scrap the portions and shoot in colour when it came into vogue around 1960. A year or so later,with the widescreen Cinemascope coming into vogue abroad,Amrohi decided to once again scrap what was shot in colour as he had succeeded in acquiring a Cinemascope lens from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) on a royalty basis.

It was after this that trouble began when differences crept in between Amrohi and his wife of over a decade,Meena Kumari. The film was stalled in 1964 and resumed in 1968. This was when the actress,then in failing health,fought both illness and destiny to complete the movie in mid-1971.

The last myth was that Naushad had composed some of the Lata Mangeshkar beauties in the film. Though the background score was composed in collaboration by Naushad and Kersi Lord,the six famous songs were all composed by Ghulam Mohammed,incidentally also Naushad’s assistant all his life though he had kept doing independent films as well. Naushad only composed additional songs —Nazariya ki maari sung by veteran Rajkumari,Mora saajan souten ghar jaye by Vani Jairam and Kaun gali gayo Shyam by Parveen Sultana—that were used in snatches in the background.

In the ’90s,Kersi Lord had also stated that he was deprived of credit for his work. His contribution to the title and background score (creatively as well as an arranger) was never acknowledged in the film’s credit titles,which do not carry his name.

Au courant in 1972!

Despite the delay,the film looked completely au courant on release,except in the few shots of Meena when she was seriously ill. This was because Amrohi,well aware of everything,kept making changes all the time. After Nadira quit the film midway from her role as Gauhar Jan,the madam of the kotha,Amrohi,with just a line of dialogue,created the fresh character of Nawabjaan and brought in Veena.

Interestingly,Kamal Amrohi is said to have sketched all the set designs (though the art director was N.B.Kulkarni) and camera movements,and personally selected every costume,right down to the bangles worn by the minor characters. But Meena Kumari was also credited with the costume designs. Lyricist Kafeel Azar and future director Deepak Bahry were assistant directors on the film,while Gauri Shankar choreographed the songs,except for Kathak ace Lacchu Maharaj being brought in for Thaade rahiyo.

Veteran German cameraman Josef Wirsching (who was working in Hindi cinema since the 1930s) had also passed away in 1967,and Amrohi brought in over a dozen of Mumbai’s top cinematographers to shoot the new portions whenever each had time and in the era of pre-digital technology,decades before Color Correction with Digital Intermediate,ensured an even look! The technical collaborator was ace cinematographer R.D. Mathur,while D.S. Malvankar was in charge of Special Effects.

In the later portions when the leading lady was ill,the long shots taken were of upcoming starlet Padma Khanna (best known for her seductive Husn ke lakh-on rang number in Johny Mera Naam) and shots of Meena Kumari were either arranged to have her lying down or close-ups taken when,unable to stand,she was propped up in a chair.

Amrohi’s technical expertise could also be gauged from a unique incident. The filmmaker had detected a focussing error in the ‘rush’ prints (the first rough prints of the footage shot used for scrutiny) that even the cameraman in the lab team abroad could not. MGM then instructed its India chief not to collect the royalty from Amrohi and as a token of appreciation even gifted the lens to him.

The one area where Amrohi did not compromise was in the music. The financiers wanted the music changed and made ‘trendy’. Amrohi’s reason (apart from the practical exigencies of re-shooting the songs not being possible because of Meena’s illness) was that he could not betray a dead man (composer Ghulam Mohammed) who had given him this ‘amaanat’ of beautiful songs. “Had he been alive,my composer would have agreed to change the music,and I would have done so too,” he told a financier. However,in keeping with the times,he only kept six songs in the film.

The milestone musical

The sound of Pakeezah,as visualised and composed by maestro Ghulam Mohammed from the time it was first launched,is unique to Hindi film music. There has been no song or score heard before or since that shares its musical leitmotif. Light years ahead of its times and way beyond any mujra-based scores before or after it,the all-hit soundtrack saw Lata Mangeshkar singing exotic nuggets like Inhi logon ne,Thaade rahiyo,Chalte chalte,Aaj hum apni duaon ka asar and Mausam hai aashiqana (this was written by Amrohi himself) besides her scintillating duet with Mohammed Rafi,Chalo dildar chalo. The songs are so distinctive that no song from the film can be mistaken for that of another movie,and vice-versa.

Many years later,Saregama released Pakeezah Rang-Barang,a record of the songs not used in the film. These nine tracks included Gir gayi re mere maathe ki bindiya sung by Meena Kumari herself with Suman Kalyanpur,Shobha Gurtu’s Bandhan baandho,a traditional song in Raag Bhupali,four more Lata solos – Chalo dildar chalo in solo version,Tanhai sunaaya karti hai written again by Amrohi,Peeke chale yeh chale and Pyaare babul and also Shamshad Begum’s Kothe se bada lambaa,Rafi-Shamshad’s Jaaye to kahaan jaaye and Rafi’s Yeh kiski aankhon ka noor ho tum.

The timeless classic

Besides being one of the most discussed films in Hindi cinema,the film has its television and satellite rights sold for the next four decades!

The lines by Raaj Kumar in the train when he meets Meena Kumari for the first time,“Aap ke paaon dekhe,bahut haseen hain,inhein zameen par mat utariyega,maile ho jayenge” remain among the most unforgettable lines of Hindi cinema. Like the film itself,they are simply timeless.l

rajiv.vijayakar@expressindai.com

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