Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam — Guru Dutt’s masterpiece and Meena Kumari’s tour de force — remains one of Hindi cinema’s most enduring classics, even after more than half a century of its release, in 1962. Such is the film’s following that well-known film journalists Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari have published Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam: The Original Screenplay — a slim volume which, as its name suggests, contains the screenplay of the film in addition to several informative and compelling essays about it. Also included are interviews of some of the people who acted in and worked on the film.
Based on a novel by acclaimed Bengali writer, Bimal Mitra, titled Saheb Bibi Golam, the film centres on the relationship between Chhoti Bahu (the bibi), Bhoothnath (ghulam) and her thakur husband (the sahib) and takes place in Calcutta, at the end of the 19th century. Raheja points out that it was a time when the “British Raj is in force and the film shows earnest freedom fighters battling British Tommies in the streets of Calcutta … when buses were drawn by horses. The film’s protagonist, Bhoothnath, stays in the staff quarters of an imposing haveli which houses Chhoti Bahu. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam’s dominant theme is the slow degeneration of the grand haveli, which is a metaphor for the old age zamindari finally collapsing under the weight of British colonialism.”
Raheja points out several elements that even the most avid fans of the film may have missed. For instance, there is a definitive emphasis placed on detail with regard to the haveli lifestyle. For instance, he points towards an “opulent wedding for [the zamindar’s] cat,” the caste system that is almost palpable in the film as well as the fact that the haveli’s Bari Bahu is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. A sub-plot of the film revolves around the relationship between Bhoothnath (played by Guru Dutt) and Jabba (played by Waheeda Rehman). However, the dominant theme undoubtedly — and firmly — centres on the relationship between the Ghulam and his Bibi.
This relationship begins when Bhoothnat is ushered quietly into the haveli in the middle of the night to meet Chhoti Bahu. Raheja points out that “to establish Bhoothnath’s sense of awe and wonderment, Choti Bahu is introduced gradually — both Bhoothnath and the audience first see her dainty, alta adorned feet and her resplendent silk sari ... a close-up of [Choti Bahu’s] luscious painted lips followed by a shot of her evocative eyes suggests that the director is emphasising Bhoothnath’s cognition of her physical attributes, and is signalling the promise of a relationship. Or so one presumes, but the relationship reveals itself to be far more complex as it unfolds on screen.”
Director Abrar Alvi and cinematographer V.K. Murthy, who passed away earlier this year, present Meena Kumari semi-lit or surrounded by shadows, “this half obscure image adding to her character’s mystique and layering the meaning of her actions. The Caravaggioesque shadows also accentuate the atmosphere of neglect, and evoke a sense of foreboding and claustrophobia.”
Chhoti Bahu asks Bhoothnath to get some sindoor (he works at the factory that manufactures it) because she believes that it will help her woo her husband, who is prone to going to the local kotha at night, rather than spending it with her. Thus begins the relationship between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnat; the sindoor doesn’t work, after which, in another attempt to woo her husband, Chhoti Bahu asks Bhoothnat to procure her a bottle of alcohol and eventually becomes a raging alcoholic in a bid to secure her husband’s affection. (Incidentally, this was the first time that a woman was depicted drinking alcohol in a Hindi film.)
The most interesting aspect of the film remains the ambiguity that envelopes the relationship between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath. Does the ghulam physically desire her? Does she see him as more than just a devotee? This question of course brings to mind that memorable scene during which Bhoothnath grabs her hand to stop her from drinking more, which causes her to yell and scream “O maa! Tune mujhko haath lagaya? Parayi stree ko chua tune? Nikal ja yaha se!”
The obvious interpretation would be that Chhoti Bahu is so faithful to her husband (who, to make things even more complicated, it is insinuated may be impotent) that she cannot stand the thought of another man touching her. However, another equally potent interpretation is that she realises that she warms to his touch, causing her to lose control and order him out.
Raheja, in another article called Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam: An Ode to Platonic Relationships? writes: “Whether or not there are subliminal desires that lurk in the crannies of the heart, Chhoti Bahu does not see herself as the vehicle for her own fulfilment. Bhoothnath walks into her life when her husband had already made a habit of walking out on her but Chhoti Bahu never loses self control even when she is drunk. She may have vaulted past a critical barrier and taken to drinking — but only to please her husband … If she has other feelings, she has sublimated them in sacrifice.”
The book contains interviews with Waheeda Rehman (who says that Guru Dutt was too old to play Bhoothnath, and admits that she wanted to play Chhoti Bahu’s role initially, among other things, although her relationship with Guru Dutt in real life unfortunately is not touched upon), the late V.K. Murthy who expands on how he used shadows to make Meena Kumari more mysterious and beautiful, as well as Minoo Mumtaz (the courtesan) and production manager Shyam Kapoor, both of whom provide insight to the making of the film and the man who was Guru Dutt.
The screenplay of the film, of course, constitutes the main part of this volume, and it is well worth delving into for any avid fan of the film, since it is written in Hindi, Roman Hindi as well as English, which proves to be rather handy, especially when it comes to difficult Hindi words that many of us may have heard plenty of times but may not know the meaning of. Reading the screenplay also provides a window into the world of filmmaking which will prove handy for many aspiring filmmakers and scriptwriters even today.
The screenplay also brings to light several aspects of the film that one may not have noticed despite watching the film numerous times — for instance, though the film hinges on Meena Kumari, she appears nearly after an hour of it is over; and that while the film explores the relationship between the bibi and her ghulam, they have but eight scenes together.
Ultimately, this volume is a worthy tribute to a classic film. One grouse, however, that one may have about this volume is that a single chapter has not been devoted solely to the film’s mesmerising soundtrack which formed the film’s soul. After all, it is safe to say that one of the reasons that Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is so memorable is due to its haunting soundtrack, which consisted of unforgettable songs such as ‘Koi Door Se Awaaz De’ and ‘Na Jao Saiyan’ rendered by the irreplaceable Geeta Dutt.
Sahib, Bibi, aur Ghulam: The Original Screenplay
By Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari
Om Book International