“Aap ke paon dekhey, Bahut haseen hain, Inhen zameen par mat utariyega, Mailey ho jayengey.”
If a list was made of the most memorable dialogues from Indian films, the above line by Raj Kumar to Meena Kumari in the classic “Pakeezah” would almost certainly be on it. It reflects an age in Indian cinema when movies had a poetic soul to it, rather than being consumed by commercialism and mindless entertainment.
Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 musical classic was an event in itself, primarily for two reasons. It took nearly 14 years to make due to technical and personal reasons involving Amrohi and Meena Kumari. Secondly it was Meena Kumari’s last great performance and one that solidified her reputation as a legendary actress.
Amrohi had first considered making the film in 1958, but with the advent of color films, he shelved it for a later date. Then he took off with the idea again in 1964, only this time his marriage with Meena Kumari had gone down the tubes and again he decided to put it aside, even though the film was nearly half complete. Finally in the 1968 after intervention from Sunil Dutt and Nargis, who had reviewed reels from the film, production commenced and was finally released in 1972.
The film tells the tale of a bygone era in which simple themes such as the yearning to be loved, poetry and class divisions projected a powerful vision on the silver screen. We are taken into the turbulent world of a courtesan’s life, who can never escape from her social background and the sorrow that it brings with it.
Meena Kumari plays a double role in the film. At first she plays Nargis a Tawaif who wishes to escape from her brothel by marrying Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar), the man she loves. But when his family refuses to accept a woman of her background, she flees from her lover and dies a lonely death in a graveyard. Before passing away she writes a letter to Shahabuddin asking him to take their daughter with him. As it turns out Nargis’ sister arrives before her death and takes the girl back with her to the brothel in which they lived.
Years later Shahabuddin receives the letter and arrives at the brothel to take his daughter Sahibjaan (again played by Meena Kumari) with him. But before he can do that Sahibjaan’s aunt runs away with her. On a train journey while she is sleeping, a young man named Salim (Raj Kumar) arrives in her compartment. Taken aback by her beauty, Salim leaves a note at her feet which contains the immortal line “Aap ke paon dekhey, Bahut haseen hain, Inhen zameen par mat utariyega, Mailey ho jayengey” [I have seen your feet, they are very beautiful, do not put them on the ground, or they will get dirty].
When she wakes up, she reads the note and is immediately smitten by her unknown admirer. By a series of remarkable coincidences Sahibjaan eventually meets Salim (as this can only happen in a Bollywood film) and falls in love with him. But like her mother, Sahibjaan cannot escape the fact that she was raised in a brothel. Salim turns out to be the nephew of Shahabuddin (another amazing coincidence) and has to go through the same problem of having his chosen love rejected by his family of nobility. But Salim takes a different path from his uncle, in that he breaks away from his family to marry the woman he loves. Sahibjaan on the other hand follows the same path her mother took and runs away from Salim, thinking that no matter how hard she tries, there is no point in marrying; her reputation will always catch up with her.
Salim broken hearted later calls her at his wedding and asks her to perform a Mujra. When she arrives at his wedding and dances, Shahabuddin realises that she is his daughter. A resulting argument commences in which the patriarch of the family accidently shoots Shahabuddin dead, which magically makes him realise how wrong he has been in his view all along. In the final scene, Sahibjaan literally marries Salim over the funeral of Shahabuddin.
Though the plot may seem a bit over the top, it does not negate the visual beauty of “Pakeezah”. From the dazzling colors of the dresses worn by the courtesans, to the beautiful set pieces which bring the world of the Tawaif to life, this film is a joy to the senses. The dialogue from the film is classical and seems like a long poetry recitation from start to finish. Add to that, composer Ghulam Mohammad, brings out one gem after another in the films musical score. Lata Mangeshkar’s soulful voice is pitch perfect and adds great power to the dance numbers. Although the cinematography does seem a bit dated, it is still quite striking after all these years.
As for performances, while Raj Kumar and Ashok Kumar do a fine job in their respective roles, this film belongs to Meena Kumari. Playing the role of “The Tragedy Queen” to perfection here, she wonderfully projects the inner turmoil of Sahibjaan scene after scene.
Sadly, this was to be her last performance. Already battling alcoholism for many years, she was ill throughout the completion of the film and died only a few months after it was finally released. There are many scenes in the film in which she is seen lying down or sitting, this was improvised into the script due to her failing health.
When the film was released in 1972, it didn’t initially do well at the box-office. But with Meena Kumari’s tragic end, it quickly picked up steam and is now regarded as one of the classics of Indian cinema.
We will continue to highlight one classic a week, including foreign-language films, as well as local classics, so check back same time next week to see our next weekly classic!
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com