As you keep revisiting classics, you cannot help but wonder. Were these films somewhat overrated? I got a similar feeling when I watched Guru Dutt’s classic “Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam”. The film starts on a promising note with certain unpredictable twists and turns towards the end; however, one cannot help but notice how the film falters in between. Notwithstanding this, the film manages to engage you with its brilliant music(composed by Hemant Kumar). The legendary songs have been picturised well and have a calming effect on your frayed nerves.
Based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra, the movie looked at how feudalism in Bengal suffered during the British Raj. Despite the performances and the great music, the film’s fortunes plummeted at the box office. Despite being chosen for an award in the 13th Berlin International Film Festival, the film was not nominated because it showed an Indian woman taking to drinking in a big way. The then Indian government didn't gather the guts to recommend the film.
Directed by Abrar Alvi and allegedly ghost directed by Guru Dutt himself, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam portrays the stark reality behind feudalism. Women are treated as doormats and men consider it a right to lead a rather unscrupulous life emboldened by the fact that no one can question them. Hedonistic men give more importance to sensuous pleasure than pressing issues that can help protect their wealth.
The title credits show that the film was shot on location in the palatial mansion that belonged to Guoy Brothers’. The plot is somewhat convoluted but the narrative is engaging thanks to some taut editing. Cinematography by V K Murthy, is no doubt, brilliant but the absence of light often hampers the visibility on screen.
A naïve and educated man with a heart of gold, Bhootnath(Guru Dutt) arrives in colonial Calcutta and visits his uncle(Dhumal) who works as a servant in the sprawling palace. He stays in the servant quarter that gives an imposing view of the palace on the front. The soulful and haunting song of the household’s younger daughter-in-law wafts through the air, often late in the night.
Bhootnath gets a job in the Mohini Sindoor factory run by Subinay Babu(Nazir Hussain, less weepy). His daughter Jaba(Waheeda Rehman, as beauteous as ever) is amused by Bhootnath’s unsophisticated ways. The moments of silent passion between Jaba and Bhootnath are poignant. Though Jaba’s behavior, towards Bhootnath appears condenscending, she actually has feelings for him. She stands up for him. When the cook is abusive towards Bhootnath, she fires him. Waheeda should thank her mentor for allowing her character to gradually develop in the film. Like the Rosie of Guide and Gulabo of Pyasaa, Jaba is also a woman who has a mind of her own.
Intrigued by the pain in her voice, Bhootnath meets Choti Bahu and literally becomes her Man Friday. The callow Bhootnath slowly begins to empathise with the choti bahu’s plight. His efforts to make her kick the bottle fail. He even gets her sindoor from the factory and gives her an assurance that the sindoor would prevent her husband from going astray.
As the youngest daughter-in-law of the household, the character of Choti Bahu is a welcome change from the stereotypes of zamindari women of yore. She refuses to be treated as a doormat and demands her right as a woman of the household unmindful of the fact that this would lead her on the path of self-destruction. Her love for her husband is so deep that she defies all social norms and conventions, throws caution to the wind and takes to drinking even if it is only to appease her husband. Despite this bold move, the plot does not show any improvement in her husband’s behavior. This is where the tragedy lies.
Subinay Babu is a member of the Brahmo Samaj and he is all set to get Jaba married to a young man from Brahmo Samaj. Jaba is a child bride but her husband’s whereabouts are not known. After her father’s death, Jaba spurns the offer of marriage and later it is revealed that her husband is none other than Bhootnath whom she had married as a child.
Bhootnath gets a job as a trainee in a construction firm and work takes him to a different location. When he returns, he is shocked to find the palace in partial ruins. The financial situation of the feudal landlords has now become parlous.
As Choti Bahu keeps drowning her sorrows in the bottle, her husband suffers a paralytic stroke. She pleads with Bhootnath to accompany her to a nearby temple to pray for her husband’s recovery. The elder zamindar(Sapru) suspects his brother’s wife of infidelity. On the way, the elder zamindar’s goons attack them and Bhootnath lands in a hospital. So, what happens to Choti Bahu then? Do Jaba and Bhootnath unite?(spoiler: the novel had a tragic ending).
Viewers could vicariously experience the pain of a woman who is scorned by her epicurean husband(Rehman, the elder zamindar’s younger brother) for her inability to give him company that nautch girls gave him! Sapru played the menacing elder brother(the elder zamindar)(his cat eyes are indeed scary).
As Kamal Amrohi’s third wife, Bollywood rumour mills insisted that Meena’s life was anything but pleasant. She wasn’t highly educated and did not know what to do with all the money that she earned. Her family members and relatives lived a life of luxury; ironically, the actress herself died in penury. There are even accounts that say that after her mother’s death, Meena’s father married a girl younger than his daughter.
Guru Dutt(with his real life image as a masochist) looks authentic as the young man Bhootnath who is in awe of “Choti Bahu” and develops a platonic relationship with the Chotti Bahu.
Guru Dutt was so much in awe of Geeta’s voice that he never considered anyone else’s voice for the female actors in his movies – even when their relation as man and wife was strained. Asha Bhosale(& not Lata Mangeshkar) did the playback for Waheeda Rehman and the numbers are popular even now. The relations between Dutt and Geeta Roy had soured to a great extent(some claim that Dutt’s 1959 classic “Kagaz Ke Phool” was semi autobiographical) when “Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam” was conceived and shot. It is not clear if Geeta Dutt ever met Meena Kumari but is heart rending to see two talented women succumbing to personal miseries in their lives.
Incensed by her husband’s straying ways and attraction to his protege, reports claimed that Geeta Roy Dutt refused to do the playback for Waheeda Rehman. Her classic songs in the film for Meena Kumari are still recalled with awe and affection(“Na Jao Saiyan Chuda Ke Baiyan”, “ Piya Aiso Jia Mein Samayo Ghayo Re”, “Koi Door Se Awaz De”).
Asha Bhosale’s songs for Waheeda in the movie are still popular(“Bhawra Bada Naadan Hai”, and “Meri Baat Rahi Mere Man Me”) and so are Asha’s mujra numbers in the film( “ Sakhiya, Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin”, “Meri Jaan Wo Meri Jaan”).
Unfortunately, Guru Dutt did not do many films like Mr and Mrs 55(with Madhubala) and Aar Paar(with Shyama) – in both these films, he played the romantic with effortless ease. One would have loved to see more of Dutt and Madhubala but then may be things did not work out. The “Naya Daur” controversy in 1958 and the rift with Dilip Kumar made Madhubala adopt a more cynical outlook towards life.