Pakeezah captured the Muslim culture with contemporary resonance

Meghnad Jagdishchandra Desai, Baron Desai is an Indian-born British economist and Labour politician. He unsuccessfully stood for the Speaker in the British House of Lords in 2011, the first ever non-UK born candidate to do so. He is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of twenty books on most of which are on Economics. It is amusing to think of him also as passionate analyst of Bollywood movies.

Why would someone be interested in knowing about Pakeezah – a film that was released forty-two years back? The author responds:

“If there has been a film which has captured the Muslim culture of a certain period albeit with contemporary resonance, it has to be Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah.”

The defining element of this film is the time that it took to make the movie. How many things would have changed during the fifteen years it took to make the movie? To put it in perspective, it was started before Mughal-e-Azam was released and got released just before Sholay. Pakeezah opened to a rather lukewarm response from the audience in February 1972.

One may argue that it became a hit because Meena Kumari, passed away a month later on 31st March, 1972. This was a film that was started in 1956-57, just after she had married Kamal Amrohi, who wrote and directed the film. He was known for his perfectionism. He was known to wait for weeks to film the perfect sunset. This was also the film that saw the disintegration of Meena Kumari’s marriage to Kamal Amrohi. She is said to have charged one rupee to act in a double-role in the film that remains what she is best remembered by the masses.

Pakeezah was the film that will be remembered for some memorable dance sequences that were shot over seven years from 1957-’64. Whether it was Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics for Chalte Chalte, Yunhi Koi Mil Gaya Thha or Majrooh Sultanpuri’s poetry in Thade Rahiyo that remains watchable even today. Remember how the train’s whistle in Thade Rahiyo reminds the tawaif of a stranger who admired her feet and told her never to step on the ground, lest they dirty her feet

It is not the trivia about the film that makes this book a good read. It is the chapter that analyzes the film at different levels where the author impresses. He describes Pakeezah as a fine example of a “Muslim Social”, to be compared with say films like Chaudhvin ka Chand by Guru Dutt and not “Muslim Historicals” such as Mughal e Azam (1960).

Pakeezah depicts the nawabi culture complete with its elaborate tehzeeb(etiquette) and the way relationships are handled in this very woman-centric film. Despite this being a film about a courtesan (tawaif), the woman in Pakeezah is always unattainable. It is a film that shows the women creating their own space in a patriarchal society.

It is this analysis that makes you want to see Pakeezah again. This time, with a new pair of eyes.

It is hard to write a biography these days. After all there is so much available on the internet. When the subject is an actress of yesteryears, one wonders who would be interested in reading the biography. Vinod Mehta wrote a biography of Meena Kumari shortly after her death in 1972. This one is the revised and updated version done after forty years. What made him so obsessed with the actress? More importantly why should the reader pick up the book? The reasons could be many.

She became the first actress to win the Filmfare Best Actress Award in 1953 for this performance and with twelve nominations for the Filmfare award (of which she won four), she was an actor to be taken seriously. She could sing and write poetry. Then there are all the trappings that generate mystery and intrigue – a failed marriage, a string of failed relationships and alcoholism which finally she succumbed to. Tragedy seemed to be the leitmotif.

Meena Kumari born Mahjabeen Bano would have been eighty one this year had she celebrated her birthday on 1st August. Some dispute the year. How does it matter anyway? What perhaps matters is the essence of the actress and the person that is captured in the book. The actress who made her screen debut at age seven and who like several child actors, looks back at being the breadwinner of the family and rues her missed childhood. She remembers, she never had a collection of bright coloured marbles. That sentence seems to capture the essence of not just her childhood but her entire life. She missed the simple things that life never offered her.

Vinod Mehta starts the bio not from her birth but from her death and does a sort of flash back to take us through her rise, fall and death. The book is set in two parts. The first part is patchy and makes it hard to get a coherent narrative. I would have been happier reading Meena Kumari’s page on Wikipedia.

The reason to read the book is the section devoted to his appraisal of Meena Kumari the actress and the woman. You should read the book just for this section which the biographer puts into perspective. This section is insightful.

Meena Kumari often compared herself with Marilyn Monroe. Both grappled with fame and loneliness in equal measure. Both actresses battled broken hearts and unrequited love. Both were used and discarded by the men in their lives. What sets Meena Kumari apart is her obsession with the craft of acting. Yet of the seventy-seven films (not counting the ones where she acted as a child artiste), no more than six or seven really gave her a chance to show her talent. PakeezahBaiju BawaraMere Apne would feature in the list.

I would add Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam at the top of the list of movies where she excelled.

The biography asks was she the greatest actress of her time? Kamini Kaushal, Suraiya, Nimmi, Nutan and Vyjayantimala never stood the test of time. Their careers were brief. The only one who could be called a close competitor would be Nargis. Finally Mehta’s verdict is unambiguous. “She was easily the greatest, most accomplished film actress this country has produced in the last twenty years.”

The final chapter of the book gives us a glimpse of the person that she was. She played with wealth and spurned it. She gave money not only to those who were too proud to ask but also to those who didn’t hesitate. It was her ability to listen to people that comes across as her strongest trait. Maybe that was the inspiration behind her poems. She gifted her diaries – all twenty five of them to lyricist Gulzar who had directed her in Mere Apne.

The dominant strain in Meena Kumari’s poetry is love, or rather the impossibility of finding love. Her poems were set to music by Khayyam and were titled “I write I recite

The dedication says it all, “To Meena Kumari – wish I had known you.

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