When one thinks of mainstream Hindi movies today, one notices a distinct lack of Muslim characters unless the movie has some sort of a political message. Even in generic romantic comedies or family dramas, where religion is not a plot point at all, the characters are never Muslim, even though there is no reason they couldn’t be. Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) is probably a rare exception, in which Farhan Akhtar’s Imran just happened to be Muslim — no agenda, no message. By and large, the idea of having a Muslim lead or even supporting character just because is one that doesn’t seem to strike filmmakers of today.
It wasn’t always like this. For about 40 years, from Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939) about Mughal emperor Jahangir to Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) that told the story of a courtesan, there were so many movies that portrayed different aspects of Muslim life that film academics even came up with a term for it — the Muslim social.
These movies typically featured a certain gentle poetic culture or tehzeeb, with a liberal sprinkling of Urdu in both dialogue and song, and with characters wearing gorgeously embroidered ghararas and sherwanis in their homes that featured intricately scalloped arches and carved screens.
Mehboob Khan’s Najma (1943), M. Sadiq’s Bahu Begum (1967) and Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972) are just some examples of the genre. And one cannot talk of the Muslim social without talking about one of its finest examples: Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960).
Directed by M. Sadiq and produced by Guru Dutt, the movie is part romance, part drama, part tragedy and part comedy, all woven together by one leitmotif — that of women in purdah. Even though in many ways it has not aged well, it is a strangely compelling look at the utterly ordinary lives of utterly ordinary people. And it has, like all Guru Dutt productions, great music (courtesy Ravi) and gorgeous cinematography (V.K. Murthy). It is also a movie that arguably pioneered the bro code in Hindi cinema.
In the week of Guru Dutt’s birth anniversary, here’s a flashback to Chaudhvin Ka Chand.
The veil is what takes the story forward
The movie opens with an ode to Lucknow, complete with Rumi Darwaza and many other much-loved sights of the city brought into focus, before the scene shifts to a bustling Friday market. Nawab Pyare Miyan (Rehman) and his friend Shaida (Johnny Walker) prevent a thief from making off with a burkha-clad woman’s bracelet. The woman, Jamila (Waheeda Rehman), lifts her veil and Pyare is instantly infatuated, even though he has exchanged not a word with her and doesn’t even know her name.
He later sees her at his sister’s birthday party, but doesn’t get a chance to talk to her. He sends his domestic staff, Naseeban (Tun Tun), to find out who this woman is, but there is a mix-up and she misidentifies the woman.
Meanwhile, it is Pyare’s ailing mother’s burning desire to see her son married and to do the Hajj pilgrimage. Her doctor says she is too frail to make the journey herself, so the maulvi agrees to go in her stead, as long as his daughter is married before he has to leave. Pyare doesn’t want to sacrifice his love for the woman he knows nothing about, so he asks his friend Aslam (Guru Dutt) to marry the maulvi’s daughter, knowing that he and Aslam, an orphan whom the Nawab’s family took care of when he was a child, would do anything for each other.
Aslam readily agrees, but it turns out the maulvi’s daughter is, in fact, Jamila, the very woman Pyare is obsessed with. It is only much later that the truth comes out, with intensely sad consequences.
What starts off as a Shakespearean comedy of errors soon enters the realm of high drama and tragedy. The plot seems ludicrously impossible, but the entire film is cleverly rooted in a rather realistic world where women are not seen or openly communicated with, with the veil as the catalyst.
An audiovisual treat and an emotional look at male friendship
Most will remember this movie for its exquisite soundtrack, particularly the title song, which is also an example of V.K. Murthy’s cinematography skills (not that anyone needed more proof after Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam from the film Kaagaz Ke Phool). The song is beautifully employed to show the growing love between newlyweds Aslam and Jamila. When Jamila locks her desire-filled eyes onto her equally in-love husband, or when he gazes at her, equally lovestruck, as the full moon shines on her sleeping form, you know that this is not any regular love triangle.
Another major reason for that is the relationship between the men — not just Aslam and Pyare, but Shaida as well. As in most of Guru Dutt’s movies, Johnny Walker features prominently in Chaudhvin Ka Chand, too. but there is a difference. While his roles typically provide comic relief, here, he is much more. The bond between Pyare, Aslam and Shaida, the gentleness and respect with which they treat each other, is really the soul of the film, and when the situation looks like it will get out of hand, it is Shaida who takes charge. He is, as people would say today, the glue that holds the trio together.
He does it, of course, in his own trademark wacky way and there are plenty of digressions into his own personal life, be it his relationship with his strict policeman father or his relationship with Tameezan, a courtesan (Minoo Mumtaz). But they are digressions only seemingly. In truth, they all come together to highlight the different lived experiences even among these three friends, given their difference in socioeconomic strata.
A telling scene, in fact, is when Aslam, in a bid to make Jamila leave him so that Rehman can swoop in and be her knight in shining armour, starts visiting the local kotha and is just sitting and baring his soul to Tameezan, when Shaida walks in and doesn’t even bat an eyelid to see his friend in his courtesan lover’s room. Instead, he tells Tameezan to take good care of Aslam. While it shows a certain amount of patriarchy, as does the whole film, that is to some degree expected given the time period. What elevates the scene is the love between the friends.
That love is also evident when a guilt-ridden Aslam realises the truth about the object of Pyare’s affections. Of course, he doesn’t handle it well — he asks Jamila what he should do but creates a story in which the conflict is over a diamond, not a woman. Comparing an inanimate object to a living, breathing person with her own mind and feelings is obviously a problem, but then this is also a world in which he would rather die than tell his wife that his best friend is in love with her. And Pyare would rather die than confront the fact that he has had inappropriate thoughts about his best friend’s wife.
Ultimately, even if the story doesn’t really stand the test of time, what does is the emotion. The love between these three friends who would sacrifice their all for each other is what makes this film a compelling watch even 60 years later.