Abrar Alvi’s 1962 film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam made way for a fearless and gutsy Meena Kumari.
After 158 years, adultery is not a crime in India anymore. ‘Husband is not the master of wife’ the Supreme Court said while dumping the colonial-era law. Bollywood director Abrar Alvi dared to question this feudal notion of marriage over five decades ago in his black and white classic Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
Based on Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel Shaheb Bibi Golam, Alvi’s ‘much ahead of its time’ film is about ruins – a system, a haveli and a marriage. Every question that the film’s main protagonist, Meena Kumari, asks is a dart thrown at the institution of marriage, family, patriarchy and the zamindari system.
The film begins with the shot of a haveli in ruins. Wandering through the ruins in Calcutta, a middle-aged architect Bhootnath (played by Guru Dutt), recalls he had been here many years ago looking for work.
The haveli belongs to the Choudharys, a family of Bengali zamindars, where a younger Bhootnath began to observe the degenerating lifestyle of the elder and the younger zamindar. One evening, he gets to meet Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari), wife of the younger philandering zamindar Chhote Babu (Rehman) – the most stunning scene in the film (appearing at the 50th minute in complete disregard to commercial considerations).
His first glimpse is of her bejewelled feet. Beautifully lensed by the great V.K. Murthy, the scene opens with a PoV shot of Bhootnath who walks into the room looking at the chequered black and white floor. As he answers her questions, he looks up to see her face. From that majestic close-up of Kumari’s eyes, she holds the audience in what is remembered as one of the greatest performances ever put on Indian screens.
She lets him in on a secret, an intimate reality in her marriage, as well as the lives of the women in the haveli. “The days are for sleeping, but the nights here are for staying awake and keeping others’ awake.”
Hinting at the humiliating sadness that she carries within her – something she says men and most women will not understand — Chhoti Bahu asks him to bring her Mohini Sindoor (vermillion). She hopes it will bring her luck and strengthen her hold on her marriage and her husband.
In the song, Naa jao saiyaan, she boldly demands sexual fulfilment from her husband – an audacious demand for not only the women in the haveli, but also for Bollywood heroines of the time. Sexual expressions were reserved only for the vamp in the cinema until then. After all, we are told that the women in the haveli have only one activity to busy themselves with – buying jewellery.
In the middle of all this loss and longing, Bhootnath and Chhoti Bahu discover a form of an unconventional friendship. He is able to provide her with the kind of emotional intimacy which she seeks from her husband but doesn’t find. The film doesn’t name this relationship. But in the feudal haveli, even a platonic relationship is frowned upon.
The Chhoti Bahu tries everything – from the special sindoor to alcohol – to draw her husband’s wavering attention and to prevent him from going out every night. But the strength of her tragic character is only matched by the decadence of her husband, a symbol of the feudal society under the colonial rule. Into this unravelling world walks in Bhootnath, an educated middle-class youth.
Their unusual friendship comes to an abrupt end when they leave at dawn in a horse cart to visit a sadhu in the city. In her drunken drawl, she says to him nobody understands her the way he does. But the patriarch of the family sends his goons to attack them.
For a long time, it was speculated that the 1962 film was actually made by Dutt. The fact that it did have many of the legendary filmmaker’s stylistic flourishes have only kept the speculation alive. However, Dutt only produced this marvel, five years and two classics after Pyaasa.
In the end, Bhootnath finds the ‘ruins’ of Chhoti Bahu in more ways than one, rounding up the film’s circular tale.
Each actor in the film brought alive the turn-of-the-century clash between a feudal, patriarchal society and a new meritocratic order alive on screen. A star in her own right by then, Waheeda Rehman even took a secondary character just to be part of the film.
The timeless score by composer Hemant Kumar and lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni (both not the first choice) gave Alvi the sweep to create his edifice. The three Geeta Dutt songs – Na jao saiyaan, Koi door se awaaz, Piya aiso jiya me – remain as memorable as ever.
The character of Chhoti Bahu was seen as a gamble for Meena Kumari given that the traditional representation of an Indian woman up until that point was of a virginal woman. A woman who could drink herself to self-destruction? That was a complete no-no.
The subtle dismantling of that legacy by Alvi, who allowed his character in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam the space to breathe even in a bad marriage, remains the film’s greatest contribution to Hindi films.
This article was first published on Sep 30, 2018.