While watching Pakeezah some months back (and reading Meghnad Desai’s book about the film), I was struck by how fond old Hindi cinema used to be of the motif of the ‘chaste tawaif’. A paradox, seemingly, because how could a woman be a tawaif – a prostitute, to put it bluntly – and be chaste? But films like Pakeezah and Adalat did just that: they portrayed women who lived in kothas, sang (in Adalat) and danced (in Pakeezah) but were ‘good’ women, chaste and pure, women who may have been lusted after by bad men, but who – thanks to fate, good friends and relatives, kind strangers (both human and animal) – were always able to avoid the fate worse than death: of yielding their chastity to a man they were not married to, or weren’t going to eventually marry, even if only in secret.
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
-Matthew 6: 28-29, King James Version
I am very familiar with this passage from the Bible (part of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage is part of one of my favourites—a beautiful little piece of scripture on how futile it is to worry), but when I first heard of the name of this film, the relevance of its title didn’t strike me. When I started watching it, I realized: yes, the lilies of the field are impermanent, evanescent, depending on no-one and yet not even doing anything very visible to keep themselves alive. But they—like all the flowers of this world, especially the wild ones, with no-one to care for them—are amongst the most beautiful of God’s creations.
Not an exact parallel with the protagonists of this heart-warming and sweet little tale, but close. And with some subtly-put messages about being content with one’s lot, yet pushing on, working hard.
There were various reasons for my wanting to see this film. One was that it’s a historical (okay, faux historical, considering it’s set in some undefined supposedly Middle Eastern land named Sherqand). The other was that its music was scored by Sardar Malik, one of—in my opinion—Hindi cinema’s very underrated music directors. The main reason, however, was Shammi Kapoor. Though still in his moustached pre-Tumsa Nahin Dekha days, he is one of my favourite actors. So just about anything starring Shammi Kapoor is, for me, worth watching at least once.
I have never—in all the years this blog has been in existence—compiled a list of my favourite Madan Mohan songs. An oversight, and one for which I have no explanation to offer: just reparation.
Born Madan Mohan Kohli in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) on June 25, 1924, the young Madan Mohan returned with his family to their home town of Chakwal (in Punjab) when he was 8 years old. His parents went on to Bombay, where his father, Rai Bahadur Chunilal, entered the cinema industry: as a partner at Bombay Talkies Studio, and then at Filmistan Studio. Madan Mohan too moved to Bombay, where he finished school and eventually joined the army—only to finally leave soldiering to become a music director. The first film for which he provided the score, at the age of 26, was Aankhen (1950).
In a scene in Ánimas Trujano, the protagonist—the eponymous Ánimas, an inveterate gambler, drunk, and believer in every charm or superstition floating around—has just lost a lot of money on a cockfight. Ánimas, before the fight, had been certain he would win, because a fortune teller’s little bird had ‘told’ Ánimas’s fortune by picking out a card on which were written words to the effect that Ánimas’s luck would shine on this day.
But the bird has proved wrong, and Ánimas has lost all his money. In a fit of anger, he goes back to the fortune teller, takes the bird from him, and goes off into a deserted ruin by himself, where he raves and rants at the bird, clutching it in his fist and cursing it for not predicting his fortune correctly.
Those who frequent this blog have probably figured out by now that I have a soft spot (a very soft spot) for Muslim socials. So much so that I will watch just about any Muslim social out there, even if it features people who aren’t among my favourites. Even if it has a fairly regressive theme, and even if I end up not agreeing with half the things in the film. So, when I come across a Muslim social that stars some of my favourite actors (Sunil Dutt? Meena Kumari? Rehman? Prithviraj Kapoor? Rajendra Nath? Check, check, check), has lyrics by my favourite lyricist (Sahir Ludhianvi), and had its songs composed by one of my favourite music directors (Madan Mohan—and how appropriate, too, for a film called Ghazal to be scored by the Ghazalon ka Shahzaada): to not watch this would be a crime, I thought.
A couple of months back, amidst a discussion on one of my posts, fellow writer (and fellow Sahir Ludhianvi fan) Karthika Nair and I got involved—as we are apt to do—in talking about Sunil Dutt (who, coincidentally, has appeared in a number of songs written by Sahir). I realized then that I’d never compiled a list of my favourite Sunil Dutt songs. This, despite the fact that he is one of my favourite actors.
Someone once told me “I don’t watch Westerns and war movies. Too much blood and gore, too little character development, and no message to take home. Nothing but guts and glory.”
True, if (and this is a very big, very emphatic if) the only war films or Westerns you’ve ever seen are the straightforward action types (and even among those, old films tend to be far less gory than their newer counterparts—modern Westerns and war films like The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, True Grit, etc are, on the whole, far more graphic than their predecessors). But there’s nothing to stop a film—irrespective of genre—from also being well-written, from having good characterisation and character development, and from being something more than a battle of “let’s see who’s braver”. Some of the best films—in fact, even the films that I’ve found affirming virtues like humanity, peace, equality, and so on—I’ve seen have been war films or Westerns: Paths of Glory, La Grande Guerra, The Searchers…
My point being, there are films out there that may seem, at first glance, deceptively run-of-the-mill genre film. Then, at closer inspection, they turn out to be something more.
When I posted my review of Pakeezah last week, I mentioned that I’d be posting something further about Pakeezah. This is it, and the reason why I rewatched Pakeezah in the first place: I wanted to see, once again, the nuances of the film, before I got around to reading Meghnad Desai’s Pakeezah: An Ode to a Bygone World (Harper Collins; 2013; ISBN: 978-93-5029-369-0; 152 pages; Rs 250).
Whenever people ask me what my movie blog is about, I say pre-70s cinema. Pre-70s, yes, but with a few (very few) exceptions, and those are films released in the very early 70s, but with a distinctly 60s feel to them. Pakeezah is the example I invariably give: a film released in 1972, but with an aura that’s recognisably of an earlier period about it, whether it’s in the fashions, the actors, or the overall look of the film.
Since I generally steer clear of reviewing very well-known films, the format of this review is going to be slightly different from my usual film review. I’ll begin with a much briefer synopsis than usual, then go on to discussing—in far greater detail than I normally do—what I liked about the film, what I didn’t like, and sundry other musings regarding Pakeezah.