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.
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.
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.
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.
What is a country to do if its economy suddenly takes a nosedive? What if the country’s sole source of income is a product that’s suddenly no more in demand? Are economic reforms in order? Or a smart political move?
No; I’m not talking a 1950s tale of courage and enterprise in the face of economic disaster (not in the way one would’ve expected, at any rate). Not when you know that the star of this film—in a triple role, too, one of which is a woman—is the inimitable Peter Sellers. And not when you know that it revolves around a fictitious country, supposedly the smallest in the world, which decides that what its economy needs for a turnaround is to declare war on the United States of America.
Yash Chopra’s debut as a director, Dhool ka Phool is unusual in a lot of ways.
Leela Chitnis, for instance, is not a coughing-her-guts out (or basket-making) pathetic old mum.
The hero and heroine travel by train—and that too in trains that go over bridges—without the train falling into the river or crashing and the protagonist losing their memory in the process. Or being given up for dead.
And two people in love in the first half-hour of the film end up moving on in life and not loving each other till the end of time.
On the flip side, it does have a long-lost mother feeling an inexplicable affection towards a strange boy, who for no reason that he can fathom, instinctively calls her “Ma!” It does have a thunderstorm at the end of a love song, with the expected consequences [read: raging hormones, libido and “Humein aisi galti nahin karni chaahiye thhi”]. And it does have Manmohan Krishna being the goodie-two-shoes who stands up for what is right and righteous.
In one pivotal scene in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Kammo (Padmini), the daughter of a dacoit chief tells her naïve beloved that they, the dacoits, are not to be scorned or derided, because they wield guns to make things equal between the rich and the poor. They take from the rich and give to the poor, because the poor have always been preyed upon by the rich.
“Kammoji, tum log chochilist ho?” asks Raju (Raj Kapoor), wide-eyed. Because chochilists, as he informs Kammo, also work to make things ‘barobar’ between the rich and the poor. And when he is reassured that yes, that is the philosophy of the dacoits, Raju decides there and then that he will no longer think of dacoits as evil people.
The other day, scrolling through previous posts, I realised I hadn’t reviewed any Hollywood films for a while (to be honest, I’ve not even watched many Hollywood films over the past couple of months). I also realised that it’s been ages since I watched any films starring Tyrone Power, one of my favourite Hollywood actors. Time to amend that, I decided. So I got out a Power film I hadn’t watched before. An Irving Berlin production, replete with good songs and plenty of Ty candy.
Muslim socials are among the genres I can never have too much of. Back in their heyday, they had some of the best music around (remember Chaudhvin ka Chaand? Barsaat ki Raat? Mere Mehboob? The inimitable Pakeezah?) There was the chance to savour the mellifluous sound of Urdu; to peek into a social structure and lifestyles that often went otherwise unexplored in cinema; and to see women in shararas and men in achkans [the latter, like military uniforms, equipped with some inexplicable means of making even Bharat Bhushan and Rajendra Kumar look good].