Based on Bimal Mitro's novel Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, this is a fascinating mood movie made by people gifted with acute sensitivity.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam has Meena Kumari as its magnetic centre. She plays a complex, flawed but spirited Chhoti bahu of a feudal era who chafes at the bonds constricting her. She eventually crumbles due to a hopeless love and a debilitating addiction, but depicts that there can be dignity even in desperation.
| Guru Dutt
|| Abrar Alvi
|| Hemant Kumar
|| Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman
The film seduces you from the very first frame. Bhoothnath (Guru Dutt), a middle-aged architect, is working amidst the ruins of an old haveli. Like in the book Brideshead Revisited, the eerie fact that he has been to the place before sets him reminiscing.
To the haunting strains of Koi door se aawaz de... chale aao, Bhoothnath flashbacks to the haveli's halcyon days.
An unsure small-town youth, Bhoothnath arrives in Kolkata and finds employment in the Mohini Sindoor factory. A volatile relationship with his boss's pert daughter Jabba (Waheeda Rehman) ensues. He finds accommodation in some quarters of a palatial haveli belonging to the local zamindars and slowly gets entrenched in the life of the haveli's Chhoti bahu (Meena Kumari).
The haveli stands as an architectural metaphor for a disintegrating era and, ironically, Chhoti bahu too seems doomed to share its fate.
Director Abrar Alvi deliberately creates a halo of intrigue around Chhoti bahu by denying us even a glimpse of her in the opening quarter of the film. To further heighten the mystery, he astutely employs a birhan song and snatches of Meena Kumari's sultry voice.
We first see Chhoti bahu when the camera follows Bhoothnath's hesitant gaze as it moves to her face. You are instantly struck by Meena Kumari's hypnotic visage. Chhoti bahu has smuggled Bhoothnath into her quarters because she wants him to fetch Mohini sindoor for her. Her relationship with her debauched husband (Rehman) has reached an impasse; he is spending nights with courtesans. But she is optimistic that the sindoor will live up to its claims and help her win her husband's affections.
But Mohini sindoor fails. In desperation, Chhoti bahu cedes to her husband's demand and partners him in his drinking bouts. The scene where her husband forcibly pushes alcohol down her throat makes you recoil at the blatant subjugation of women as well at the haplessness of love. The husband begins to spend his nights at home but once the novelty palls, he forsakes Chhoti bahu for the courtesans.
Bhoothnath moves closer to the Chhoti bahu when she hides him in a secret room to oversee his nursing after an injury. Earlier, Bhoothnath brought her sindoor, now he gets her alcohol.
Chhoti bahu's husband is paralysed and the family becomes bankrupt. Chhoti bahu is now a hopeless alcoholic.
|Famous songs from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam|
| Chale aao
|| Geeta Dutt
| Na jao saiyan
|| Geeta Dutt
| Piya aiso jeeya mein
|| Geeta Dutt
| Meri jaan o meri jaan
|| Asha Bhosle
| Saqiya aaj mujhe neend nahee
|| Asha Bhosle
| Bhanwra bada nadan
|| Asha Bhosle
| Meri baat rahi
|| Asha Bhosle
Bhoothnath, like Chhoti Bahu's now-repentant husband, tries to wean her away away from her addiction but fails. On an ill-fated day, Chhoti bahu asks Bhoothnath to escort her on a trip to a renowned sage. But when her brother-in-law (Sapru) sees her board the carriage with an unattached commoner, he sends his goons to ambush the carriage. In a tautly-shot skirmish, Bhoothnath is injured and Chhoti Bahu abducted.
The flashback ends. Bhoothnath is rudely awakened from his reverie by the shouts of labourers. In the ruins of the haveli, they have discovered a skeleton with a kangan still intact on the wrist, which he recognises as Chhoti bahu's.
The most fascinating aspect of this fluidly-narrated film is the bonding between the ghulam, Bhoothnath, and the bibi, Chhoti Bahu. Replete with emotional landmines, the nature of their ambiguous relationship is subject to individual interpretation. Chhoti bahu's cryptic remarks to Bhoothnath: "Bhool mat jaana apni chhoti bahu ko", "Tum mujhe bahut chahte ho na?", "Mujhse dar lagta hai kya?", "Tumne mujhe haath lagaya? Nikal jao yahan se", and "Bhoothnath, tu mujhe jitna samajhta hai aur koi bhi nahin samajh sakta hai re", only indicate the multiple layers of their relationship.
Chhoti Bahu's character is also sharply brought to the fore in the way the three daughter-in-laws of the zamindar's clan react to subjugation (an insightful comment on the disparity of human nature). The eldest daughter-in-law, a widow, allows herself to be consumed by rites and rituals, the middle bahu is absorbed in jewellery and clothes, but Chhoti bahu craves fulfillment.
The exchange between Meena Kumari and Rehman is shrapnel-sharp. It exposes the vulnerability and the ensuing anger of a man confronted with the hollowness of his chauvinism even as it lauds the spirit of an unloved woman who won't accept rejection as her lot.
Captivating cinematography (notice the way only Minoo Mumtaz is bathed in light while the chorus girls are cloaked in shadows during Saqiya aaj mujhe neend), and astute art direction help to authentically recreate the period atmosphere. Rival zamindars exhort their pigeons to fight each other while freedom fighters battle the British, the shallowness of the zamindars' lives couldn't have been underlined better.
Guru Dutt, looking suitably innocence sans moustache, is at his subtlest best with his characteristic affinity for humanity evident in his eyes. Waheeda's perky persona is in full bloom but her portions are largely extraneous to the main plot and could have been trimmed.
Meena Kumari, in her career-best role, is simply mesmerising. She makes the most of her expressive voice, tear-stained eyes and cascading hair to enhance her skillfully-calibrated performance.
Rehman (to Meena Kumari): "Gehne tudwao, gehne banvao. Aur koriyaan khelo. So aaram se." (Break old jewellery sets, make new ones. Play with shells. And sleep.)
Meena Kumari : "Hindu ghar ki bahu hokar, kya sharab pee hai kissine? (Has any Hindu household's daughter-in-law drunk liquor, ever?)"
*Much to Abrar Alvi's disconcertment, the conjecture about whether Guru Dutt ghost-directed the film has never died down.
*Waheeda was very keen to play the role eventually essayed by Meena Kumari, but Dutt stood his ground. She was deemed too young.
*Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was Waheeda Rehman's last film with Guru Dutt after a rewarding association which included Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool and Chaudhvi Ka Chand.
*At one stage, Guru Dutt toyed with the idea of introducing Biswajeet to Hindi films in the role of Bhoothnath.
*Geeta Dutt didn't lend playback for Waheeda Rehman (though she had done so for both Mala and Waheeda in Pyaasa). Guru Dutt opted for Asha Bhosle's voice for Waheeda while Geeta sang for Meena Kumari.
*Hemant Kumar composed an immortal score for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) which revived his career.
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Design: Uday Kuckian