Pakeezah, a classic that fascinated movie goers 50 years ago, is still loved by people

Every once in a while the Bollywood film industry produces a movie that grips the imagination of film lovers and stays in their minds for decades. One such film was Pakeezah which was written, produced and directed by Kamal Amrohi. He was a film director, screenwriter and poet. The film became such a super duper hit that for years afterwards, it was the topic of discussion at gatherings in posh dinner parties as well as roadside cafes. It’s beautiful songs and their wonderful lyrics are still fresh in the minds of film fans all over India.

Kamal Amrohi in the 1950s

It was released on 4th February 1972 so today is the 50th anniversary of its release. It was ranked at number two among the top ten hits of 1972, behind Seeta Aur Geeta. But Pakeezah had several unique aspects which made it the most talked about film of the time.

On the face of it, there was nothing very unusual in the story. The plot revolves around the life of a courtesan who is desperate to leave the humiliating life that she has been leading at a kotha. Her mother too lived in similar circumstances and she is now living a life trapped in despair. After many twists and turns, the story has a happy ending when her suitor Salim (Raaj Kumar) arrives to wed her and take her away. But the woman’s father Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) dies when he is accidentally shot.

MS Education Academy

The film depicted the ethos of the times but modern day audiences may find some parts of the story far-fetched. However, decades ago, film viewers had a different outlook. Among the present generation, very few, if any, would have ridden in a Tonga or seen a palanquin. In Hyderabad the cycle rickshaws that used to be plentiful in the 1970s have disappeared. The times have changed. With the changing times, the mindset of the people has also transformed. But when the film was released, there were many people who could empathise with the mood of the film.

One of the things that made it outstanding was the music and the songs. Ghulam Mohammed (who passed away before the film’s completion) composed almost the entire soundtrack. Naushad was also involved. The lyrics were penned by Kamal Amrohi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaif Bhopali. A ghazal by 19th century poet Mir Taqi Mir, known as god of poetry, was also used. His ghazal, Yeh dhuaN sa kahaaN say udhta hai/ Dekh tho dil kay jaaN say uthta hai was played in the background. The superbly crafted songs when sung by the famed singers of the time including Lata Mangeshkar, Shamshad Begum, Shobha Gurtu and Rajkumari Dubey created emotions that transcended the realms of the physical world.

Starting with Inhi Logon Ne, the other famous songs included Thade Rahiyo, Chalte Chalte, Mausam Hai  Ashiquana, Chalo Dildar Chalo, Teer-E-Nazar and Nazaria Ki Mari which have created an indelible impression in the minds of music lovers all over India. The Pakeezah soundtrack became the best selling collection of records of the 1970s. The album also entered The Guardian newspaper’s list of ten best soundtracks of Indian cinema.

The film had many ups and downs before it finally hit the screens. In 1956 Amrohi began writing the dialogue with the help of co-writers but disagreements cropped up. It is said that Amrohi wanted to make his film a work of pristine art without any vulgarity. For the lead role he had in mind his own wife Meena Kumari. For the male lead he considered Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Padeep Kumar before settling on Raaj Kumar.

Indian actor Raaj Kumar in the film Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai

Reportedly the sets for the film were largely inspired by Amrohi’s own haveli in his hometown of Amroha in UP. No expense was spared in the preparation of the lavish sets. When it came to costumes, he saw to it that the dresses were accurate in their depiction of the clothes of that era. Amrohi wanted everything to be perfect. But there were other problems that plagued the making of the film.

The shooting was interrupted by the fact that Meena Kumari was also involved in several other films and had already given dates. To top it all, the relationship between husband and wife which had been strained, began to deteriorate further and finally they parted ways. For a long period the film was shelved. However, the couple’s mutual friends including music director Khayyam, Sunil Dutt and Nargis persuaded the duo not to discard Pakeezah. According to Kamal Amrohi’s daughter Rukhsar, they said: “We have seen the rushes and we feel that this film must definitely be presented to the world.”

In the meantime another hurdle cropped up due to the fact that Meena Kumari became addicted to alcohol and developed a liver problem. Her health worsened and film shootings were further interrupted. Her illness compelled the use of a body double for the dance sequences.

Indian film actress Meena Kumari in October 1957. This photograph was published in the magazine Filmfare on October 25, 1957

Despite all obstacles, the cast and crew carried on bravely and completed the film. Meena Kumari was seriously debilitated by the time it was finished. The film was finally released in Bombay (now Mumbai) about 14 years after it had begun. Sadly, Meena Kumari died a month after its release and was not around to see the huge success that it enjoyed at the box office despite scathing reviews by film critics.

But for Meena Kumari (real name Mahjabeen) it was a magnum opus. She had been involved in acting from childhood and was a vastly experienced actress who could bring out subtle nuances of the characters that she portrayed on the screen. She played many outstanding roles but perhaps the ones for which she will be best remembered are as Chhoti Bahu in Guru Dutt’s film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and her dual role in Pakeezah as the mother Nargis and her daughter Sahibjaan. It was in Pakeezah that she got ample opportunity to reinforce her standing as a great actress and thereafter she exited this life with her work immortalised in the minds of her fans.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.

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