Though compared to Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (1958) as a commentary on Bengal's decaying feudalism, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is a romantic and somewhat nostalgic tale of a bygone era. The film is a magnificent and sombre work with heightened atmosphere, rich dialogues, haunting cinematography, extraordinary song picturizations and brilliant performances.
The decadent lifestyle of the zamindars at the end of 19th century Bengal is shown through the two Choudhury brothers who seldom work but spend most of their time in pigeon racing or in the company of dancer-prostitutes while their wives are left to distract themselves by having jewellery made and remade! While the servant Bansi, acts as chronicler of the Choudhury's history, Bhoothnath is a witness to the ravages of time and change in the haveli. The narrative is told largely from his perspective with other events being relayed by Bansi whose on-screen explanation of events provides the continuity between the various time periods in the narrative. Bhoothnath's own history is in sharp contrast to the zamindar class. With no special privilege beyond his Brahmin status, he rises from humble rural beginnings to become a successful architect who ironically oversees the destruction of the very haveli which had so overawed him when he came first to the big city.
Chhoti Bahu is the pivotal character of the film. Her personality is ambiguous and perceived differently by different people. For her obese sister-in-law, Chhoti Bahu is a simple and foolish woman who has not learned to enjoy her new status and wealth. For her husband, she is an ordinary bland woman from a poor background whose traditional upbringing teaches her to be the perfect wife and to regard him as god. For Bhoothnath, she is an ethereal being who is always beyond his reach.
The build up to the moment when we first see Chhoti Bahu is reminiscent of Carol Reed's introduction of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man (1949). In a marvelously staged sequence, the camera takes Bhoothnath's POV and follows the pattern of a rich carpet on which he walks to enter the room. His eyes are lowered and he is terrified of meeting her. We hear Chhoti Bahu still off-screen telling him to be seated. Then we see a pair of feet adorned by alta vermilion colour walk across the room. As Bhoothnath sits humbly on the floor, he is asked his name. As Chhoti Bahu asks him what sort of a name is Bhoothnath, he looks up. The camera tracks in dramatically and holds on a close-up of Chhoti Bahu. Her aura startles Bhoothnath (and us) and from that first look, he (and us) becomes forever her 'slave.' It is a magical moment in the film and shows cinema's wonderful ability to mythify its own characters.
Chhoti Bahu is actually a woman ahead of her times. She is not content to be a subservient and docile wife and fights for her husband's attention, demanding her own sexual needs be met. She even dares to suggest that Chhote Babu is probably impotent despite all his masculine bravura. However she too cannot escape the decadence of the zamindari era and when she ventures out of the haveli for the first and only time, it costs her her life.
As usual Guru Dutt had a different cast and crew in mind before starting work on the film. He considered Shashi Kapoor and then Biswajit before taking on the part of Bhoothnath. Nargis and then Jitendra Arya's wife Chhaya were considered for the role of Chhoti Bahu. He wanted SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi for the music and lyrics but SD Burman was unwell and Sahir declined the offer.
While each of the performances are spot on, if there is one person who is the heart and soul of the film, it is Meena Kumari. Her portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is perhaps the greatest performance ever seen on the Indian Screen. The sequence where Chhoti Bahu dresses for her husband singing Piya Aiso Jiya Main is a poignant exploration of a woman's expectations and sexual desire. And later on when she has become a desperate alcoholic, you cannot help but cry with her in the sequence where she pleads with her husband to stay with her and then angrily turns on him to tell him how she has prostituted her basic values and morals to please him. However the common factors between the actress's life and Chhoti Bahu are too dramatic to be merely coincidental - The estranged marital relationship, the taking of alcohol, turning towards younger male company, the craving to be understood and loved - all elements evident in Meena Kumari's own life.
Hemant Kumar's evocative music particularly Chhoti Bahu's songs give the film a haunting quality. Geeta Dutt's rendering of the three Chhoti Bahu songs - Koi Door Se Awaaz De Chale Aao, Piya Aiso Jiya and Na Jao Saiyan represents some of the finest singing she has ever done. Her voice with all its sensuality and pain complements Meena Kumari's performance perfectly. Chhoti Bahu's 'signature tune' - the melancholic music played each time Bhoothnath meets her adds enormously to the aura of tragedy surrounding her. Mention must be made of Bhanu Athaiya's costumes and Biren Naug's Art Direction and above all VK Murthy's stunning cinematography with masterly use of light and shadow, none better than the mujra - Saaqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aaegi, where the lead dancer is always in the light and the dancers in the background lit up in a manner that no light falls on their faces. This when often there is both character movement and camera movements being coordinated in the course of the shot! And rarely has the Indian screen seen better use of close-ups particularly those of Meena Kumari who looks absolutely stunning.The editing rhythm with its many dissolves and fades adds to the film's mysterious feel.
The film was a modest commercial success dividing audiences. The more traditional just couldn't accept a pious Hindu wife taking to drink or the friendship (even though totally platonic) between Bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu. The film was however a huge critical success. To quote the review featured in the Times of India dated June 24, 1962, "The well-knit screenplay, achieving an effective balance between the various characters and emotional phases, provides a neat dramatic pattern. It appears to be a specially successful job considering the verbosity and digressiveness of the novel of Mr. Bimal Mitra who, though often brilliant, writes in a highly disorderly way."
However, the last song of the film, Sahil Ki Taraf Kashti Le Chal sung by Hemant Kumar was edited out of the film. The song had a shot which showed Chhoti Bahu resting her head on Bhoothnath's lap in the carriage. Audiences reacted sharply to this so Guru Dutt removed the song and the 'offending shot' changing the carriage scene to a dialogue exchange between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath. He also shot an additional scene with the paralyzed husband repenting his sinful and debauched lifestyle. Hemant Kumar reused the tune for Sahil ki Taraf for the song Ya Dil ki Suno from Anupama (1966).
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam went on to win Filmfare Awards for Best Film, Director, Actress and Photography. Shockingly Hemant Kumar lost out the Award for Best Music which went to Shankar-Jaikishen for their populist score in Professor (1962). The film also won the President's Silver Medal and the 'Film of the Year' Award from the Bengal Film Journalist Association. The film was also screened at the Berlin Film Festival in June 1963 and was India's official entry to the Oscars that year.
The controversy about who actually directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam has increased over the years. Since the film is characteristic of Guru Dutt's feel and style, it is difficult to think that he did not direct the film. However Guru Dutt never denied Abrar Alvi's role in the film nor did he make any counter claims when Alvi won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for the film. Abrar Alvi has stated that Guru Dutt did direct the songs in the film, but not the film in its entirety. The editor of the Film YG Chawan however says that for the film it was Abrar who sat with him. To quote him, "Abrar worked so hard on that film but he never got any credit. People say it was produced by Guru Dutt so it had to be Guru Dutt's film." Others associated with the film insist that Guru Dutt did everything behind the scenes.
No matter what, the undisputed fact is that the film is a classic and that's what matters most!