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Upperstall Review




Urdu, Drama, 1972, Color

The dancer and courtesan Nargis (Meena Kumari) dreams of escaping her dishonourable life but she is rejected by the family of her husband Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar). She dies in a graveyard, giving birth to a daughter Sahibjaan who also grows up to be a courtesan (Meena Kumari). Sahibjaan's guardian Nawabjaan (Veena), Nargis's sister, prevents Shahabuddin from seeing her and takes her away to another place. Sahibjaan falls in love with a mysterious, noble stranger who turns out to be her father's nephew, Salim (Raaj Kumar). Salim's father forbids the marriage. Sahibjaan dances at Salim's arranged wedding where Shahabuddin discovers her identity and claims her as his child. Finally, her desires are fulfilled and she marries Salim, leaving her past behind.

Pakeezah is a stylized, larger than life mythicization of the familiar tale of the prostitute with the heart of gold. Perhaps Meena Kumari's best known film, the film had been planned by her and husband Amrohi since 1958. When the two of them separated in 1964, filming came to a halt. Initially, Dharmendra was to have played the male lead but Raaj Kumar replaced him. After some years by which time Meena Kumari was suffering from alcoholism, she decided to complete the film before she died.

In the film Amrohi turns to the milieu and culture he is a product of - Uttar Pradesh's feudal elite, its life of ease and elegance, of romantic love, poetry and mujras. Its decadence is not without a touch of class and has sometimes resulted in much creative upsurge. Pakeezah inherits that legacy. There is grandeur in Amrohi's filmmaking - an epic magnitude of treatment. The evocative songs and the background music create the right period mood and Amrohi's eye for details brings great depth to the lavish sets. The dances are extremely well choreographed, cleverly hiding Meena Kumari's inability to dance (Just watch her walk and move ever so gracefully in the song Chalte Chalte even as two other nautch girls dance in the background). And the picturisation of the song Chalo Dildar Chalo across the wide expanse of sea and sky to the boat on which the lovers ride is romanticism at its best. In fact, the film's main merit in spite of its flaws, at times disjointed flow, its stock situations and an over stretched plot lies in its delirious romanticism.

Though the suffering courtesan occupies central stage, she is defined by male values and shaped by patriarchal parameters with the courtesan having to lead a life of emotional repression. The caged bird whose feathers are trimmed and the torn kite hanging in her courtyard operate as visual symbols for her imprisonment and curtailment of desire. The train or the patriarchal haveli are well-knit constructs in the fabric of the film. In fact, the whistle of the train is used like a leitmotif throughout the film.

Ghulam Mohammed's music is one of the all time great scores in Indian Cinema. Pakeezah reaffirms his great talent and it is sad he did not get his due in the Hindi Film Industry in spite of brilliant work in films like Mirza Ghalib (1954) and Shama (1961) besides Pakeezah. Sadly, he did not live to enjoy the efforts of his labour in Pakeezah and Naushad finally completed the music score. The other factor of course which lifts Pakeezah way above the ordinary is Meena Kumari's stunning performance in the dual role of Nargis and Sahibjaan in the film.

Pakeezah finally released in February 1972 and opened to just a lukewarm response but after the death of Meena Kumari on 31st March, 1972, the film went on to become a huge success at the box-office and has since acquired major cult status as well.

Upperstall review by: Karan Bali aka TheThirdMan

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