"Aap ke paaon dekhe, bahut haseen hain, inhein zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jayenge"
(I saw your feet, they are very beautiful. Do not let them touch the ground, they will get dirty)
A sentence uttered by the male protagonist Raaj Kumar for the lovely sleeping form of Meena Kumari, in the magnum opus Pakeezah in 1972, that has been quoted over and over again by millions of fans over the years. It is a sentence that indicates the underlying theme of the movie, the request of a fascinated lover to his loved one to give up what she is doing. Such simple words and yet so much sophistication in conveying the thought, is what Pakeezah is about. A simple story but conveyed so very poignantly by carefully chosen actors of the day, guided by a masterly director who steered the film so very ably, that never was a movie like that ever seen before and never has one been seen like that till date. In other words, it is a timeless classic, the masterpiece work of a genius.
Pakeezah – a simple story told so very nicely
Pakeezah means ‘the Pure One’. A courtesan (tawaif) named Nargis (Meena Kumari) of Lucknow, has a lover Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar). Not accepted by her lover’s family because of her background, she goes away broken-hearted and gives birth to Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) secretly in a graveyard and dies. Her sister Nawabjaan (Veena) who runs a nautch girls’ establishment takes the child and brings it up as her own. Unable to provide her a decent means of living, the aunt has no other alternative but to put Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari as the daughter) through the same routine as a nautch girl. The travails of a courtesan pure of heart but looked down upon for being part of a profession, ironically not acceptable to be part of ‘decent’ society, is what the film is about. A forest officer (Rajkumar) happens to come by in her life and sensing her chastity despite the circumstances, falls in love with her. He urges her to elope with him and in fact wishes to culminate their love in marriage. Haunted by her past wherever she went she gives up and returns back to her routine life. Does fate give her another opportunity to escape this cage? Does she get a normal life after all with her beloved? is what takes up the closing stages of the film. A simple narrative unfolds on the screen, a sensational blockbuster results some weeks later, a classic is etched in the annals of Bollywood history for life.
Those who were part of the film
Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari ( as mother and later as daughter), Raaj Kumar, Veena, Nadira(later opted out), D.K.Sapru are some of the prominent names of the time who helped make Pakeezah come alive on the screen. These were actors chosen by the director Kamal Amrohi for what they would be able to deliver with their flair for ‘natural acting’.
Initially Ghulam Mohammed had composed most of the songs, but after his demise, Naushad was given the task of completing the rest. Some of those in the background were:
Screenplay: Kamal Amrohi
Art direction: N.B. Kulkarni
Set Design: Kamal Amrohi
Costume Design: Meena Kumari
Director of Photography: Josef Wirsching
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Kaif Bhopali, Kamal Amrohi
Music: Ghulam Mohammed, Naushad Ali - Background Score, Title Music
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar; Mohd. Rafi; Mehdi Hassan
There were 11 musical tracks or songs that were spread over the duration, some that were not seen in the movie to maintain the acceptable duration of the movie. If Pakeezah is remembered today in a different light today it is because of the settings, the dialogues, the unforgettable songs, especially the lyrics and the lilting music that conveyed the age and yet achieved a timelessness that made them immortal melodies that could be enjoyed by those of any age even today.
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Pakeezah - not a film, an eternal inimitable classic
What makes Pakeezah remembered even today are some facts associated with the making of this ‘timeless’ movie which was made with a passion and a love for perfection. The start of something grand, the hitches and glitches on the way and ultimately the completion, which was itself in doubt, owing to the stretched duration to nearly 14 years before it was finally canned, are what make Pakeezah even more interesting and amazing.
- The movie took nearly 14 years to complete. Initially when Pakeezah was conceived, Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi were wife and husband in real life. During the shooting of the film after a few years passed, the duo parted ways and the progress of the movie was halted. It was Sunil Dutt and Nargis who saw the initial rushes of the film and were convinced of the classic that was taking shape, that they convinced Meena Kumari to complete the film.
- Meena Kumari when she agreed was in very bad shape because she was very seriously ill. Though she managed to do some of the remaining kathak dance sequences, the last song had Padma Khanna a noted dancer to be the body-double in the long shots. Incidentally Meena Kumari passed away a few weeks later. For those who could note, the differences in the dance shots of those shot earlier and the subsequent shoot after a long gap, were despite that not very evident. Most of the shooting was done in Kamal Amrohi Studios Mumbai.
- Initially Ashok Kumar or Sunil Dutt was to play the role of the male protagonist, later Raaj Kumar was chosen. Ashok Kumar’s role was to be given to Sapru a much younger actor at that time. Kamal Amrohi chose otherwise. The film character of businessman initially had then to be changed to forest ranger to suit Raaj Kumar’s robust physique.
- The timeless music was composed by Ghulam Mohammed because Kamal Amrohi, a stickler for perfection believed that only he could deliver what he desired. Melodies that would be of the time yet remembered long after. Songs that would do justice to the theme yet linger to haunt memories much later. Unfortunately Ghulam Mohammed passed away when the film delayed. But Kamal was so very taken by the ‘jewels’ of Ghulam Mohammed that he refused to tamper with them and had all his six songs as the main compositions. That the songs are again timeless classics that echo down the ages is another hit story.
- Just like Ghulam Mohammed passed away so did the ace photographer Josef Wirsching also pass away while the shooting was in progress. The balance of the work was undertaken to be completed by top cinematographers of Bombay at that time who pitched in whenever they could, to ultimately maintain a uniform look throughout.
- Kamal Amrohi himself was considered a very slow film maker by many, but the fact is that he wanted to get things done perfectly as always. Initially Pakeezah was shot in black and white. At about that time in 1960, when color came into vogue he decided to scrap the shot film and again shoot in color. A year later cinemascope was a hit abroad and Kamal decided to once again shoot Paakeezah in Cinemascope by acquiring the lens from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on a royalty basis. Kamal’s discovery of a focusing error in one of the scenes, not even noticed by the lens man himself got him not only kudos from MGM but they presented the lens to him in recognition of his knowledge for technical aspects besides being a great director.
- Though he had an art director in the form of an expert N.B.kulkarni, Kamal Amrohi who was never easily pleased actually took to doing the set designs, making the camera movements and selecting costumes right down to the last detail. Meena Kumari incidentally was instrumental in getting the right costume designs herself. Kafeel Azar was the assistant lyricist, Deepak Bahry the assistant director for this movie. Gauri Shankar choreographed all the songs except Thade Rahiyo which had Kathak ace Lacchu Maharaj brought in. So obsessed was he with this project and his desire to get it right Kamal Amrohi took pains to get everything done to the last detail, that partly slowed the pace of the film’s progress.
- Added to this was the break-up of Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari from 1964 to 1968 that further delayed the film. It was then that Sunil Dutt and Nargis convinced a fast deteriorating Meena Kumari to make the effort to not let a good film go waste. The film finally did complete in the mid of 1971 after the initial start in 1958.
Pakeezah will ever be remembered as one of the gems of Bollywood, a rare film that had never before been seen nor would it likely to be seen in such perfection and grandeur on the silver screen of Hindi cinema. For such movies are destined to be what they are – classics that attain an immortal quality of remaining etched in the mind and becoming a part of the psyche for most viewers – for the rest of their lives.