My Precious Family Heirloom: A Love for Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah

Bollywood

My Precious Family Heirloom: A Love for Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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akeezah is one of those transcendent, tragic Bollywood love stories, where life mirrors art and art continues to reflect life. Its stellar set of protagonists, led by “tragedy queen” Meena Kumari, had such eventful and poignant lives that it is impossible to part her character in Pakeezah (1972) from what was unfolding in her real life. According to Bollywood lore, the film’s director, the legendary Kamal Amrohi, wanted to emulate Shah Jahan and erect a Taj Mahal for his Mumtaz, Meena Kumari – and the heartachingly beautiful Pakeezah was his eternal tribute.

It’s a no-brainer that a romantic-film nut like me would take to the film as a fish to water… or a leading actress to alcohol. But Pakeezah is also the foundation of a family bond. A love for the film is a kind of family heirloom, passed on from my nani to my mother to me. Before writing this, I called my mom, to clarify a few things. “Don’t you mess this up,” she warned me.

I must have been about six, when I first heard my mum humming the refrain to “Chalte chalte”. This little ritual would usually be followed up by dad responding with a teasing “Wah Sahibjaan!” This confused me, mostly because my naani was named Sahib Kaur. What was dad even up to?

As a 10-year-old Chandigarh adolescent, I finally decided to ask mom what was going on. She in turn, decided I was old enough to be introduced to the film she loves with all her heart.

Pakeezah was Meena Kumari’s last film and the one she is most remembered for. It follows the journey of the courtesan Sahibjaan, born to Nargis (both played by Meena Kumari), who one day discovers a note left behind for her by a stranger, Salim (Raaj Kumar). As Sahibjaan falls in love what can best be described as an illusion, her life takes a turn that puts her face-to-face with Salim. As he prepares to marry Sahibjaan, history repeats itself – the same Hakim Saab who had objected to her mother’s marriage, refuses to allow Sahibjaan’s marriage to Salim.

Just like her on-screen character, Meena Kumari had likely “destroyed” herself for the man she loved.

I didn’t really understand Pakeezah back then, but I watched with complete and utter fascination. I marvelled at Nargis, the golden-haired woman and her beautiful light-coloured eyes, was heartbroken when she died, and ecstatic when she returned, even more beautiful. She dresses in some of the most amazing clothes I’d ever seen, her jewels sparkled, and she danced. So of course, I wanted to be her.

No sooner was the film over, that I demanded a dupatta with shiny borders and insisted on getting my ears pierced. My mother knew then that the lifelong romance she and her mother had had with Pakeezah, had passed on to me.

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I understand Nargis’s willingness to waste away and Sahibjaan’s need to run and watch a train pass by.

Image Credits: Mahal Pictures

Watching Pakeezah once a month has become a ritual for the two of us, even though we’re in separate cities. We decide the date and time, exchange notes over the phone, and tune in at the same time, sitting with our cups of tea and a plate of biscuits. In 22 years, nothing changes. My heart still breaks when Nargis dies; I still fervently wish her letter hadn’t gotten so delayed. I want to scream at Hakim Saab for being so hateful and regressive, I hate Salim for agreeing to marry someone else, and I cry tears of joy when Sahibjaan finally gets her happy ending.

Sometimes, nani, mum, and I would watch the film together, to revel in the tragedy of Meena Kumari. “Vekh bechaari nu. Kinni dukhi ae (Poor thing, she’s so upset),” naani would say as Sahibjaan would end her dance performance at Salim’s impending wedding and fall down with bloodsoaked feet. Mom and I would agree. We never had the heart to tell her that it is actually Padma Khanna doing all the dancing and the grieving and the dramatic falling.

After over two decades, I understand the essence of Pakeezah, the love and longing. I know that love comes with its set of complications and you can either choose to forget and move on, or hold on with one tiny hope. I understand Nargis’s willingness to waste away and Sahibjaan’s need to run and watch a train pass by. Most of all, I understand that love stories and the eternal hope of both a mother and a daughter can be encapsulated in “Shab-e-intezaar aakhir kabhi hogi muktasar bhi (This long night of waiting will someday shorten).”

Isn’t that what Nargis and Sahibjaan were eventually hoping for? For their wait to end, and their lives to begin? Isn’t that what all of us hope for?  

I grew up in the ’90s, and my peers don’t really believe in waiting. Everything, including relationships, is instant. “Kaun time waste kare?”, is one of my closest friend’s favourite refrain, and even as a married woman, she keeps saying this, refusing to make any exceptions for her husband.

My mother, on the other hand, gets it. On a trip to Lucknow in 2004, as she and I walked around the Bara Imambara, I teased her with, “Aaj kal saare shehr ko yeh aag lagi hui hai” (a reference to what the tongawallah tells the flamboyant Nawab Zafar Ali Khan about Sahibjaan). For some reason, she vaguely mentioned a “medical student” who she once liked, but things hadn’t really gone the way they’d planned. “Were you dating,” I asked incredulous, and she said, “Yeh sab nahi hota tha humaare time mein. Papaji and Biji would’ve sent me to the pind.” Turns out, there was no dating, just a vague promise of talking to the “gharwaale” once studies were done and his medical practice is set up. Obviously, that never happened.

Mom says she never gave it a second thought, and maybe she didn’t, but I like to think of a 21-year-old girl, looking out the window of her first floor bedroom in Chandigarh’s Sector 35. Would she have held on to the promise, like Sahibjaan holds on to the note? Did her heart break the way Nargis’ breaks when Shahabuddin disappoints her? Is that when she started to sing “Chalte Chalte”?

Many would argue that Nargis and Sahibjaan are crazy women, especially in today’s times when logic dictates all. Why was there a constant need to try and sacrifice everything, including the self, at the so-called altar of love? Why didn’t Nargis fight for her rights and that of her daughter? Why, like her mother, Sahibjaan decides to keep Salim’s honour intact as she declares “Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge” but not once tried to reveal her identity?

Maybe because the real message of Pakeezah is that love transcends logic. At least that’s how I understand it, even though I can see that the film is a testament to abusive relationships, where women are always the casualty.

Over the years, I’ve read about Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari’s love story from many different perspectives. A few years ago, after one ritualistic Pakeezah watching with mom, I asked her about it, and she was quick to connect the film with Meena Kumari’s life. Just like her on-screen character, Meena Kumari had likely “destroyed” herself for the man she loved. Did that really happen? Maybe. A broken heart can kill you.

Lately, I find myself wondering how things would’ve been different if Meena had lived to see how she made Sahibjaan an icon that people everywhere, including me, worship. Would she have given her opinion on what love meant to Sahibjaan, and by extension, her? Maybe.

Or maybe she would’ve written a poem about it.

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