In this weekly column, we revisit the gems of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week we revisit the 1962 film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is pointedly about Sahab, Biwi and the Ghulam, but at its heart the film belongs to Bibi. Bibi this is Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari), who will try anything – from a supposedly magical sindoor to alcohol, to make her marriage work. Her perpetually melancholy eyes and pristine beauty make her a tragic figure who is slowly drowning in a sea of despair. We see his painful story unfold through the eyes of Ghulam aka Bhoothnath (Guru Dutt), whose platonic relationship with Chhoti Bahu grew out of pathos. Their nameless relationship that defies both caste and gender has no place, or name, in feudal patriarchal society which sees only its married women as assets. The Sahib or Chhote Babu (Rehman) here, expects his courtesan to be as loyal as his wife but treats his wife like a toy.
The tragedy of Chhoti Bahu is that, unlike her contemporaries, she wants more and she has the courage to demand it. From a modern point of view, it can be difficult to relate to someone who calls her husband ‘swami’, but from a simplistic point of view all she wants is to be loved and sweetheart. By her own admission, she comes from a poor family and has been taught to live her life in the service of her husband and for that, she will gladly commit any sin even if it kills her. Chhoti Bahu bravely confronts her husband and asks him to stop cheating on her. When he says that being a “Tuesday” is a badge of honor, she comes back and asks him to fulfill his duties as a husband. The film takes place in the pre-independence era where the zamindars dictated the law of the land and in this world women did not have an agency and Chhoti Bahu is the product of this failing system which was too consumed in their own way. to even look up and notice that the world around had changed dramatically.
The film appreciates changing times, especially with the way it portrays its second female character Jaba. Played by Waheeda Rehman, she is the woman who can run her father’s affairs, grew up in a comparatively freer society, and is generally not afraid. The stark contrast between these two women obviously shows that the creators weren’t romanticizing the bygone era of class division and poverty, but looked to the future where the “ havelis ” perished and left behind haunting stories from the past.
The so-called “haveli” of the zamindars is depicted as a cursed mausoleum from the opening of the film. The ruins of the lavish house are further highlighted as its dilapidated condition is examined by Bhoothnath who has gone beyond the Orthodox ways of the past but still remembers the losses he left behind. Even at its peak, the haveli is constantly referred to as an “ajeeb”. His greatness cannot compensate for his suffocating ways that eventually pave the way for his downfall.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was directed by Abrar Alvi and produced by Guru Dutt but over the years many have disputed that it was Dutt who was in charge as the film’s aesthetic approach was quite reminiscent of his style. But according to accounts from the film crew, including Waheeda Rehman and cinematographer VK Murthy, it was Alvi who directed the film. Alvi once shared that Dutt directed the songs but not the film which has since been celebrated as one of the classics of Indian cinema.
In 1962, the film was considered daring by conservatives. A woman who started drinking, being friends with a man she is not related to, and being generally assertive were not viewed as positive traits by the general population, but nonetheless the film was appreciated for its nuanced narration, its breathtaking cinematography, its heartbreaking and enchanting gameplay. music. With songs like “Na Jao Saiyaan”, “Bhanwara Bada Nadaan”, “Piya Aiso Jiya Mein” among many others – Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s album with music by Hemant Kumar and lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni continues to be a classic.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is the story of a woman who cannot escape the nightmares of a containment system but still dreams of living in paradise, even if she has to live in her cage.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is available on YouTube.
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