While courtesans feature in many films, mostly in minor roles, the two great films in which they are the main heroines are set in the nineteenth- century Avadhi court of Lucknow (Umrao Jaan), and in Delhi and the Punjabi princely state of Patiala in the early years of the twentieth century (Pakeezah), as these were two of the great centres of courtly Muslim culture of their time.
Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) is in love with a courtesan, Nargis (Meena Kumari), but his family will not let him marry her. Nargis dies in a graveyard where she has given birth to a daughter, who is brought up by her sister, also a courtesan. Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) becomes a courtesan too and she also falls in love with a forestry officer, Salim (Raaj Kumar), whom she does not know is her nephew from father’s side. They have some romantic moments together and want to get married but his family insists that he marries someone else. Sahibjaan is invited to dance at their wedding …
Pakeezah has very stylised aesthetics, with its beautiful actress, music and dance, the elaboration of scenery and in particular of clothing, tied to a certain nostalgia arising from the decline and disappearance of courtesan culture. The courtesan is a quintessentially romantic figure: a beautiful but tragic woman, who pours out her grief for the love she is denied in tears, poetry and dance. Yet although denied marriage and respectability, she is also a source of power. She ignores constraints on women’s chastity and economic rights, succeeding through a combination of talent and education. Meena Kumari had a strong star persona, as a tragedian who was exploited by her parents and her lovers, despite her beauty and her talent as an actress and a poet. She had an alcohol problem, which killed her less than two months after Pakeezah’s release, when she was only forty. During the fourteen years it had taken to make this film, she and the film’s director, producer and writer, Amrohi, were divorced.
All this makes Pakeezah something of a camp classic. It has strong elements of foot fetishism: the lover leaves a note tucked into Pakeezah’s toes on the train/(‘Aap ke paon bahut haseen hain. lnhen zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jaayenge’/Your feet are very beautiful. Do not let them touch the ground, they will get dirty!’) and dancing at her lover’s wedding, she lacerates her feet on broken glass to leave symbolically resonant bloody marks on the white sheet of her performance. Although her sexual allure is constantly on display in the film, she calls her body a zinda lash (‘living corpse’) and writes romantic ghazals about love, maintaining the hope that she might marry, although her career would make this impossible.
The extended filming schedule meant that several of the crew and cast were rather old by the time it was finished. It was shot by Josef Wirsching, who had been a cameraman at Bombay Talkies in the 1930s. The songs from the film were beautiful, tragic compositions by Ghulam Mohammed, who wrote them in the late 1950s and died before the film’s release, and they are often played even today, as well as commonly sampled in modern mixes such as ‘Chalte chalte’, ‘Inhi logon ne’, ‘Thaade rahiyo’, ‘Chalo dildaar chalo’, ‘Mausam hai aashiqaana’, and many more. Naushad stepped in to compose the background music for the film.
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1971, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Kamal Amrohi, Director – Kamal Amrohi, Music Director – Ghulam Mohammed, Naushad, Cast – Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari, Raj Kumar, Veena, Sapru, Kamal Kapoor, Vijayalaxmi, Jagdish Kanwal, Nadira, Meenakshi, Zebunissa, Pratima Devi