Phool is not yet available on DVD or VCD but it is the first of the very few movies made by one of India’s great directors, K. Asif, whose Mughal-e Azam is rightly regarded as one of the best Indian films ever made. Phool is fascinating, as it mixes several ‘Islamicate’ genres, being partly a Muslim social, that is a film set in the contemporary (or seemingly contemporary) world, partly an Arabian Nights fantasy, with veiled Arab princesses dancing on fabulous stage sets, and also one of the few films to show ‘Islamic’ miracles.
Safdar (Yakub) has promised to finish building a mosque but he loses his money through his in-laws’ scheming. When his daughter Shama (Suraiya) is about to marry Salim (Prithviraj Kapoor), the latter suddenly realizes his duty as a Muslim and rushes off to fight for his qaum (‘community’) of Muslims in Turkey in the Balkan wars, leaving her a flower (phool) and a model of the Taj Mahal, He falls under the spell of a dancer, Princess Leila (Sitara Devi), who comes back to India with him, touring Delhi, Agra, Cawnpore, Allahabad and Lucknow with an amazing stage show.
Leila’s magic potion has made him forget Shama and his mother, and believe he is Farid, not Salim. Even the sight of the flower he has given Shama does not quite jog his memory. Rekha (Veena), their Hindu friend, prays to Krishna and the image comes to life as Shama joins her song. Salim’s mother (Durga Khote) is injured in a struggle with her son and Leila, only for her blood to restore his memory and he picks a flower, which he takes to Shama. In the final resolution of the plot, the in-laws’ wicked son, who is trying to marry Shama, is struck down by lightning outside the mosque, the couple are reunited and the film ends with the cry, ‘Allah ho akbar!’ (‘God is great!’).
Although singing star Suraiya shines as the heroine in the film, and Veena has a smaller role as her best friend, the best female role goes to Sitara Devi, ‘the tigress from Nepal’, as the famous Urdu writer Manto calls her in his Stars from Another Sky (New Delhi: Penguin, 1998). She plays an oriental(ist) temptress in the film, complete with a ring containing magic powder, veils that do not cover her body and her use of the occasional Arabic word (she calls Salim ‘Habibi’ and ‘Hindi’). She performs the ‘item number’ of the film, an extraordinary song where the stage is made of piano keys, she dances on drums and women form the harp that she plays. Prithviraj Kapoor, the founder of the Kapoor dynasty that has dominated Hindi films for over seventy years and who was later to play the old Akbar in Mughal-e Azam, takes the role of the dashing hero.
The very stylized Urdu dialogues for the Muslims and more Hindi versions for the Hindus were written by Kamal Amrohi, who worked with Asif again on MughaI-e Azam before going on to make his own magnum opus, Pakeezah. The music is by Ghulam Haider, who was one of the most popular music directors after the success of Khazanchi.
Although this film is set in the period of the Caliphate (Khilafat) movement (1920s), showing students in India wearing sherwanis (long coats such as those worn by Nehru) and fezzes, the resonances with contemporary politics are clear. (The Pakistan resolution was made in 1940, while 1942 was marked by the Quit India movement, so it was hardly surprising that reports on censorship indicate that the sequence showing students marching through the street with the Caliphate flag, which looks almost identical to the Pakistan flag in black and white, was cut, though it was on the version I saw in the archives in Pune). However, the film makes a show of close friendship between the Muslim family and their Hindu friend Rekha, with the first song of the film being a spectacular Diwali number with Busby Berkeley-style effects – Rachel Dwyer
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 1944, Genre – Fantasy, Producer – Famous Films, Director – K. Asif, Music Director – Ghulam Haider, Language – Hindi/Urdu, Country – India, Cast – Sitara Devi, Prithviraj Kapoor, Suraiya, Veena,