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Ah, there is nothing like a relentless and brutal social tragedy to provide much-needed catharsis in difficult times - especially when it contains magnificent performances…  Now I really know why Meena Kumari was the tragedy queen.  And if I didn’t sufficiently appreciate Waheeda Rehman before, I do from this film.  Guru Dutt also does a fine job as a sort of helpless observer, more in command of his own fate than some of the other characters, but basically unable to do anything about the evils around him.

Dutt’s character, Bhootnath, goes through a transition that reminded me a little of a few characters (or versions of the same character) played by Raj Kapoor.  When he first enters the scene of the film - this great, aristocratic mansion of the 19th century - he is considered a sort of simpleton, awkward and naive.  But he ends up surprising people around him with his cleverness, intelligence, and sensitivity.  The difference here is that unlike that Raj Kapoor character, Bhootnath doesn’t become a moral leader and doesn’t effect any changes in the social environment.   Though he does accomplish some interesting things personally, in addition to improving his own station in life…  For one thing, he eventually finds himself in a successful romance with the smart and independent Jabba, played by Waheeda Rehman (though that path has been strangely predetermined as we learn later).   More impressively, he manages to become a good friend and confidante of a woman of much higher status (though more modest origins); that is, Meena Kumari’s tragic character, Chhoti Bahu.  But he can only listen to her problems rather than help solve them, and his existence eventually only contributes to her seemingly inevitable demise.

Chhoti Bahu embarks on a path to her own destruction that is almost as ironic as it is tragic.  Her tendency to make the greatest sacrifices in order to keep her husband’s attention might irritate some feminists if taken out of context, but she is actually engaged in a revolt against the oppressive condition to which most women in this Indian aristocracy are subject; that is, she will not willingly accept her husband’s nightly desertion of her, a phenomenon that goes along with the all-night drinking and  brothel haunting that the men  indulge in while their wives are expected to stay home, tending to the house and acting grateful for their respectable lives.  (By the way, Philip’sfil-ums comes through very nicely in discussing the social tendencies and changes that motivate this tragedy, with an emphasis on the condition of women in the society, the major object of criticism in this film.  His writing on this subject seemed so right to me, I’ve probably ended up somewhat paraphrasing him.)

Another interesting irony in Chhoti Bahu’s tragedy is that it leaves us both hating her husband, Chhote Babu, and hoping against his destruction.  This is a selfish, sadistic and morally worthless man.  But because of his wife’s endless devotion to him (not to mention the unbreakable ties prescribed by society), we know that if and when ills befall him, this will only mean more suffering for her.  So, when this despicable character is badly injured in a fight, though the viewer (or at least this one) can’t help cheering for a moment, we’re soon filled with dread.

The way that the film winds up is not surprising, but the execution (a terrible pun, when you think about it) makes it horrifying nonetheless.   This film is highly effective due not only to the great performances but also the brilliant direction, shared by Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt.  (The former got all the credit officially while the latter gets all the credit in people’s minds.  But let’s just say they collaborated and leave it at that.)  A lot of credit has also been given to the cinematographer, V.K. Murthy, which makes sense, because Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is so beautiful to look at right from the start.

Usually, however, this is a bleak kind of beauty.  We’re told of the splendor of the mansion, but it always looks far more oppressive than splendid, and the most impressive shots of the whole place are pictures of its ruins, as observed by Bhootnath during a work-based visit years following its decline.

This movie deals a lot with darkness, literally as well as metaphorically.  For instance, the first outstanding thing I noticed in the terrific mujra with Minoo Mumtaz (the original reason I got interested in the movie) was the way that the chorus of dancers around her were kept in shadow.  (Apparently, that’s also the first thing a lot of people noticed about this fantastic number…)

The ending  of the movie looks so downright gothic, I couldn’t help thinking of Mahal.   But Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam contains none of Mahal‘s dark humor (even though one might find some very dark humor in Kumari’s performance at times), nor does it have any of Mahal’s horror-movie-based, borderline campiness.  This film is just expertly tragic, and devastating.

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P.S.  Though I already mentioned the soundtrack in a prior post, I probably should reiterate here…  It is yet another very impressive aspect of this film.  With music by Hemant Kumar, singing by Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt, lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni (which I was happy to see subtitled in the DVD that I bought, from Sky Entertainment)…

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