By: Kusum Kaull Vyass
A long scar on my wrist is a reminder of not so good memory of my childhood. I woke up crying from a burn of the glass bangles on my right wrist. The bangles had heated up from the kanger, the hot pot used traditionally in Kashmir to keep the body warm during winters. My mother must have kept my hands on the top cane frame of the earthen pot and the glass bangles must have heated up, which burnt my wrist.
As I cried, everyone came running into the room and enquired from my mother, how it had happened? She had to answer at least 20 people at a time, from a joint family of 35. She murmured, “I had purchased Pakeezah Bangles for her yesterday, and she is wearing six each on both the arms.”
“What is Pakeezah Bangles”? Someone enquired. Behna, the eldest daughter of the family chipped in, “They are the latest glass bangles in the market, worn by Meena Kumari in her new film, Pakeezah, so every girl in India is wearing these. Though she is dead now, poor actress, she died so young “, she concluded, with her piece of information. My mother was at the receiving end of jibes and sarcasm of being a careless mother, as she was too caring for her first living child and herself a child without a mother. She had always been extra careful and too tender.
Pakeezah dresses especially the Lungi (loose cloth worn around the legs by men in India) had become a rage with girls in northern India, besides bangles. Girls started wearing Lungi instead of salwar or skirt because Meena Kumari had wrapped it in the song,
Mausam Hai Aashikana
E Dil kanhee se unko
Aise me Doondh laana.
Pakeezah, the cult courtesan movie completed 50 years this February and continues to amuse the movie buffs with its dialogues, music, acting, sets, and story. Though the movie was released to a flop show in February 1972, it flipped to a blockbuster, with the untimely death of Meena Kumari, at the age of 39 in March a month after the film was released. People flocked to the theatres to watch the tragedy queen in her last avatar of a tragedienne, the status quo which she maintained after her demise also. The movie which took 16 years to complete, the Mahurat shot clapped on 16th July 1956, and the film released on 4th February 1972. Director Kamaal Amrohi, who had married Meena Kumari secretly, had decided to make the Movie for his love.
He made a movie which was a poem in motion, where he talked about the beauty of the feet of a girl, no one before him had ever thought that a women’s feet could be a source of inspiration for poetry.
Aapke Paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai.
Inhe zameen par mat utareye, maile ho jaayenge.
Putting a letter between the toe and the first finger of the foot of the girl sleeping in the train, the man wrote.
Saw your feet, they are very beautiful.
Please don’t step on the ground, as they will get dirty.
The piousness of the note itself makes the love pure and Pakeezah. As the story goes Amrohi’s love for Meena was pure and chaste so was Pakeezah. He wanted to make a Shahkaar for Meena, to immortalize her in his love. Pakeezah is the Taj Mahal which Kamal Amrohi made for his Ex-wife Meena Kumari.
The story of struggles and tribulations of a Nautch girl (tawaif), in Muslim Lucknow at the turn of the 20th century, to fall in love and be loved was forbidden for her. A nautch girl was born to delight others, this was her destiny, as preconceived by our society. But Sahib jaan’s (Meena Kumari’s name in the movie) restless soul could not suppress her desires to love and be loved. The struggles of love are central to the story, written by Amrohi himself. He believed in his story, despite several friends desisting him from going ahead with the story of a Kotha, which had no place in Modern India.
As was the fate of Meena Kumari and Kamal’s love story, separating from each other, after filming some portions of the movie. Their love life came to a halt, so did the movie. Meena Kumari backed out and refused to work further. Kamal tried to persuade her through letters and other common friends also, but she did not relent. As it was destined, Nargis and Sunil Dutt saw the rushes of the film and heard the story, it was at their insistence, Meena finally agreed to do the movie, and perhaps her failing health also made her rethink her decision.
By the ’70s Indian society had changed, Kotha’s had become irrelevant, a threat looming large on the story was that people may not accept a courtesan genre. Indian cinema was in color now, technology had advanced, 15 years was a big leap for any movie to cover. Meena Kumari looked old at 38, due to her Liver ailment, for which she was being treated at different places. Her concerns were, how would she look, she could not dance now. Kamal used his brilliance as a Director and made her look beautiful by using long shots and a body double during the dance sequences.
The movie was jinxed as some predicted, music composer, Ghulam Mohammad, and Cinematographer Joseph Wirsching died, during the making of the film. Naushad was brought on board and his soulful music scores added to the flavor of the movie. Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Kaif Bhopali, and Kamal Amrohi himself wrote the lyrics. Kamaal Amrohi was not satisfied with the usual Lata Mangeshkar – Mohammad Rafi pairing. Vani Jairam, Parveen Sultana, Raj Kumari, and Shoba Gurtu lend their voices to this cinematic marvel. The maestros of dance, Lacchu Maharaj, and Gauri Shankar were behind the soft dance moves.
Black and white filming to color in cinemascope, Amrohi stuck to his guns and kept faith in his story.
“Pakeezah is the beloved which has been born of this filmmaker’s imagination, nearly two decades ago. Pakeezah is the vision, which has haunted his soul for as long as I can remember”.
Meena Kumari penned her thoughts about this movie. She was a sensitive poet, who wrote under a pen name. She had designed all the costumes for the movie.
Amrohi was a co-writer of K Asif’s Mughal-a- Azam and I see the influences of the Mughal movie on the pure, Pakeezah Drama. The artistic sensibility of a true rare connoisseur, a filmmaker in Kamal Amrohi, made his imprint on the minds of Indian Cinema lovers.
Pakeezah will always remain etched in my memory as one of the cult movies from Indian cinema and the scar on my wrist is a permanent tattoo designed by Paakezah Bangles.