When Guru Dutt picked up Bimal Mitra’s acclaimed Bangla novel Saheb Bibi Golam, he made certain significant changes to tune the story for its cinematic adaptation. Vijay Kumar takes a 360 degree view of the literary work and the celluloid masterpiece to try and place both in their periodic context as well as celebrate their exquisite beauty and magnificent characters. A tribute to Guru Dutt on his birth anniversary.
The cinematic adaptation of the novel Saheb Bibi Golam, produced by Guru Dutt, that was on view in 1962, concludes with a grimly pensive Bhoot Nath coming out of the ruins of bada mahal after discovering the mortal remains of Chhoti Bahu, to rejoin his waiting wife Jaba. This scene surprises, for it is just the opposite of Bimal Mitra’s conception on this point. The novel tells us Bhoot Nath, even though fully conscious of the fact that Jaba was married to him when she was just two months old and he four years, still recourses to a lie that Atulya Chakraborty (Bhoot Nath’s name at birth) was dead long before and convinces her to marry Supabitra, a fellow Bramho Samaji and the choice of her late father Subinaya.
But why did Bimal Mitra acquiesce, in the cinematic adaptation, to this major deviation, as also to the concomitant changes in the story especially as relating to Bhoot Nath-Jaba interface? In the novel, Bhoot Nath and Jaba are in a love-hate relationship, often exchanging barbs and sarcasm, though, at times, they appear flippant too. True, a sensuous inclination hibernates in Bhoot Nath, which, in a moment of weakness, consumes him as he tugs at Jaba’s pallu (the loose end of a saree) ostensibly to pull her over him. Jaba deeply resents it and a chill of sorts descends in their relationship. Jaba, to the contrary, seems emotionally inclined towards Supabitra. In the film however, Bhoot Nath and Jaba are involved in a progressive love relationship.
But why did Bimal Mitra allow denting of the integrity of his story?
Saheb Bibi Golam – The Story
Saheb Bibi Golam is a fiction that is inalienably rooted in the realities of its times – spanning the years towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. It is a novelist’s deconstruction of the history of a city, namely Calcutta. And when the master story-teller weaves in his characters, the history comes alive. The history could not have been more gripping or better understood than in terms of Mitra’s characters. That was a time when Calcutta was in a state of flux, undergoing changes and experiencing impulses diverse and often opposing. The novel thus reflects, through its characters, on every strain and every strand of the then social milieu – the decadent old order symbolized by the brutal, profligate, licentious and exploitative Choudhuries of the bada mahal; the woman with no choice but to serve her swami, as also the woman empowered and with a choice, finding expressions in Chhoti Bahu and Jaba respectively; the Bramho Samaj movement to break free of rigidities and intolerance of Hinduism; the gathering of those with revolutionary intent to throw out the English; and so on. The novel is a composite of many sub-streams inter connected by the common denominator Bhoot Nath. The novel in fact is a narration by Bhoot Nath in the flash back.
However, given the scope and the sweep of this novel, it will be well nigh impossible to adapt it into a 150 minutes film. That will need a TV serial of at least 50 episodes. The film of Guru Dutt therefore limits itself in scope, to focus on a strong women-centric sub-stream – two women of substance Chhoti Bahu and Jaba in circumstantial interface with an impressionable and hardly-clever Bhoot Nath.
The novel begins with Bhoot Nath shown as subsisting in the village Fatehpur; his phuphi (father’s sister) sustaining him emotionally and keeping him just afloat as to his material needs. The phuphi too dies leaving Bhoot Nath with no option but to move to Calcutta, to find out a job that pays him to stay alive. In Calcutta, he stays with Braj Rakhal, the husband of his late cousin, in a quarter that is part of bada mahal which is the residence of Choudhuries, the zamindars.
Braj Rakhal introduces and recommends Bhoot Nath to one Subinay who runs a vermillion manufacturing and marketing unit with the name ‘Mohini Sindoor’. This sindoor canvassed as panacea for every conjugal problem has a wide market, is even exported. Bhoot Nath is taken in as a Bill Clerk at a monthly remuneration of Rs. 7, besides a daily on the job lunch.
Subinay happens to be the son of a diehard sanatani Ramrikh Bhattacharya, but finding the religion of his birth too rigid and inhibiting embraces Bramho Samaj, a break-away religious denomination of Hindus. His new found religious zeal largely keeps him disinterested in matters mundane including management of the household, a duty which is ably discharged by Jaba his daughter. That brings Bhoot Nath and Jaba in a relationship that has an edgy overlay to a warm connect essentially. Bhoot Nath fancies Jaba. She is ambivalent in her response, though she does not object to be the wife of Supabitra, a fellow Bramho Samaji . The relational haziness gets compounded as she tends the injured Bhoot Nath and also allows him to hold her hand and puts his lips to it. But when Bhoot Nath tugs at her saree, she gets incensed palpably.
Bada mahal’s principal residents – the Chowdhuries – are a family of seven: the two brothers Manjhale Babu and Chhote Babu; Nanhe Babu, the son of the deceased eldest brother; Badi Bahu, the mother of Nanhe Babu; Manjhali Bahu and Chhoti Bahu.
One day, Chhoti Bahu summons Bhoot Nath to her chamber. He is overawed by the occasion, is nervous and overwhelmed as he beholds her. In his first impulse he deifies her, opens up as if making confessions. An amused Chhoti Bahu however gives an inkling of her troubled conjugal life as she tells Bhoot Nath to bring a pack of ‘Mohini Sindoor’ so that she could, with the miraculous power of the sindoor, bring Chhote Babu on the right path.
Mohini Sindoor does not correct the ways of Chhote Babu as he continues to spend nights with the courtesan Chunni Bai. A desperate Chhoti Bahu however transgresses the maryada of a married woman as she turns a wine-bearer so that Chhote Babu finds enough in her to stay back. This make-over works but Chhote Babu forces alcohol on Chhoti Bahu so that she drops inhibitions and conducts herself a la Chunni Bai.
After a while, Chhote Babu gets bored with even a no-holds-barred Chhoti Bahu. On being stopped he picks up a heated argument, duly angered he leaves Chhoti Bahu, picks up a brawl with Chuni Bai’s ‘guest’, hurts him and gets hurt grievously. The physical hurt that Chhote Babu endures gets compounded by the systemic weakness that excess of alcohol had worked in. He becomes bed-ridden with his health in progressive deterioration. So much so that alcohol becomes a total no-no for him. But alcohol takes charge of Chhoti Bahu. She must get her fill come what may even as Chhote Babu implores her to refrain from it. Bhoot Nath too strongly disapproves Chhoti Bahu’s addiction, chides her more than once as if he has a right over her. And Chhoti Bahu gives him right back in the manner of a person intimately connected.
On a rather belated realisation that canvassing of ‘Mohini Sindoor’ as possessing miraculous power is unethical, Subinay, filled with remorse, closes the factory. At about the same time, Subinay falls terminally ill. But before passing away, he fervently impresses on Jaba to marry Supabitra. Jaba instead turns Supabitra out.
On persistent questioning, Jaba confides in Bhoot Nath that she had only the other day chanced upon a letter that reveals that she was married when she was just two months old, and that she cannot marry a second time. On scrutiny of that letter, Bhoot Nath realizes that he himself is the person to whom Jaba was married. He does not share this fact but promises Jaba that he will find out the person and his current status. His enquiries confirm the fact of his marriage to Jaba. He reaches Jaba again but finds her ill and only half conscious. In that state, Bhoot Nath finds her repeatedly taking the name of Supabitra. Suddenly, reality, different from what he had thought all along, dawns on him. At that point when Jaba was his for the asking, he discovers a detachment taking over him. He leaves a letter for Jaba stating that Atulya Chakraborty had passed away long before.
Back in bada mahal, Bhoot Nath gets into another heated exchange with Chhoti Bahu. Manjhale Babu overhears it and alerts his goons. Eventually, Bhoot Nath agrees to take Chhoti Bahu to a famous shrine, to enable her to pray for the recovery of Chhote Babu. While in the carriage, Chhoti Bahu rests her head in the lap of Bhoot Nath. At that point, the goons of Manjhale Babu attack the carriage. A hurt Bhoot Nath finds himself in hospital and there is no trace of Chhoti Bahu.
After discharge, Bhoot Nath visits Jaba and finds her still not alive to Supabitra. He somehow convinces her that there is no point waiting for the one dead. Eventually he sees to it that two – Jaba and Supabitra – are married.
Long after, Bhoot Nath – overseer with the Improvement Trust – is made in-charge of the team responsible for the demolition and leveling of bada mahal. It is during the operations that he discovers the mortal remains of Chhoti Bahu, recognised by the gold bangle adorning her wrist bone.
And thus concludes the extra ordinary story of an ordinary man involved with two extra ordinary women!
Its first adaptation, in the year 1956, was a Bengali version, starring Uttam Kumar as Bhoot Nath and Sumitra Devi as Chhoti Bahu.
Guru Dutt’s Hindi version was released on 29th July 1962.
Won 1962 President’s Silver Medal for Best Feature Film in Hindi; also won the Filmfare Awards for Best Film (Guru Dutt), Best Direction (Abrar Alwi), Best Actress (Meena Kumari) and Best Cinematography (VK Murthy).
Guru Dutt’s actors/creative team
After the failure of Kaagaz ke Phool at the box office, it is believed that Guru Dutt became wary of lending his name as the director of his films. Thus the directorial credit for Chaudhvi ka Chand went to Mohammed Sadiq and for Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam to Abrar Alvi. However, both the films unmistakably carry the stamp of Guru’s directorial genius.
Biswajeet was the first choice for the role of Bhoot Nath. But he dithered. Thereafter Shashi Kapoor was considered. He however could not give bulk dates. Finally, Guru Dutt decided to don the mantle of Bhoot Nath.
Chhaya Arya was the first choice for the role of Chhoti Bahu. But she was not eventually found suitable for the role. Guru Dutt looked for someone who could carry on her persona the compassion, sensitivity and dignity that were innate to Chhoti Bahu. Eventually, Meena Kumari was short-listed.
Waheeda looked extremely beautiful as Jaba even though her role did not fully test her.
Rahman and Sapru for the two Chowdhuri brothers were great selection. Nazir Hussain, Dhumal and Harendra Nath Chattopadhyay were picked for subordinate but important roles.
Hemant Kumar and Shakeel came on board after Sachin Dev Burman and Sahir declined.
V.K Murthy did a great job behind the camera.
Johnny Walker who found space and scope in most of the Guru Dutt films was conspicuous by his absence in this one. And he was not missed, so strong is the story.
The novel-film differentia
As mentioned, the film deviates majorly from the novel as it settles for a perceived happy ending – Bhoot Nath taking Jaba as his wife. In the novel, Bhoot Nath denies himself the hand of Jaba as to ensure her marriage with Supabitra. In consonance with the ending of the film, Bhoot Nath-Jaba relationship too changes – becomes perceptibly romantic. There might have been more than one reason for these deviations. Commercial angle could be one, that on-screen Guru-Waheeda attachment would be an en-cashable continuity of what was held about them in real life. Also, it might have been argued that tweaking the story thus would not impact its historicity.
The film seems down-playing the love that brews between Bhoot Nath and Chhoti Bahu, which is so apparent in the novel. Perhaps this hold-back goes down well with the viewers’ such is the halo that the film builds up around Chhoti Bahu, that her single-minded and fierce devotion to her swami (Chhote Babu) precludes any possibility of her going astray. It is perhaps for this reason that the scene wherein Chhoti Bahu rests her head in the lap of Bhoot Nath was received with total disapproval in the pre-release screening of the film.
These changes arguably enhance the film. Probably, Bimal Mitra was in the know of these changes as he was with the director when the screenplay of the film was being written.
The film – any weaknesses?
A classical work of art is required to be viewed with extra criticality, for possible flaws and weaknesses. With that liberty assumed, one can say that this film could have improved upon itself, even if very marginally, on two counts: first, specific to the acting of Guru Dutt; and second, on period portrayal.
The role that Guru Dutt played – of Bhoot Nath – had layers and was complex. Bhoot Nath was Chhoti Bahu’s Man Friday, as also her confidante. In the former, he was expected to procure, for her, without a question, Mohini Sindoor and the bottles of intoxicant. In the latter, as confidante to Chhoti Bahu as to the facts of her marital/emotional deprivation, he was expected to betray the indulgence and intimacy of the one just short of a threshold lover – of the ‘ghulam’ in a hazily brewing love triangle! Guru’s performance, in a relative sense, lacked the edge, the extra intensity to measure upto the emotional surcharge that Meena (Chhoti Bahu) could create. He carried the same laxity in his liaison with Jaba (played by Waheeda). Even Waheeda too, surprisingly, looked out of depth as she looked, most of the times, flippantly frivolous. It seems, the film could have been a bit more engaging on Bhoot Nath-Jaba sub-plot.
It is also felt that the film, to some extent, missed out on period portrayal, especially as half of the reel time focused on the Bhoot Nath-Jaba sub-plot. Even with this substantial reel time, the film’s handling of the Hindu reformist movement (Brahmo Samaj movement), of the colonial face of the British, of the mores and morality of the times was only peripheral. There perhaps could have been more effective delineation of and discourse on these issues within the framework of the story. Perhaps, the film missed out on becoming a classy period document too.
Apart from these two flaws that I have laboured to discern, I do not find anything that I can falter the film on. It has just about the right pace, has songs, especially those on Chhoti Bahu that articulate the defining/critical moments in the film; and has a certain Meena Kumari who towers above and over all, takes the film into a higher orbit.
The film – its distinctive features
A distinctive feature of this film is that it infused suspense whenever there was an opportunity, and that keeps the audience’s curiosity aroused.
Consider the opening scene itself, wherein the bada mahal in ruins is being brought down. The manner in which Bhoot Nath climbs up the stairs, as if a tad scared – as if apprehending manifestation of some para-natural spirit – creates an aura of suspense about this film. The impact is heightened by the voice of Geeta Dutt in the background – the pining in her voice in a climbing resonance, haunts , chases…. Piya dheere dheere chale aao…… reminds one of Aayega ayeega (Mahal), Aaja re mai to kab se khadi iss paar (Madhumati) and Kahin deep jale kahin dil (Bees Saal Baad). And then the dry, shriveled leaves of a tree through which Bhoot Nath looks as he lapses into a reverie… the dry leaves somehow give the impression as if fossilised fingers of a woman are hanging in the air!
And, then, comes, from nowhere, Chhoti Bahu’s command: ‘Bhoot Nath, baitho…!’ This scene will befit the opening of a suspense/crime thriller. In any case, the film has a fair share of goons and henchmen under the aegis of a very impressive Manjhale Babu (played by Sapru). And when this Manjhale Babu sanctions a killing with a wink of his eyes or with an almost imperceptible sway of his head, he looks deadly – deadlier than most of the villains-in-chief in Hindi films. The assault on Chhoti Bahu to eventually kill her, heightened by the piercing and sinister gaze of a black owl, symbolizing death, is spine chilling! And the film concludes in the manner of a crime story with the discovery of Chhoti Bahu’s skeleton identified by the kangan that her wrist bone still adorned.
Even the first visual of Chhoti Bahu, which is after a good 46 minutes into the film, has a ring of suspense about it. She is shown but the feet first – her bejeweled feet! The camera focuses on them for a while, reflexively taking one to the same feet in Meena’s swansong film Pakeeza, which earned the encomium: aap ke paaon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utaariega…mailey ho jayenge.
And suddenly the camera pans up to reveal her face – the face of the archetypal Indian woman – the one eminently suitable for an Incredible India poster for the promotion of tourism overseas! And, then, the magnificent closeup of her eyes – her magnetic unfathomable eyes capable of mirroring and eloquencing emotions on a range! And thereafter the camera focuses on her lips alone – her lascivious lips with the upper one biting the lower not so infrequently but each time so evocatively! Poor Bhoot Nath, he had no chance, no armour against this epitome of feminity and sensuousness. Nor had the audience thereafter!
Meena Kumari was in the role of a life-time in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. This was a rare woman-centric film and her performance is as great as of Nargis in Mother India and Nutan in Bandini.
Chhoti Bahu – the on-screen character that Meena played – belies her humble background by refusing to accept her ‘abandoned’ bahu status, expected to while away her time by being part of gehne turwavo, gehne banwao culture. Hell-bent on a conjugal restitution, she pursues the brinks – first, by adorning herself with the ‘magical’ vermilion to cast a captivating spell on her master, and later, when the vermilion fails, by doing the unthinkable – taking to drinks to drop her inhibitions, to free her from the values, the maryada of a bahu, to turn a seductress to seduce her own master! And there is no Meena-Chhoti Bahu dichotomy, so complete is Meena’s identification with the character.
Seen in a larger perspective, Chhoti Bahu will appear a rare voice of protest in and against a feudal society that was shut to gender equality in general and conjugal in particular. Chhoti Bahu was a spirit rebellious. A woman in conjugal bondage, yet free in spirit. If she were to exist in our times, she would have been in the forefront of the crusade for woman’s equality. But she was in a time when the world was not a global village, and human settlements connected but only occasionally. A larger discourse and movement on gender equality was yet years away. Chhoti Bahu though instinctively knew, even if that did not engage her thoughts, that she would have to out-smart and out-do the women of easy virtues to whom her master felt drawn towards almost addictively.
But the same Chhoti Bahu soon finds her on a steep moral and physical decline. Her addiction to alcohol muzzles her spirit, sends her self-respect, her dignity for a long shot. And while she remains faithful to Chhote Babu habitually, some will be tempted to call it a façade of fidelity, her emotions find a ventilation for Bhoot Nath – the ghulam – too. Yet, it has to be conceded that she is genuine in either. Meena Kumari has played this emotional conundrum exceptionally well. Manjhale Babu though is not concerned with this nuanced emotional existence as he signals his goons to go ahead.
Sapru for Manjhale Babu and Rahman for Chhote Babu. They do not evoke revulsion despite being projected licentious, debauch and brutal. They give an acceptable identity to the feudal lords as they might have existed. The two actors substantively enhance the film.
Shakeel was not new to Guru Dutt. He had earlier penned the song for the super hit Chaudivan Ka Chand. Hemant was a first timer for the Guru Dutt Films. However, the Shakeel-Hemant duo enjoyed a high credential after the success of Bees Saal Baad. The duo delivered again in this film and delivered big.
The songs of the film – seven in all – are not just fillers. Except one – Bhanwara bada naadan hai – they give substance and momentum to the film. It is however another matter that Bhanwara bad naadaan hai… turned out to be most popular number, enjoyed rank thirteen in Binaca Geet Mala. The song nonetheless is un-missable for the beauty of Waheeda.
And then there was a division of labour. The songs filmed on Chhoti Bahu are by Geeta and rightly so given the trace of sadness and haunt inherent in her voice. Asha was assigned four songs – two for Jaba, and two covered the mujras.
Koi door se aawaj de… which is played in the background heightens the mystery and suspense that permeate the air and the ambiance at the in-ruins bada mahal. It is said in the story that the spirits of those who were done to death subsisted in the mahal. The spirit of Chhoti Bahu was one more such! Koi door se awaj de is an ascending pine, a long wait….
Jiya bujha bujha, naina thake thake, chale aao aao…the opening synchronizes with the uncertain steps of a scared Bhoot Nath , drawn to the depth of the ruins as if under a hypnotic spell! Whom is Chhoti Bahu waiting for – Chhote Babu or Bhoot Nath or both? Chale aao…
Piya aiso jiya mein samaye…….
Chhoti Bahu’s preparations, to hook her own master, to ensnare him in a smitten submission, are elaborate – arousing within her the spirit that would have been becoming of Urvashi – the celestial courtesan – the one whose spell no man can resist – adorning herself with heavy jewellery to lend her Venusian charm/aggression a cutting edge, and, most important of all, liberally sprinkling in her maang (hair parting) the ‘magically charged’ vermilion as if an unfailing divyastra! This sums up the woman in hope, in optimism, in love.
But she with all her worked-up sensuousness, adornments and divyvastra fails. Her master beholds her with irk and disregards with contempt. Her failure though was a foregone conclusion, for she was not up against her master but against a collective psyche, a socio-religious belief that had entrenched itself over centuries, rather millennia, that expected women at home to be Sita or Savitri like, treading the narrow and exacting path of righteousness. Sensuous beseeching, as Chhoti Bahu indulged in, militated against this idolised image.
Na jao saiyan
This song is still as vibrant now as it was in sixties. Na jao saiyan chhuda ke bahiyan… is one last ditch effort on the part of Chhoti Bahu to hold the master back though the trace of melancholy, of creeping resignation – that the master is easing himself out – is apparent in it. What follows this song is a long, bitter exchange of words with Chhoti Bahu baring her frustration, ventilating the pent up feelings. Chote babu yet breaks free to resume his sojourn with the other woman. Na jao saiyan……
Meri baat rahi mere man mein
Jaba’s love remaining unexpressed as Bhoot Nath leaves for an occupational engagement elsewhere. A beautiful song on a beautiful Jaba/Waheeda though a tad too serious for the occasion. Yet laaga ho ye neha bachapan mein… is suggestive of a connect much deeper. Meri baat rahi...
Meri jaan O meri jaan itana nahin
The story occasions this song as it gives the glimpse of Chhote Babu’s ‘other world, of his jannat and his hoor! Meri jaan….
Saakiya aaj mujhe neend nahi aayegi
This number has energy and flow, takes one along. However, what one will remember even more is Manjhale Babu – the chief patron of the mujra. So impressive, so handsome he is with the fixed gaze of his piercing eyes.
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam – The Deemed Biopic of Meena Kumari
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a period film – a period that pre-existed Meena. As such any resemblance between Chhoti Bahu and Meena has to be accidental. Or is it that the fiction of Chhoti Bahu became a reality in Meena? For her story too is of a woman whose no-hold-back conduct falling short of being licentious belied her femininity that is associated with a conventional familial milieu, of a woman whose unfulfilled love made her to explore men before turning alcoholic to hasten her end? If Pyaasa was Sahir’s biopic, I would take Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam as the deemed biopic of Meena Kumari.
Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam – these three works transcended the then known creative boundaries in Hindi cinema; lend credence to the popular perception that Guru was among the best directors of his times.
(Pictures are courtesy Google Image Search unless otherwise mentioned)
More to read in Critiques by Vijay Kumar
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