Original release: February 4th, 1972
Running time: 146 minutes
Country of origin: India
Original language: Hindi
Writer, director and producer: Kamal Amrohi
Cast: Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Veena
Teer-E-Nazar: 02:15:05 to 02:20:10
The older I get, the closer my soul is drawn to India, a country not of my birthplace, but of my ancestors. Its history, culture, philosophy, art and its heart, for me are so embodied in the films I grew up with.
Among them is Pakeezah (The Pure One), a beautiful and epic love story by Kamal Amrohi, which, like the Taj Mahal itself, is as rich in its symbolism as it is in its design.
Both have come to be loved and recognised worldwide as wonders of India.
My first memories of Pakeezah are so entwined with the memories of my mother, sister and my many aunts when I was a small boy. Our house was always filled with music but with the arrival of the video cassette and player it allowed for many families like ours to enjoy these much celebrated classics at home.
During any gatherings or simply on a quiet evening, Pakeezah would take centre stage and not an eye would be left dry in its wake.
Work began in 1956 but it would take 15 years before it reached the big screen. Kamal’s wife, Meena Kumari, was cast in the role of Sahibjaan, a tawai’if in Lucknow at the turn of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Nargis (also played by Meena Kumari) who was rejected by her lover Shahabuddin’s (Ashok Kumar) family as she too was a courtesan.
Nargis, broken hearted, is driven to a graveyard where she gives birth and dies. Sahibjaan is raised by her aunt, Nawabjaan (Veena) who keeps her father’s identity hidden from her. As a courtesan, her beauty and talent as a dancer makes her well known and men come from far to watch her perform and also with the hope of purchasing her services.
One night, while asleep in a carriage on a train, a man, Salim (Raaj Kumar), mistakenly enters. He gazes at her radiant face and then he catches a glimpse of her bare feet from beneath her covers. Entranced by such perfection, Salim leaves a note for her between her toes and when she wakes the next morning, she reads it.
Without ever seeing his face, Sahibjaan falls in love with the mysterious note-leaver. She dreams that he’ll take her away from the life she feels there’s no escape from. As a courtesan she can have a glamorous life entertaining noblemen but to wish for marriage and children as well as respectability is futile. Of course, had she been sleeping with the jewellery on her feet, Salim would have known this as well and would never have left her such a note. Her feet have already been soiled.
The making of Pakeezah is as tumultuous as its story. As Kamal began shooting, the first scenes he captured were in black and white but as colour was just starting to come into fashion he decided to start again with the new format. Then Cinemascope was introduced and with a lens acquired from MGM on a royalty agreement, Kamal began re-shooting those portions.
In 1964 Kamal and Meena’s marriage came to an end and the actress/poet found herself in a crisis that must have been simply unbearable. As alcoholism stripped away her health Meena was becoming the real life “Tragedy Queen” her roles had made her famous for, as Tejaswini Ganti writes:
To watch Pakeezah now as my family did back then is to see a woman forcing herself to carrying on despite incredible pain and this together with the beauty of the film must be why it moved them to such emotions.
The tears shed during Pakeezah are a mixture of grief and rejoicement and their release come mostly during the film’s songs. Composed by Ghulam Muhammad and Naushad and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, the musical numbers sometimes combine with a classical north Indian dance style called kathak and these showcase Meena’s graceful moves and melancholic longing for Salim and for escape.
She is like the bird in the gilded cage, which in one, scene she sets free.
There’s one particular moment in Pakeezah that stands out for me. It’s a song that’s accompanied by a dance and its impact is even more impressive than Inhi Logon Ne, Chalte Chalte or Chalo Dildar Chalo. Although Sahibjaan finds Salim and her dreams are about to come true, she can’t go through with it, reminders of her old life follow her everywhere. Unable to see herself as anything but a courtesan she returns to her pink palace declaring that all courtesans are beautiful corpses whose bodies have not been buried but continue to be gazed upon. She later receives a letter from Salim asking her to dance for him at his wedding, to which she agrees.
Adorned in pure white, Sahibjaan looks every inch “the pure one” as she appears to Salim and begins her dance to Teer-E-Nazar. He is tantalised by her as she reaches out to him, gesturing with her sad eyes and then pulling her veil back over her face. Finally he gets to see her feet again, erotic and sensual sights but he turns away, stepping back, clutching his chest.
Nawabjaan sits in the audience watching her dance but at the same time she notices two male guests arrive and sit down to watch Sahibjaan. One of them is her father, whom she’s never met. Salim is still watching but by now he is so pained by seeing what he knows he cannot have. He decides to slip away without her seeing him.
When Sahibjaan notices he’s left everyting stops for a moment and she knocks over a glass chandelier which tumbles to pieces on the white floor, scattering broken glass everywhere. Sahibjaan continues to dance, madly, passionately and furiously for her lost love, for herself, for the life she will never have. Bloodied footprints mark her path, her hair comes loose and tumbles down to her waist as she continues her crazed dance to Teer-E-Nazar.
Those beautiful feet that Salim once told her not to let touch the ground because they might get soiled, are now not only soiled, but torn and bloody. Watching as Sahibjaan inflicts these wounds upon herself all for the sake of love, what are we to think of Meena’s own fight? One that she ultimately lost.
Along with Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Umrao Jaan (1981), Pakeezah brings our focus to women on the outskirts of society. They are women who are respected for their mastery in the art of singing and dancing for the entertainment of men, but who are shunned because of it as well. Their tragedy stems from their longing for the love of one man but in Pakeezah the lines between reality and fiction blur to such a level that when Sahibjaan dances this painful dance we know as well of Meena’s pain.
It makes for one of the most remarkable scenes in Indian cinema history. When my mother talks of Pakeezah today, like many who saw it when it was first released and many times since then, she talks of this scene with tears in her eyes as she recalls this dance of passion and pain.
To be moved in such a manner by one of India’s most famous films and scenes is to have a little bit of India in us all.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .