The making of an epic
Why Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah continues to resonate among cinephiles
The last of the epic musicals - Pakeezah (1972) - set within a Muslim milieu, continues to be fêted at prestigious film events overseas. It commanded packed houses when it was screened at the exclusive L'Opera theatre of Paris, and is regarded as a masterclass in how to mount an elegiac, grand-scale saga with a love-lorn woman as its centrepiece.
Its creator, writer-director Kamal Amrohi, whose 27th death anniversary falls on February 11, however, remains a mysterious, if not unfathomable, figure in the chronicles of Indian cinema. He passed away at the age of 75. Throughout his career as an auteur, he helmed only three other films - the musical ghost story Mahal (1949), the plea for women's emancipation Daaera (1953), and the historical Razia Sultan (1983). In addition, he produced the popular triangular love story Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), the direction of which was handed over to Kishore Sahu since his own market equity had nosedived after the failure of Daaera.
So, why am I bringing up Kamal Amrohi today? For two reasons: first, because his masterwork Pakeezah hasn't dated at all. On re-watching it, the sumptuously-mounted period musical is remarkable for its magnificent set décor, gorgeous costumes, an imperishable musical score by Ghulam Mohammed (although after his death, the soundtrack was completed by Naushad), poetic dialogue, and, above all, a performance of a lifetime by Meena Kumari, often described as the Tragedy Queen.
The actress breathed life into the multi-layered dramaturgy and passed away prematurely at the age of 38. Incidentally, there could be a debate on whether the portrayal of the virtuous courtesan was her career-best. After all, she was at the peak of her artistry, too, in the Guru Dutt-produced Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), for which she snagged the Filmfare Award Best Actress Award.
Be that as it may, the second reason for rewinding to Kamal Amrohi today is to figure out the seesawing relationship between the director and his muse Meena Kumari. After talking to several film industry stalwarts, who prefer to remain anonymous, it can be deduced that theirs was one of the greatest off-screen love stories ever. If they had irreconcilable differences, these were eventually sorted.
On one hand, there are those - particularly surviving members of his family - who remember Amrohi as a saintly figure who could do no wrong. On the other, there's a theory that because of unpleasant circumstances, the director and his muse-cum-wife had divorced acrimoniously. If she agreed to meet Amrohi again, it was mainly at the persuasion of common friends Nargis Dutt, music composer Khayyam and his wife Jagjit Kaur. Pakeezah had been mouldering in the cans for years, the actress was finally convinced to complete the shoot, which she did despite her failing health.
The rest is box-office history. On its release at Mumbai's Maratha Mandir cinema, the footfalls were low initially. On the actress' passing away shortly, due to cirrhosis of the liver, the film was declared a blockbuster. On a personal note, I met Amrohi in his compact one-room office in the otherwise sprawling Kamalistan Studio. A tall, imposing personality, he'd conversed in chaste Urdu and stated categorically that Pakeezah had been embraced by the ticket-buying public. "The trouble is that the trade and you press people jump to false conclusions. Now tell me, did you like the film or not?" he had asked. "That's not the point," I'd answered. "I think it's great but it has received indifferent reviews from senior critics who've called it self-indulgent and patchy."
Not surprisingly, the filmmaker cut short the interview, waving me off with the retort, "Come back after you see my next, Razia Sultan." As it happened, his next opus, despite a memorable musical score by Khayyam, turned out to be a downer.
That Kamal Amrohi didn't appreciate counter-views was evident. But that's not uncommon among the top brass of the film industry. On reading up journalist Vinod Mehta's posthumous biography on Meena Kumari, I was left perplexed. It was neither here nor there, and went around in circles. Other sources state that Amrohi had married twice before his nikaah with the widely adored actress, and after her death remarried his physician.
If a second nikaah was performed between the actress and Amrohi, the story remains apocryphal or is just vaguely confirmed. It's no secret that Meena Kumari died a lonely death and news reports of the time stressed that there was no money left to pay for her hospital bills at the St Elizabeth's Nursing Home and for her burial. "Rubbish!" counters a section of the film industry while others conjecture, "That's true. Meenaji's end in such a sad state is a cautionary lesson."
Indeed, there's an underlying tragedy behind every frame of Pakeezah, and a sense of irony can be detected in the lyrics of Inhi Logon Ne Liya Dupatta Mera and Chalte Chalte Yunhi Koi Mil Gaya Tha. Additionally, Meena Kumari's eyes talk with such a palpable emotion that even on repeated viewings, I can't keep the tears from welling over. In a way, Pakeezah could be read as Meena Kumari's own story. The film ended on an upbeat note, her life didn't.
Today, Kamalistan Studio is no more. It is under the process of being taken over for redevelopment by real-estate builders. As for the graves of Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi, they are at the Rehmatabad Kabrastan in Central Mumbai. And as the caretaker there informs me, "To date, Meenaji's fans come here to place flowers at her feet."