"Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” - Abrar Alvi (1962)

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) was one of the most polished and successful of the Bollywood “Golden Age” films, back when Guru Dutt was a star actor, director, and producer.  This was the last of Dutt’s great works, which also include Mr. and Mrs. ‘55 (1955), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), and Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960).  Actually, because Kaagaz Ke Phool was a commercial failure at the time of its release, Dutt was not listed as the director of any his subsequent films; but it is generally conceded that both Chaudhvin Ka Chand (directed by Mohammed Sadiq) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (directed by Abrar Alvi) bear the stamp of Dutt’s signature production values [1,2]. Dutt’s expressionistic mise-en-scene, as implemented by Alvi and cinematographer V. K. Murthy (also cinematographer for Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool), included
  • moody, shadow-laden set lighting
  • multi-plane image compositions with fluid camera movements
  • emotive closeups – often as unspoken reaction shots of the principal characters
  • narratively embedded songs

It is all expressed in highly expressionistic and theatrical fashion with dramatic music by Hemant Kumar [3] and exaggerated characterizations (particular in the secondary roles). This is not realism but is instead an emotional, subjective narrative journey.

In the past some of my Indian colleagues have remarked that Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is India’s Gone With the Wind (1939).  I am not sure what they might have meant by this, and there could be several angles from which to view this comparison – for example, both films may be considered to be widely popular romantic “classics” and both films show the decline and fall of a decaying aristocracy. But perhaps the most interesting parallel is the degree to which both films view the world from the perspective of a determined young woman breaking out of her constricted social role [4].  In earlier Indian films I have seen from this period, the perspective is that of a man struggling to find his place.  Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s departure from this trend lends it a special flavor.

The story of the film is based on the Bengali novel Sahib Bibi Golam (“Master Wife Slave”, 1953) by Bimal Mitra, which is set in Calcutta (Kolkata) at the end of the 19th century.  In the film, a young man from the provinces looking for work comes to Calcutta and finds residence at an aristocratic zamindar family’s haveli (villa mansion). Though he does get a job working in a sindoor (a cosmetic for married women) factory outside the haveli, the young man (the ghulam, or servant) develops an ambiguous platonic relationship with a zamindar’s wife (the bibi) living in the haveli.

Over the course of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s winding narrative about the ghulam and the bibi, there are several themes explored:
  • The decline of the decadent aristocracy and Indian modernization.   
    The zamindar families in this film are totally devoted to hedonistic pleasures and are ludicrously out of touch with reality. Because of the film’s expressionistic style, this characterization of decadence is more exaggerated than Satyajit Ray’s more nuanced (but still critical) representation in his The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958).  On the more progressive side of things, but essentially Indian-derived as opposed to being a Western import, was the Brahmo Samaj movement, which flourished in the 19th century.  This was a reform movement within Hinduism that, somewhat like Unitarianism and Sufism in other faiths, sought to be more inclusive and to free the religion from outworn practices such as idol worship and caste-restrictions; and it featured influential contributions from the ancestral families of Rabrindanath Tagore and Satyajit Ray [5].
  • Women’s role.  This is always a major theme in Indian culture, inasmuch as even women from the aristocratic social sectors were highly restricted.
  • Love.  Related to the role of women is the meaning of love and the expected forms that love will take.  I will comment more on this important theme below.
The story of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam covers many activities over the course of roughly six sectors.

1.  A Ruined Haveli   
An architect, whom we will know by his nickname “Bhootnath” (played by Guru Dutt), is overseeing the demotion of a decrepit haveli, which he recognizes as having been his home when he first came to Calcutta as an impoverished servant.  He sits down on a stone and lapses  into his memories.  The rest of the film is told in flashback.

2.  Bhootnath Arrives in Calcutta
On arrival Bhootnath joins his brother-in-law, who is a teacher working for and living with the wealthy Chaudhury zamindar family at their haveli, the same haveli that we have just seen later being dismantled in the opening scene.  The teacher arranges for Bhootnath to stay at the haveli and to begin working outside at a sindoor factory, whose proprietor, Suvinay, is a Brahmo Samaji.  

The zamindar familiy is headed by two debauched brothers, the younger of whom, Chhote Sarkar (played by Guru Dutt regular, Rehman), is totally dissolute.  At night Bhootnath hears the mournful singing (Song #1) of the man’s neglected wife, Bahu (Meena Kumari, in a memorable and award-winning performance). Bhootnath soon learns from his fellow servant Bansi that Chhote Sarkar comes home drunk in the early hours of every morning from a night of depravity at an upscale brothel featuring Nautch girls as courtesans (Song #2). 

At the sindoor factory owner’s residence, Suvinay expresses great curiosity when he hears Bhoonath mention the town that he comes from.  This is an early clue about something that will be revealed later. Bhootnath also meets Suvinay’s perky daughter, Jabba (Waheeda Rehman), who immediately makes fun of Bhootnath’s provincial manners.  But the independent-minded Jabba also takes an immediate fancy to Bhoothath and tries to charm him, too.

At this early stage, the narrative seems to be about Bhootnath and his development.  But as the story progresses, we will see that the focus will shift primarily to the two women – Chhoti Bahu and Jabba – as seen from Bhootnath’s point of view. Unlike other Guru Dutt-starring films, where his agency is critical to the narrative, Bhootnath in this film will remain essentially a male ingenue, a witness to the unfolding drama around him.  Throughout the  film, the story switches its focus back and forth between Chhoti Bahu and Jabba, and we are exposed to a profound difference not only between the two women but also between the kind of love that they offer.

3.  Chhoti Bahu’s Loneliness
Bansi comes to tell Bhootnath that Chhoti Bahu, whom we still haven’t seen, has arranged for him to come to her private quarters in the evening. Having learned that he works at a sindoor factory, she wants him to bring him some special sindoor that she feels may have some magical attractive power to keep her husband from wandering to the nautch girls at night.

That afternoon Bhootnath runs into Jabba again, who has been composing delightful lyrics about a naive and flighty bee (Song #3).  In the evening he visits Chhoti Bahu and agrees to fetch her some sindoor that she seeks.  This is the first time, about fifty minutes into the film, that we actually see Chhoti Bahu, who is the most important character in the story. Although nothing untoward happens between the two, it is clear that Chhoti Bahu is charmed by Bhootnath, and in turn seeks to charm him.  So at this point there appear to be two women interested, to some degree, in Bhootnath: Chhoti Bahu and Jabba.

On the way out of those quarters, he happens to come across another courtesan performing a dance in front of the older zamindar brother, Majhaley Babu, and his entourage (Song #4).

When Bhootnath secretly comes to Chhoti Bahu the next night to give her the requested sindoor, she explains to him that she has been brought up as a proper Hindu wife to worship her husband as a god. Bhootnath is now her confidant and the only person she can explain herself to. 

While Bhootnath and his brother-in-law are later outside on the street, they stumble into a disturbance involving some wantonly violent British soldiers, and in the ruckus Bhootnath winds up getting shot  in his legs.

Later back at the haveli, Chhoti Bahu is prepared with jewelry and the sindoor makeup by her servants to meet her husband.  In anticipation of that hope-for joyous event, she sings a beautiful song (Song #5). When Chhote Sarkar does come, though, he is totally unresponsive to his wife’s charms and rejects her seductive entreaties.

Jabba comes to the haveli to attend to the wounded Bhootnath and has difficulty concealing her jealousy over Bhootnath’s continued attachment to Chhoti Bahu. She suspects that her lower caste separates herself from Bhootnath.

So by this point we see that both of the two women principals are deeply frustrated.

4.  Desperation and Decline
Chhoti Bahu’s husband explains to her that the reason he won’t spend time with her is that she doesn’t sing, dance, and dink wine.  So she decides to succumb further, and she beckons Bhootnath to bring her wine.  Reluctantly, he agrees.  Later, in a disturbing scene, we see the inebriated Chhote Sarkar brutishly forcing wine down his tearful wife’s throat.

Meanwhile Bhootnath learns that Suvinay is critically ill and is closing his sindoor factory, but he is told that Suvinay has secured a position for Bhootnath as an apprentice architect and has also arranged for his daughter, Jabba, to marry a fellow Brahmo Samaji. Bhootnath is surprised but accepts these arrangements.   As he departs, Jabba sadly watches him go and sings a song of regret (Song #6).

Bhootnath comes to visit Chhoti Bahu and sees that she has become a hopeless alcoholic.  When he tries to snatch a bottle from her hand and accidentally touches her skin, a forbidden act, it causes her to banish him from her quarters.  As he leaves, she drunkenly tells him that she is proud to have reclaimed her husband, even if she is now a drunkard.

Bhootnath is now assigned by his architect boss to go supervise a project in Munger, another town up the Ganges.  He first goes to visit the ill Suvinay, but he is too late: Suvinay has died.  His daughter Jabba glumly informs him the news and tells him that she has spurned the planned marriage with the fellow Brahmo Samaji, in part because she has just learned that long ago her grandfather had had her married to someone, now unknown, when she was just one year old.
Meanwhile the Chaudhury brothers continue their decadent lifestyle, engaging in elaborate homing-pigeon contests with the detested Cheni Dutt zamindar family and foolishly selling their land and investing the money in a bogus coal mine.  Chhoti Bahu is still drunkenly worshiping her husband, but he has become bored with his pushover spouse and decides to go back to his courtesans.  She fruitlessly beseeches him to stay at home with another poignant song (Song #7).

When Chhote Sarkar arrives at the brothel and sees Cheni Dutt cavorting with his favorite mistress, a fight breaks out, and Chhote Sarkar is severely beaten by Dutt’s henchmen.  

5.  Return to Calcutta
Some time has passed, perhaps more than a year, and Bhootnath returns from Munger to Calcutta to see that the Chaudhury family is almost penniless and their haveli is rundown and shabby.  He learns that Chhote Sarkar is now paralyzed from the beating he had earlier received.  The still tipsy Chhoti Bahu vows to give up alcohol at her husband’s belated request, and she asks Bhootnath when she sees him to take her to a Hindu “saint”, who she believes can miraculously cure her husband.  But proper Hindu wives are not supposed to go outside with another man, and when Majhaley Babu sees Chhoti leave in a carriage with Bhootnath, he order his few remaining retainers to assault their carriage.  Bhootnath is severely beaten and Chhoti Bahu disappears.  When he wakes up in the hospital, Bhootnath learns from Bansi of Chhoti Bahu’s disappearance and that Chhote Sarkar has died and Majhaley Babu has abandoned the family haveli.  So the flashback sequence ends in desolation.

6.  Return to the Present

Returning from his lengthy flashback, Bhootnath is informed by workers dismantling the Chaudhury haveli that they have discovered a hidden grave.  When he goes to examine it, he sees a skeleton with the same bracelet Chhoti Bahu was wearing on their last day, thereby revealing that she was murdered by Majhaley Babu’s men and secretly buried there.  
Then he leaves the haveli and goes out to his carriage, where his now-wife Jabba is waiting for him.  It is at this last closing shot that we get the confirmation of what had been hinted earlier –  that Jabba was married to Bhootnath when they were both tiny children and had only discovered the truth of their marriage much later.

At the end of the film, we are left to reflect on the natures of the two women and how their love relationships were affected by social restrictions. Now usually societal restrictions block options for love, so it is ironic in this story that Chhote Sarkar’s freedom from social restrictions allowed him to be unfaithful to his wife, thereby thwarting her love efforts, and the restrictiveness of an arranged child-marriage enabled Jabba to attain her true love. This seems more like serendipity than any lesson to be learned, so it is more interesting to look at things from the more personal perspective concerning the respective ways the two women loved.
  • Chhoti Bahu was a woman steeped in Hindu tradition and desperately wanted to live fully the role to which she believed she was assigned – that of a loving and devoted wife. But did she truly love her husband as a soulmate, or was she simply fanatically devoted to her culturally-assigned role?  She seemed more naturally attracted to Bhootnath, but she was bound to treat him as nothing more than a friend.  Her love for her husband seemed more like an abstract religious devotion than the kind of love we usually see between a man and a woman.
  • Jabba, who was from a progressive, Brahmo Samaj family, was essentially a modern woman who felt free to express herself.  She was the one more likely to be a truly equal marriage partner in the kind of marital relationship we seek today.  
And yet Bhootnath was more attracted to Chhoti Bahu than to Jabba.  One might attribute this preferential attraction to the glamorous status of the zamindar family, but apart from that angle, I think that most viewers also find something especially magical about Chhoti Bahu, too, Waheeda Rehman’s evident beauty and vitality in the role of Jabba notwithstanding.  Chhoti’s love was total thralldom, a manifestation of what it means to fall in love.  And Meena Kumari’s heartrending portrayal of Chhoti Bahu gave life to a kind of burning passion that lurks somewhere in the hearts of all of us, I think. We see it, and we feel it. Even if Chhoti was only in love with a dream rather than a person, Meena Kumari’s performance makes us feel for her and want to reach out to her.

I mentioned in my earlier review of Kaagaz Ke Phool [6] that one of the enduring fascinations of that film is the degree to which it mirrored Guru Dutt’s own tragic downfall.  He died of a drug overdose in 1964 at the age of 39. In an eerily similar fashion, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam mirrors the tragic life of its soulful star, Meena Kumari. Like the role she played in the film, she also had a tempestuous private life, became an alcoholic, and also died (here, cirrhosis of the liver) at the age of 39.   

But that’s only interesting background stuff and not intrinsic to the film as shown.  Overall, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is a well-realized and fascinating love story – an evocative and expressionistic presentation to fire the imagination.  
  1. Karan Bali, "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam", Upperstall, (31 March 2001).  
  2. Gitanjali Roy, “Indian cinema@100: Five facts about Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, NDTV Movies, (25  April 2013).   
  3. Dutt’s usual musical composer, S. D. Burman, was unavailable due to illness, but the songs in this film, which are entirely voiced by women, are excellent.
  4. Philip Lutgendorf, “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam”,  Indian Cinema (philip'sfil-ums), University of Iowa, (n.d.).   
  5. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press 
  6. The Film Sufi, "'Kaagaz Ke Phool’ – Guru Dutt (1959), The Film Sufi, (22 January 2015).   

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Another great article on a brilliant albeit underrated Hindi film classic!