Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ghosts and relics in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

Two things prompted me to revisit the 1962 Abrar Alvi-Guru Dutt classic Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam this week. One was a viewing of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Sahib Biwi aur Gangster, a reasonably well-made (and very well acted) film that takes some of the character types from the original and recasts them in a contemporary north Indian hinterland noir. The other appetite-whetter was an excerpt from a book that I badly want to get my hands on now – Vinod Mehta’s biography of (and unabashed fanboy tribute to) Meena Kumari, published shortly after her death in 1972. The chapter in question centres on Kumari’s iconic performance as the tormented Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, driven to alcohol (an unthinkable sin for a married Hindu woman in her milieu) in a last-ditch effort to make her husband stay at home.

(More about the Mehta book in a later post.)

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is one of Hindi cinema’s most vivid treatments of a transitional period in India’s social history – the dying days of the landed gentry, their decline (and their continuing mulish wastefulness in the face of that decline) contrasted with a working class that is making its way in the world through education and personal initiative rather than through inheritance squandered. This contrast is presented mainly through the character of Bhoothnath, a young lower-class man who becomes confidante and emotional ghulam to Chhoti Bahu, while being both fascinated and repulsed by what he sees of life in the mansion.

But the story operates on other levels too – as a reflection on the responsibilities thrust on women in traditional settings, for example. Chhoti Bahu is doubly condemned, stifled as an individual and saddled with upholding the family’s “honour” (something that doesn’t much concern the menfolk who sleep during the day and spend their nights outside with dancer-prostitutes, or otherwise pass the time getting pet cats elaborately married). The result is that when her facade breaks down, it’s intolerable for everyone around her. Her existence is necessarily one of extremes: when cast as the virtuous lady, which is her principal function, she is nothing less than Lakshmi incarnate; but when she transgresses even slightly, she becomes a creature fallen so far beyond redemption that her fate is to be murdered and buried without honour or ceremony in a secret grave.

One of the film’s saddest, and most telling, scenes for me is a little moment towards the end. Talking intently with Bhoothnath, Chhoti Bahu suddenly sees her husband’s older brother watching them from the foot of the stairs. She reflexively covers her head with her pallu and moves into a doorway out of his sight (as she has always been conditioned to do), but being drunk she staggers clumsily while doing this. No one watching her would be fooled about her condition, but appearances must be unthinkingly maintained.

There is an obvious comparison to be made between Chhoti Bahu and the film’s other main female character Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), who is allowed to have a mind of her own – and be a multifaceted person – without being judged for it. Educated, playful, moody, given to bantering and flirting with Bhoothnath but also capable of making a steely decision at a time of personal tragedy, Jaba is alive in a way that Chhoti Bahu isn’t.** And this is one reason why I can’t help thinking of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam as a ghost story, though its narrative is presented in realist terms.

One late scene links the heroine's skeletal remains with the ruins of the house she was entrapped in, but even when Chhoti Bahu and the haveli are both “alive” there is something otherworldly about them. The mansion – gloomy and claustrophobic – is like a purgatory for restive souls, from the nearly deranged badi bahu who obsessively washes her hands to the watch-keeper who yells that time no longer has any meaning in this place. Chhoti Bahu herself is a wandering spirit and her scenes with Bhoothnath seem almost to be set in a time continuum, with past and future in uneasy but sympathetic collusion. The relationship can be seen as a brief encounter between two people who belong not just to different classes but to different dimensions.

But of course, the past never really loses its grip on the present; in the film’s very last shot we see that the middle-aged Bhoothnath, though long married to the earthly Jaba, is still haunted – perhaps marked for life – by Chhoti Bahu’s memory. The scene reminds me a great deal of the closing shot of another major film made that same year in another part of the world – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife in a train carriage together, emblems of a forward-looking world but forever beholden to a man who was a relic of a past age. Much like that film about the passing (and the simultaneous romanticising) of the Old West, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a reminder that however much we progress or change, bygone worlds still cast a long shadow.


** One of the achievements of Meena Kumari’s performance is that it doesn’t take much effort for us to imagine the very different sort of person Chhoti Bahu might have been – just as vivacious and independent as Jaba, perhaps – if her circumstances had been otherwise.

P.S. I had only a very dim childhood memory of this film (and it isn’t the sort of movie I would have found particularly interesting back then) - so a much better print would have been nice. If you look at the classy cover of Moser Baer’s DVD – with the words “Platinum Series” and “Collector’s Item” overlaid on crystal-clear stills from the film – you’d think this was some sort of beautiful restoration. Far from it. In addition to being scratch-ridden and jerky, with poor sound, parts of the print are so dark that you can barely tell what’s on the screen. One of my all-time favourite song sequences, “Bhanwara Bada Naadaan Hai”, with the stunningly beautiful Waheeda Rehman, is badly mangled. The picture quality in this YouTube video is good, but my DVD manages to darken almost the whole of the sequence so that all one sees of Rehman is an expanse of forehead. (It's a lovely forehead, but still.) Pitiful, really.


  1. While watching Saat Khoon Maaf I was reminded of this film again and again.
    Its remarkably poignant that just like Bogie in "In a Lonely place", MK's reel life persona cuts too close for comfort to her real life one.
    Nice write up!It makes me want to read the book and see the movie again.

  2. the acting in sahib biwi aur gangster was really bad...jimmy shergill is flat...he had some good lines like in the scene he goes to meet the minister and finds two people in the loo, but he just couldn't deliver them...and Mahie acted so poorly in the scene when she throws the plate on hooda's face...i just don't know but haven't u felt that bollywood films have absolutely no impact in terms of acting at least...some of the films of Madhur Bhandarkar could have better with better actors..but Corporate, Fashion all were ruined by bad actors

  3. Pessimist Fool: actually, I disagree quite strongly - I had no real opinion on Jimmy Shergill before this, but I thought he was excellent in this role and captured the tight-lipped nawab really well. His surface is highly undemonstrative (perhaps that's why you thought he was "flat" or didn't deliver the lines as you would have liked him to) but I got a definite sense of the sharp mind working away beneath that surface, and of a man whose societal conditioning is often at odds with the situations he finds himself in.

    Mahie Gill I'm slightly divided about, but I didn't think there was anything wrong with that plate-throwing scene. This is an unbalanced woman who is often mechanically playing a role - have to keep that in mind while judging the performance.

    Also, more generally, I think the better Bollywood films of recent times have had some outstanding performances in them and the overall standard of acting is higher than it was a few decades ago. Lastly, I disagree about Madhur Bhandarkar: poor acting is hardly the most serious problem with his films!

  4. Rahul: that's a very interesting comparison with Bogie in In a Lonely Place - didn't quite think of it that way before.

  5. Re ' I had no real opinion on Jimmy Shergill before this': Have you seen Haasil? I thought he was excellent

  6. Anon: no I haven't, but it's high on my to-see list.

  7. Superb post, Jai. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam depressed me utterly when I saw it as a child, but it rates now as one of my favourite Hindi films from the 50s and 60s.

    I also found an interesting contrast in the contrasting cinematography between scenes set in Jaba's home and in haveli. The latter is overwhelmingly gloomy and dark (and I think the bad print quality enhances that!), while Jaba's home has much more sunshine. That, I thought, was a fine way of accentuating the difference between Jaba's life and that of the Chhoti Bahu's.

  8. Brilliant post as usual Jai. The scene that you mention about her staggering and covering her head is extremely evocative. Since we are on this topic, if you can get your hands on it, there's this book written by Bimal Mitra about his brief stint with the Hindi film industry and mainly Guru Dutt during Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam. His observations about Guru Dutt as an artist and as a flawed human are deeply moving. Also has gems about the making of SB&G. I had read the Hindi translation of it called - 'Bichade sabhi baari baari', no clue if an English translation is out. - Gopi Puthran

  9. dusted off: true about the contrast - the scenes outside the haveli are definitely shot with more light (and usually take place in the daytime). Would probably have been able to appreciate that better if I had watched a decent print.

  10. Rahul: Are you sure Bogie in In a Lonely Place mirrors his real life persona? From what I've heard about him, he was a well balanced person. Anything but a hyper-emotional self-destructive writer.

    His real life persona was probably closer to the roles he played in films like The Barefoot Contessa or Beat the Devil as opposed to the Nicholas Ray film you mention.

  11. i actually haven't seen this movie yet but your post makes me want to!

  12. i just read reviews about the movie.. i hope it will be interesting to watch.

  13. Shrikanth,this from Bogie's wiki page-
    "Many Bogart biographers and actress/writer Louise Brooks agree that the role is the closest to Bogart's real self and is considered among his best performances.[94] She wrote that the film “gave him a role that he could play with complexity, because the film character's pride in his art, his selfishness, drunkenness, lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence were shared by the real Bogart”

    Anyhow, apart from this obvious similarity, I think the characters were similar to each other as well. Both had painted themselves into a corner, and so to speak, were "In a lonely place"- lived in a world in their minds which was at odds with the immediate real world as seen by others - they were unaccepting of the banality of their situation.

  14. " a much better print would have been nice" YES! I finally got around to watching this last night and LOVED it, by my Ultra print was exactly as you describe your Moser Baer. Not only that, but the cover said "approx 144 min" and my player said 2:03 when Bhoothnath & Jabba rode off together at the very end. Your EXCELLENT review really makes me want to find a print that does this film justice. Thank you so much for your thoughtful & insightful summary