I won't be able do justice to Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress, and Servant, 1962)--for one thing, I don't have the time to do a full post on the film right now, and for another, I feel that multiple viewings are required to fully understand and appreciate this profoundly melancholy and moving story.
One thing that's apparent from a first viewing, though, is how stunning the cinematography is (V. K. Murthy is the credited cinematographer). Just as in American cinema, Indian cinema clearly both gained and lost something with the introduction of color. So many frames of this film feature a strikingly complex interplay of light, shadow and form. This dance sequence for "Saakhiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi," probably directed by the film's star and producer, Guru Dutt (the dialogue sequences were directed by Abrar Alvi, who won the Filmfare Award for best director that year), demonstrates the beautifully composed images that are evident throughout the film. Note that the backup dancers are always in shadow, even as the courtesan (portrayed by Minoo Mumtaz) is bathed in light:
(Music by Hemant Kumar; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni; sung by Asha Bhosle.)
To summarize the film's story briefly, poor but honest Bhoothnath (Dutt) comes to Raj-era Calcutta and through family connections winds up living in the haveli of dissolute Chhote Sarkar (Rehman) and his neglected wife, Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari, in a stunning performance). Bhoothnath finds work in a sindoor factory; the owner's daughter Jaba (Waheeda Rehman) at first mocks the shy and naïve Bhoothnath, but gradually more tender emotions begin to develop between them. Those feelings come to the fore as Jaba remembers key moments in their relationship in "Meri Baat Rahi Mere Man Mein"; Dutt daringly allows the screen to reach near black-out at several points:
Bhoothnath gradually becomes aware of Chhoti Bahu's great sadness, and feels deep empathy for her plight. Chhoti Bahu enlists Bhoothnath's help in her plans to win back her husband, but ultimately comes to realize that it is only by sharing her husband's love for drink that she can hold his interest. Bhoothnath watches helplessly as husband and wife spiral downward into the depths of addiction and despair, but he lends his support when Chhoti Bahu makes a last desperate attempt to save herself and her husband.
If you haven't seen Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, I recommend it highly. I hope that someone like Philip Lutgendorf, Memsaab, Bollyviewer or Beth can give this film the full discussion that it deserves. One word of warning: The Eros DVD of the film that we watched is severely cut--at least one song and a lengthy sequence (featuring Bhoothnath getting caught up in the violence of the independence struggle, his wounding, Jabba's nursing him back to health, his departure to study architecture and his return) are missing. Be forewarned, and shame on Eros for offering a butchered version of this classic to unsuspecting viewers.
Update 28 November 2009: A thoughtful essay on Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam has appeared (or perhaps was always present?) on Philip's Fil-ums (thanks Philip!). He writes: "...Guru Dutt's [film] uses the brilliant score of Kumar and Badayuni and the matchless b/w cinematography of V. K. Murthy (extraordinarily displayed, for example, in the courtesan dance sequence noted above, in which a brightly-lit soloist pirouettes in front of a shadowed ensemble and against a backdrop of gleaming neoclassical nudes — a dazzling display of revealed and concealed femininity, that alternates with the leering gaze of the patron) to produce...[a] complex and disturbing film about social decay and social change."
Philip and his partner Corey Creekmur have also written about Dutt's other masterpieces, Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959) and Pyaasa (1957)--I highly recommend reading their essays before viewing the films.