Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

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.


  1. Wow! That sounds super depressing but really beautiful! I wonder what possessed Eros to chop it like that?

  2. Beth, the film is heartbreaking because of the plight of Chhoti Bahu (and Meena Kumari's amazing performance). But I don't want to leave the impression that it's only sad. There's the sheer beauty of the film, the keenly observed social world of the masters and servants in the household (and the deepening emotional connection between Bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu), and the slowly unfolding love story of Bhoothnath and Jabba. Not to mention other issues (many of the key characters are adherents of the Brahmo Samaj reform movement, and the background of the film is the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

    So Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a very rich experience, and as I say, I feel as though it's a film that will reward multiple viewings.

    As for Eros, I don't think they cut the film--they probably just used whatever print of the film was at hand to make the DVD. This seems to happen a lot with older films--scenes and songs may be missing, songs may or may not be subtitled, the print may be scratched, faded or otherwise damaged, etc. DVD issuers seem to make no effort to find the best possible print of a film, or do any restoration work. It's a shame to think that such partial or damaged digital copies may be the only way that such a classic is preserved for the future.

  3. Oh, goodness, that second song is so very beautiful, as is Waheeda-ji. I wonder if I can find a copy?

  4. I love this film, even though it's depressing :-) It is so beautifully done...I don't remember which DVD company made my copy of it, but certainly they left all that stuff in so shame on Eros for not making more of an effort.

  5. Ajnabi, it sounds from Memsaab's comment as though there are multiple versions of the film available on DVD. The music is very striking--the soundtrack includes everything from light-hearted nonsense songs to courtesan numbers to laments. And I agree that Waheeda Rehman is lovely in the role of Jaba. It's definitely worth seeking out, and I hope you can find a complete copy.

    Memsaab, it's great to hear that there are more complete versions out there. If only there was some way for viewers to know what they're getting...

    I'm glad you liked the film so well. Should you ever feel moved to expand your thoughts into a post on MemsaabStory I'd love to read it.

  6. Actually I meant to say in my earlier comment too that I am very honored to be cast in the same mold as Beth, Philip and Bollyviewer :-)

    I can't seem to locate my DVD of this, but will keep looking and let you know what it is (not Eros, for sure) (I think it's Sky; also DEI/BEI, Ultra and Baba Digital have released this film).

  7. Great summary here. I really enjoyed this sad movie. I remember playing back "Meri Baat Rahi Mere Man Mein" over, and over and over and transcribing the lyrics in my geeky Bollywood notebook. That's a great break up song, hai na? I remember this was one I got via Netflix and it's been son long that I cant' remember if it was an Eros copy with the missing scenes. You've got me curious now. I think I need to see this one again, like you say multiple viewings would be beneficial for a deeper understanding.

    All the best,

  8. Sita-ji, the Eros version we watched was from Netflix, but even with the Eros DVD a viewer can fill in the missing scenes because they're featured in flashbacks. One song is cut off after only about 10 seconds, though, so it might be worth seeking out one of the other versions that Memsaab mentions.

    Of course, each version may have its own flaws--judging by clips posted on YouTube, some of the other DVDs may be too dark or have been taken from scratched prints. We can only hope that someday this film is issued in the fully restored version that it deserves.

  9. Hi Pessimisissimo,
    Hmm... Well I had given it a try, a few months ago, having been like you moved by the rich symbolism of the movie. Tell me what you think: http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-23679166.html

  10. Yves, many thanks letting me know about your essay. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is such a rich film that it can sustain (and requires) many interpretive perspectives. I think I will need to view it several more times before I can feel that I've truly begun to grasp its complexities. Many thanks again for alerting me to your thoughts on this wonderful film.