The notion that the Indian commercial cinema, which still churns out more films per year than Hollywood, is total dross, made for the illiterate masses, dies hard. But it was always nonsense and, even today, when it could be claimed that India’s cinema has been technically strengthened but culturally weakened by western influences, it’s not wholly true.
It certainly wasn’t in the post-war decades, which produced a whole series of film-makers, stars, musicians and playback singers worthy of anyone’s attention. Among these directors was the Muslim Kamal Amrohi, whose Pakeezah qualifies as one of the most extraordinary musical melodramas ever made – “poetry, fantasy and nostalgia rolled into one on an epic scale”, as one Indian critic has said. Amrohi was a writer and poet in Urdu and Hindi as well as a director, but only made four films. Pakeezah was his third and had been planned years before it could be made as a starring vehicle for Amrohi himself and his third wife, Meena Kumari (pictured), the famous Hindi tragedienne.
Production finally started in 1964 but when the couple separated it was postponed indefinitely halfway through. Fortunately, Amrohi finally persuaded a by then somewhat raddled and alcoholic but still beautiful Kumari to complete it in the early 70s.
Set in Muslim Lucknow at the turn of the century, its central character is a courtesan and dancer who dreams of leaving her life behind but gets rejected by her man*s family as unmarriageable and dies giving birth in a graveyard. Her daughter (also played by Kumari) grows up in her mother’s profession, desired by men for everything but a respectable marriage, and is even prevented from seeing her father. She then falls for a mysterious stranger who turns out to be her father’s nephew. When the marriage is forbidden, she is forced to dance at her lover’s arranged wedding. There, her father at last recognises her, claims her as his child, and she’s able to marry. The feel-good ending doesn’t quite undermine what has gone before – which is a wonderful, if sometimes unwitting, lesson in the hypocrisy of the time towards women.
If there is nothing special about the plot, the way it is accomplished is often astounding. Amrohi, who also wrote the script and some of the lyrics, saturates the screen not only with some amazing colour photography but with a swirling romanticism that somehow never tips over into the laughable. It’s primarily in the songs that the uncensored inner meanings of Indian films reside. Pakeezah, often shown in its shorter, but not better, version is a case in point. Each song illustrates either the implicit tragedy of the story or the hopes of those in it bound by tradition but striving for a fairer world.
Other Indian popular films may be subtler but few have quite the force and romantic conviction of Amrohi’s. He never struck gold again, and nor did Kumari, whose last film this was. But gold Pakeezah definitely is.