I swear someday I’m going to stop getting suckered by Meena Kumari vehicles; Thursday, alas, was not that day. Bahu Begum is replete with beautiful images and music, along with story elements that—while they will not meet everybody’s tastes—address mine with laser-guided specificity. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. Although the film hangs together and, frequently, punches hard, I found I enjoyed rereading my notes about it more than I had enjoyed watching it. Bahu Begum was produced by Jan Nisar Akhtar for Sanamkada with direction by Mohammed Sadiq; Sadiq and Akhtar both have story credits alongside dialogue writer Tabish Sultanpur. When I watched it, a tightly letterboxed copy was available (with subtitles) from Ultra’s YouTube channel. Don’t be fooled by these cheerful girls, swinging and dancing under the mango tree! There is little celebration to be found here.
Zeenat (Meena Kumari) lives in a shabby Lucknow mansion, enlivened by her good-natured bua (Leela Mishra) and the frequent visits of friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman). Mirza Sultan (D. K. Sapru), Zeenat’s widower father, subsists on an perpetually diminishing pension. His parsimoniousness has had the unforeseeable effect of fostering Zeenat’s tentative romance with Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar). The pair have been taking note of one other from across the courtyard ever since Yusuf’s chum Achchan (Johnny Walker) began renting out half of the haveli. They tease each other; they recite poetry at one another; they’ve barely actually spoken. Mirza Sultan is, as a dialogue phrases it, too “self-respecting” to permit his daughter to court or be courted, leaving Zeenat and Yusuf in an ongoing game of chicken regarding which one will speak up to their elders first.
Neither has managed to do so by the point when, to the horrible misfortune of all, Bilqis and Zeenat go jewelry-shopping at the same store where Sikandar Mirza (Ashok Kumar) is looking for a pair of earrings. An aging bachelor whose much-younger sister Suraiya (Not-a-Baby Naaz, recipient of the earrings) has been pestering him to bring home a bhabhi, Sikandar seems finally to have found an alluring object. He boxes up the bangles Zeenat had been admiring without being able to afford and begins making inquiries. Their engagement is almost immediately fixed, although—due to assumptions, miscommunications, and active sabotage by a wicked uncle—both Zeenat and Yusuf come to believe that they are engaged. Only during her wedding is Zeenat’s misapprehension on this point corrected, abhorrent to her not merely from the shock of the thing but also because she and Yusuf have exchanged a number of informal promises such as “If we can’t marry, I’ll swallow my diamond ring and die.” She flees the zenana, hoping to intercept Yusuf at their traditional meeting place. The party must decide how to proceed when Zeenat fails to return when expected: do they call off the wedding, or continue in the hope that the bride might someday turn back up? Nobody swallows a diamond—although people do die.
I like a good Muslim social; I love tragedy. Many aspects of this one play beautifully. (Oh, where those two bangles end up–!) The story ventures in interesting, poignant directions and, although it concludes with the requisite self-sacrifice, that sacrifice was not made by the character I had expected. All this makes it difficult to define why watching Bahu Begum was so strangely trying. I can at least point to two decisions that force the story mechanics visibly to the surface—the wrong kinds of contrivance, so to speak.
The first is the choice to open the film with Zeenat and Yusuf’s relationship ambiguously established. It takes perhaps forty minutes for the audience to definitively learn that they were already in love with each other when the action began. Many a movie would have spent the entire first act establishing this romance. Not to do so is an interesting decision, one that correctly reflects the limited access Zeenat and Yusuf can have to one another without betraying propriety. Perhaps a pair of performers with more mutual wattage than Meena Kumari and Pradeep Kumar generate might have made it work. As it is, those forty minutes mostly feel wasted. Rather than one calculated to inspire grand gestures of loyalty, this romance is still flimsy and underfed when Sikandar arrives to complicate their lives. Secondly, Yusuf’s villainous uncle1 is ridiculous. In a social world whose denizens are otherwise bound by such rigid constraint, it almost induces whiplash to see this man curling his mustache while plotting–even if solitarily. Worse, the character is superfluous. Although Maamu provokes the central problem of this story, that dilemma could have been resolved by about thirty seconds of clarification that everyone else—everyone—fails to supply. All these decent, petty people are capable of getting themselves into some version of this mess without external impetus; hard things hurt the most, after all, when no ill intentions are involved in creating them. It feels as though the scriptwriters could not quite think the specifics of that situation out, so instead they resorted to a reified villain.
Maamu’s cartoonishness is particularly regrettable given how vividly depicted the other ancillary characters are. I was particularly impressed with Achchan and Bilqis, both regarding the actors’ performances and how the parts are written. These characters initially fill archetypes that, while effective, are also worn with use. As the hero’s friend, Achchan’s job is to provide comic relief and serve as the secondary agent in various schemes Yusuf springs to get a little closer to Zeenat; as the heroine’s friend, Bilqis sympathizes with her smittenness while also fighting to keep Zeenat’s feet on something resembling solid, pragmatic ground. (The faces Zeb Rehman pulls during the lovelorn song “Hum Intezar Karenge Tera Qayamat Tak” are wondrous!) As the engine of the tragedy begins to lurch forward, however, Achchan and Bilqis increasingly emerge as human creatures more than stereotypes, bound to the primary characters by genuine, active love. Bilqis watches each step of Zeenat’s progression toward disaster, unable to divert her friend despite her best efforts and, at one horrible juncture, inadvertently contributing to her quandry. Although Achchan remains ridiculous, his increasing concern for Yusuf and Zeenat spurs him to startling if ineffectual bravery. This character reminded me of how much I appreciate Johnny Walker as a performer on those occasions when he escapes being saddled with barely-withstandable “comedy.”
The principals form more of a melange. I am afraid I must reaffirm my recent characterization of Pradeep Kumar: “He looks like a radish that’s been left in the fridge too long and has equivalent charisma to the same.” I only find Pradeep effective when he is in roles that permit some buoyancy or cheerfulness, for which the character of Yusuf allows meager remit indeed. A liberal application of blue eyeshadow does not substitute for this deficiency. I have already commented on how underdeveloped his chemistry with Meena Kumari feels by the point at which the narrative cleaves their characters near-permanently apart. Meena and Ashok are more equally yoked.2 I have difficulty imagining what other actor of this era could play Sikandar without seeming merely pitiable; Ashok’s performance does not elide the insecurity or venality of the character, but prevents him from becoming unsympathetic. My very favorite performance in the film, however, is that of Lalita Pawar. She is omitted from my summary above because she appears only in the second half. To describe Lalita’s character in any detail would betray too much; suffice it to say that she is compassionate and sensible, one of the few characters who has learned to view social convention as a tool that can actually serve to lighten people’s burdens.
I was first impelled to meditate on Pradeep Kumar’s vegetal characteristics by Anuradha’s recent post celebrating the music of Roshan. Ordinarily I attempt to highlight two or three favorite pieces of music from a film, but I am at a loss to choose among the treasury of beautiful songs in Bahu Begum. There are two beautiful qawwalis set in Shah Baba’s dargah; of course, Sahir Ludhianvi’s sacred lyrics touchingly parallel the secular conundrums in which our characters find themselves. The first, “Waqif Hoon Khoob Ishq Ke Tarz-e-Bayaan Se Main,” has an especially beautiful picturization that toys with the various lines of sight possible in an environment subdivided by curtains, screens, and dangling flowers. Asha Bhosle sings two different mujras, both picturized on Helen. I always find it interesting to watch Helen dance in classical styles; to my admittedly untutored eye, it seems like she sells them less with confidence in her whole body than with hand gestures and expressions. Regardless of the technique, they are entrancing. And of course, there is the swing song “Padh Gaye Jhoole, Sawan Rut Aayi Re,” from which the above image is clipped. Zeenat, Bilqis, and their other young friends frolic to this folkish melody, shoring up an island of deceptive peace at the opening of the film.
As if the story elements were not enough, Bahu Begum makes an even more direct appeal to my personal tastes by wringing beauty and pain from its physical settings. Relatively rarely, as in that hexed excursion to the jewelry shop, does the action escape out of doors. Most of the film unfolds in carefully cultivated, compartmentalized spaces in which every activity has an appropriate place—however little. Thus we see Mirza Sultan’s household shrink into an ever more constrained corner of his own estate; things that are physically near them feel at times irretrievably gone. Yet the arrangement of these buildings also provides endless opportunities for characters to overhear, observe, and invisibly affect one another. Zeenat stands on a terrace, drying her hair; a few drops fall on Yusuf in the courtyard below; Achchan, unseen, spots Yusuf glancing up and immediately understands why his friend has been coming around to visit so much. I have already mentioned the picturization of “Waqif Hoon Khoob Ishq Ke,” which in which Yusuf and Zeenat sit together in the shrine as the camera gradually pulls away from them: through a layer of hanging jasmine, over the dargah chaadar itself, then past a second curtain of flowers that obscures them almost wholly from view. Having grown so accustomed to permeable curtains, it is horrible to be confronted with locked, impenetrable doors.
1 Played by Balam. I wrote down three different versions of this character’s name and am not certain which one, if any, is correct.
2 What are there—four or five films of which this statement could be made? Pradeep Kumar, why are you like this? And why did people still insist on casting you opposite Meena?