Oh boy, the second classic Tawaif film in two days! I say “second”, but really it is all of them. Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan cannot be compared to other Tawaif films, they are on their own level.
Just as Umrao Jaan is legendary in the making and the release, so is Pakeezah. Maybe it is something about telling these stories of women whose whole lives were wrapped up in performing, it only works if the film itself is the whole life of the woman who is starring in it? Pakeezah was Meena Kumari’s whole life, for years. It was written by her new husband, a poet, as a grand tribute to her talent. And then it became a sad record of their failing marriage and impossible relationship. And finally a triumphal ending as love triumphed and she managed to finish the film as she was dying as a final gift to her audience and her estranged husband. It released to packed theaters after her death, the people who may not have cared about this actress or this story before, they all cared now that it was too late.
Kamal Amrohi wrote Pakeezah for Meena and he spent years perfecting his vision, scouting locations, writing and re-writing the dialogue. This was his gift to her, as much as a patron of the past would have given jewels. And Meena rose to the challenge over and over again. The early sequences show her graceful and charming and young and happy, the sequences filmed last show her in so much pain she can barely move but still manages to recite dialogue and give meaning to it. It’s the tangled web of patron and performer, the patron must give a worthy gift but the performer must always perform.
Meena is the one solid strand in Pakeezah partly because the story requires it, but also because that is how the filming happened. As Kamal’s funding came in and out, the rest of the cast, even the locations, disappeared. Meena’s sponsor changes, her love interest, and her brothel. She wanders through the world with only herself to rely on, only herself consistant.
Herself, and her art. Both Umrao Jaan and this film have something special in the performing sequences. In order for it to be a great Tawaif story, we must believe in great Tawaif talent. She cannot just be the usual beautiful actress, she needs to have more. Ghulam Mohammed wrote the music, and Kamal wrote the lyrics himself along with Kaifi Azmi. And Meena provided the hypnotically lovely visuals to go with the songs.
The songs are the only time in the film when the audience has a clue as to what Meena is thinking and feeling. She is a Tawaif, she is trained not to reveal her true emotions. And her emotions in this film are hidden even to herself, she cannot articulate the complexity of what she desires, the impossibility of it.
That is what makes this film special. Our Tawaif heroine desires something impossible. And, miraculously, she receives it.
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We start in the past. Meena Kumari is an aging Tawaif passionately in love with Ashok Kumar, a man from a good family. Meena leaves the Kotha to be with him, but he cannot convince his family to accept her in his household. She cannot go back to the Kotha and she cannot move forward with him. So she finds shelter in a cemetery, and there gives birth to his daughter. Her sister/friend from the brothel comes and finds her and is furious at the man who brought her to such a state. Meena dies, and the baby is taken by her sister to be raised in the Kotha, the best life she can give her and a slap in the face at her “honorable” father who abandoned her.
Years later, the daughter has grown up to look like her mother. Young Meena is past her debut and dancing for the customers but the negotiations for her virginity are not yet complete. Her father Ashok just then tracks her down, and so her aunt decides to send her away from the city to another Brothel where she might have better chances. On the train there, a man stumbles into her compartment, Rajkummar. He sees her while she sleeps and writes her a poem that he leaves for her to find when she wakes up. Meena arrives at the new brothel conflicted, the poem sticks in her mind. She dances for rich men and a local prince offers for her virginity, she cannot refuse but she is torn about it, not the same excited eagerness and hope she had before. But she does not take action, she cannot even articulate to herself that she is beginning not to want this life. After all, what other life is there for her?
And then a miracle saves her. Not from being “spoiled” by losing her virginity, but from being trapped in this false world of silk and luxury and never seeing outside of it. The prince’s boat is overturned by alligators in a sequence that seems almost dreamlike, and she wakes up to a new world of nature and wildness and freedom. She wanders until she finds a nearby camp and is discovered by Rajkummar, who is working as a forest ranger and living in this camp. She hides her past from him but it is all revealed when her aunt appears to take her home.
Rajkummar is a modern man, he will not forget her just because she is “fallen”. He comes to take her to his home and wants to marry her. But at their simple wedding ceremony, she is over-whelmed and runs away, back to the safety of the Kotha. Rajkummar’s marriage is arranged with someone else and Meena is hired to perform at the celebrations. Her aunt crows to Ashok that his own daughter is now singing and dancing to entertain his family. Ashok is heartbroken, the family is afraid of scandal, Ashok is shot. But as he dies, he begs his nephew Rajkummar to do what he was always afraid to and bring his love from the Kotha to the house in a full wedding ceremony. Meena is finally taken from the Kotha with all respect as her aunt watches.
There are so many fascinating characters in this film! Ones who do not do the expected thing and thereby change everything. The opening sequence, that is the expected thing. Meena may fall in love and choose to have the baby (there is an unspoken moment later in the film when young Meena visits an “ill” friend with the implication she is recovering physically and emotionally from an abortion), but there is no place in society for this family. So Meena dies tragically, Ashok lives life as a sad bachelor, and young Meena is raised in a brothel. That is the expected thing.
What is not expected is that young Meena’s aunt will have the love to raise her niece to be a happy intelligent young girl, and at the same time nurture her hatred for Ashok. What is not expected is that in the second generation, rather than leaping quickly into love, Meena will hold back and think it through, resist until she is sure there is a future. And that Rajkummar will not have the fear and hesitation of the previous generation, will be brave enough to confront his family and insist on marriage.
This is how tragedies happen, everyone doing the expected thing and not seeing the possibility of any other way. And this is how tragedies are avoided, when people are brave enough to do something different. Even if sometimes that is nothing.
Meena’s character is not the usual tragic Tawaif. When love comes to her, she does not rush out of her safe life into the unknown, she stays and waits. Even when Rajkummar attempts to marry her, she resists. On my first watch I was irritated by her for running away simply because she was concerned about the shame having a Tawaif in the family would bring to him. But on the second watch, it made sense to me, and it was the right choice. He was marrying her in a hurry, in a passion of love. Much like how her father had rushed her mother from the brothel without a plan. And with no guarantees, their love story could end as tragically as her parents. The typical Tawaif is a fragile woman driven by love, ready to make great sacrifices. But that’s not Meena here. She loves Rajkummar, but she is still capable of thinking and caution.
Her aunt isn’t the typical Madame either. She is prepared to sell Meena’s virginity, but she is still trying to protect her. The greatest threat she sees is not the men looking to buy her but the men looking to make her fall in love, to leave her ruined with nothing. That is what she protects her from over and over again, the disaster that killed Meena’s mother. It’s a complex concept, the Madame who sees prostitution as the safest route for her neice.
The biggest thing I came away with on a second watch was the feeling that this was just one of many stories. We see Meena’s friend, recovering from being “ill”. We see Meena’s mother dying. We see her aunt raising her and living for her niece. And in the beautiful first song, we see Meena dancing for customers as behind her dozens of other women do the same. There is a whole district of Tawaifs and none of them are like any other, they each have their own stories, they are each their own people, more than any simple “Tawaif” identity can be.