Golden classic
Shoma A. Chatterji

Four different social worlds intermingle and blend into each other in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, the film which completes 50 years this year

Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam remains Indian cinema’s supremely tragic heroine
Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam remains Indian cinema’s supremely tragic heroine

Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam is based on a literary classic in Bengali by Bimal Mitra named Saheb, Bibi, Golam. It deals with the disintegration of a great zamindari haveli and a vanishing lifestyle in Bengal. The film focuses on the encounter between the flamboyant lifestyle and extravaganza of the decadent zamindari class and the work ethics and ideology of the new, rising middle class of the Brahmo community.

It describes the slow physical, material and moral degradation of a family and of its class of Bengali Hindu zamindars, who were feudal, oppressive landowners of the time, at the turn of the 19th century. The Choudhurys lost everything because they led a life of debauchery complemented with their indifference to financial matters. They squandered away their income from lands owned partly by inheritance but mainly through appropriation of lands owned by poor peasants and helpless widows.

The film is narrated in flashback, the dilapidated ruins of the once-grand mansion with a graying Bhootnath (Guru Dutt), vested officially to supervise the demolition, standing against it used as a fascinatingly nostalgic framing device. The film has been compared with Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and has ‘Viscontian’ aspects as seen in the meticulous care with which the period has been brought to life.

The film records a period of feudal history through the lives of the Choudhurys. It reflects a period of transition where a new order will inevitably replace the old one. Within the same canvas, the film makes space for four different social worlds. One is the decadent world of the Choudhurys, a world that is completely oblivious to the changes taking place in the world beyond the haveli and the music halls. The second world consists of Subinoy Babu, who runs his Mohini Sindoor factory just beyond the compound of the haveli. He is a dedicated member of the Bengali Hindu reformist movement, better known by the name of Brahmo Samaj. He offers a complete antithesis to the lazy and debauched life of the Choudhurys. He lives with his young and educated daughter Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), who never wearies of making fun of Bhootnath.

The third world encompasses the multitude of servants, maids, and hangers-on such as the main servant Bansi, who doubles up as the chronicler of the Choudhurys’ history. Ghadi Babu, a doddering old eccentric, is caretaker of a room where all clocks are kept. His business is to see that the clocks are winded regularly and are made to keep time. He is a metaphorical figure who keeps reminding everyone that the era peopled by families like the Choudhurys is about to end, to make place for a new society.

Bhootnath represents the fourth and final world. Bhootnath is witness to the ravages of time and change in the Choudhury household. He is an ‘outsider’ to all the three worlds described here. He smoothly moves across the inner and outer spaces of the Choudhury mansion, which extends to his movement to and from the Mohini Sindoor factory’s office where he works as an accountant. He transcends all spaces — public, private, professional and personal but functions mainly as witness to begin with and then, a friend and confidante of Chhoti Bahu. Much of the narrative unfolds from Bhootnath’s point of view.

Jaba and Bhootnath together and individually symbolise the emergence of a modern bourgeoisie acquainted with Bengali culture and with the new religious reformation, the Brahmo Samaj that broke out of the rigid religiosity of the Hindu Brahmins. The four worlds intermingle and blend into each other along the span of the film. While there is no change in the mindset of the members in the Choudhury household such as in Majhle Babu, Chhote Babu and the widowed Badi Bahu, Chhoti Bahu strikes a discordant note.

The editing rhythm, complemented by the brilliant black-and-white chiaroscuro cinematography by V.K. Murthy, adds to the intrigue. The imaginative and aesthetic use of light and shade, strategically and sequentially composed close-ups, particularly in the scene that introduces Chhoti Bahu visually to the audience and the song sequence where she tries to seduce her husband are examples of the excellent work by director Abrar Alvi, Dutt himself who directed and choreographed the song sequences, cinematographer V.K. Murthy and editor Y.G. Chawhan.

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is best remembered for its melodramatic qualities — a quality masterfully crafted, controlled and commanded by Dutt. The high point of the film remains Meena Kumari’s performance as Chhoti Bahu, a character she came to be identified with. Even when the narrative moves between the framing device of the flashback, it journeys through nostalgia heightened by the lyrics (Shakeel Badayuni) and the songs (Hemant Kumar) sung by Asha Bhonsle and Geeta Dutt. As Bhootnath stands looking at the haveli in decay, a haunting melody filters through the night air, while visions of fugitive figures flit through the huge mansion. Chhoti Bahu offers a classic example of how confinement into the antahpur, socially coerced or conditioned by the rules of the zamindar home, need not necessarily be followed either in principle or letter.

The irony of the whole situation is that Chhoti Bahu’s circumvention and transgression of the antahpur code sanctioned by the filial one and legitimated by the moral one were both achieved with the singular purpose of gaining the love of her husband Chhote Babu.

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam uses individual memory as the structuring consciousness that shapes, orders and reveals a historical past. Bhootnath’s memories propel him to more than 30 years in the past, to a time in which it seems that the world for him was whole, alive, and brilliant. Bhootnath is filled with guilt as he realises that he is about to order and supervise over the demolition of the very structure whose walls had once given him food, shelter and emotional fulfillment. Bhootnath’s class origins shape his thinking. But it is Chhoti Bahu who remains Indian cinema’s most supremely tragic heroine.