Directed: Abrar Alvi/ Produced; Guru Dutt/Story: Bimal Mitra/Screenplay: Bimal Mitra and Abrar Alvi/ Cinematography: VK Murthy/ Editing: YG Chawhan/ Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni/ Music: Hemanta Mukherjee/ Playback: Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt and Hemanta Mukherjee/ Art Direction: Biren Naug/ Costumes: Bhanu Athaiya/ Starring: Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Rehman, Dhoomal, Minoo Mumtaz, Sapru, Jawahar Kaul, Nazir Hussain, Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Pratima Devi
In his short life span of 39 years, Guru Dutt wrote four films, produced seven and directed another eight. A luke warm success at the box-office, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, an adaptation of Bengali author Bimal Mitra’s tale is considered to have been directed by Guru Dutt’s protégé and best friend, screenwriter Abrar Alvi. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is still regarded as one of Guru Dutt’s and Bollywood’s most artistic films. An enduring saga of decaying feudalism with a parallel sub plot of the downward-spiral of a zamindar’s neglected wife, loaded with unforgettable performances, lilting music, Bhanu Athaiya’s costumes, Biren Naug’s Art Direction and VK Murthy’s cinematography have made this film an unforgettable gem.
The controversy about who actually helmed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam remains alive to this day. Guru Dutt never discounted Abrar Alvi’s role in the film and it was Alvi who won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for the film. Abrar Alvi never denied that Guru Dutt did direct the songs in the film, but not the entire film. The film’s editor Y.G. Chawan always maintained that it was Abrar Alvi who sat with him during editing.
According to Waheeda Rehman Guru Dutt wanted bulk dates from Shashi Kapoor as Bhootnath because a huge set had been erected and he had acquired Meena Kumari’s dates. Shashi Kapoor, a rising busy star in those dayscouldn’t spare the required dates. The next choice Biswajeet whose Hindi film debut it would have been didn’t want to be tied to an exclusive contract. Guru Dutt donned the mantle himself .
Nargis and then legendary celebrity portraiture and glamour photographer Jitendra Arya’s wife Chhaya were considered for the role of Chhoti Bahu. Waheeda Rehman wanted to play Bibi and was refused by Guru Dutt because she didn’t look mature enough. She backed down only after she did a photo-session with V.K.Murthy and Guru Dutt in Chhoti Bahu’s attire and saw the result for herself.
However when the director on board Abrar Alvi asked Waheeda Rehman to play Jaba, Guru Dutt was livid upon her assent! This time he felt she had become a big star to take on a secondary character that was not even mentioned in the titles like Rehman, Meena Kumari and Guru Dutt himself.
Waheeda Rehman did not share a single frame with Meena Kumari in the film and her consistent pleading to Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt to incorporate one scene was denied citing the fact that the novel did not have such a scene. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was Waheeda Rehman’s last film with Guru Dutt an enviable collaboration which included Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool and Chaudhvi Ka Chand.
Meena Kumari portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is perhaps one of the greatest performance ever seen on the Indian Screen. Meena Kumari to Guru Dutt’s request if she would be interested in playing the lead role of Chhoti Bahu turned it down as she had her hands full with pending commitments. Guru Dutt extremely desperate completed the entire film by 1962 leaving aside the role of Chhoti Bahu.
Meena Kumari settled for forty-five days of non-stop shooting and a fee with 25 per cent raise , writes veteran journalist late Vinod Mehta in Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography. Meena Kumari won the Filmfare Best Actress award in 1963 for her performance as Chhoti Bahu. That year, she was the only actress up for Best Actress with two other nominations apart from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam – Aarti and Main Chup Rahungi.
Guru Dutt had also wanted SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi for the music and lyrics but SD Burman was unwell and Sahir declined the offer. In walked Hemant Kumar and Shakeel Badayuni on their second project after the mega hit Bees Saal Baad released earler that very year. Hemant Kumar’s baton had Geeta Dutt rendering – Koi door se awaaz de chale aao, Piya aiso jiya and Na jao saiyan for Chhoti Bahu. His melancholic background music and that behind Chhoti Bahu evoked looming tragedy.
Geeta Dutt didn’t playback for Waheeda in this film although in Pyaasa she sang for both Mala and Waheeda. Guru Dutt had Asha Bhosle’s voice for Waheeda and Geeta sang for Meena Kumari. Amazingly Waheeda Rehman was was not happy with the rushes of the song Bhanwara bada naadan hai and had Guru Dutt reshot the song, it was only this ditty from the film which went up to number thirteen on the annual list of Binaca Geetmala in 1962.
A rebel like Guru Dutt could not ignore irate reactions of the audience to the original last scene which showed Chhoti Bahu resting her head in Bhootnath’s lap as they travel in a carriage. The scene was reshot to show a conversation between the two characters. Alvi and Guru Dutt removed the song Sahil ki Taraf and replaced it with dialogue exchange between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath in the doomed carriage. An additional scene with paralyzed Rehman repenting his debauchery was also shot but never used. Hemant Kumar went on to recycle the tune for Sahil ki Taraf for the song Ya dil ki suno from Anupama (1966).
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam went on to win Filmfare Awards for Best Film, Director, Actress and Photography. Hemant Kumar against all odds lost Filmfare for Best Music to Shankar-Jaikishen for Professor (1962). The film won the President’s Silver Medal and the ‘Film of the Year’ Award from the Bengal Film Journalist Association and was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in June 1963 and was India’s fourth official entry to the Oscars that year and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
The depiction of old age zamindari finally collapsing under the weight of British colonialism and the opulent and decadent lifestyle of the havelis form the majestic backdrop against which the most interesting aspect of the film is presented to the viewers, the ambiguity that shrouds the relationship between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath is mesmerising. The moot question hammering at the back of minds and which keeps us riveted to the screen is whether the Ghulam physically desires Chhoti Bahu and whether she considers him more than an attendant?
The chemistry between the Bibi and Ghulam is so crackling that you forget that Meena Kumari appears on screen after nearly 45 minutes of the film is over and that Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari had only eight scenes together! This is the celluloid magic of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam from which even younger masters like Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia have drawn from!
(The writer is a Filmy Buff)