'Guru Dutt's cinema is the cinema of interpretation'
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam showcases only six meetings between Bhootnath and Chhoti Bahu, yet, it forms one of the most gripping and definition-eluding relationships ever seen on screen.
When Bansi clandestinely ushers Bhootnath into Chhoti Bahu’s room for the first time, she gently tells Bansi, “Tu jaa yahan se,” (You may leave) asserting that she wants to be left alone with Bhootnath. To establish Bhootnath’s sense of awe and wonderment, Chhoti Bahu is introduced gradually — both Bhootnath and the audience first see her dainty, alta-adorned feet and her resplendent silk saree. Bhootnath hesitantly raises his downcast gaze to see Chhoti Bahu. A close-up of Chhoti Bahu’s luscious painted lips followed by a shot of her evocative eyes suggests that the director is emphasising Bhootnath’s cognition of her physical attributes, and is signalling the promise of a relationship. Or so one presumes, but the relationship reveals itself to be far more complex as it unfolds on screen.
Once Bhootnath summons the courage to look at her, he is clearly bedazzled — she is a novel creature, beautiful and regal. “Chakra kyon gaye?” (Why are you astounded?) Chhoti Bahu asks Bhootnath when he gapes at her. It helps that Chhoti Bahu is played by Meena Kumari — she exudes warmth and a seductive aura and yet maintains an unattainable air of mystery.
In the beginning of their relationship, it is Chhoti Bahu who sets the tone and the parameters. She gently tells him that she will call him Bhootnath and he can address her as Chhoti Bahu. Keenly aware of her exalted status, Bhootnath sits on the floor while she is seated in a chair. The callow youth warms to Chhoti Bahu’s discerning praise for his name, especially since it had sent Jaba into peals of laughter. Bhootnath jabbers about Jaba. He tellingly reveals to Chhoti Bahu that he feels at ease with her. It is Chhoti Bahu who makes the first intimate admission. Elaborating on the lives of the haveli’s inhabitants, she says, “Yahan din sone ke liye hain aur raat jaagne aur jagaane ke liye” (Here, the days have been earmarked for sleeping and the nights for staying awake with company…). Though he is a complete stranger to her, she tells him, “Yehi dukh door karne ke liye tumhein yahan bulaya hai maine” (I have called you to alleviate this sorrow).
But before one begins reading between the lines, Chhoti Bahu reveals that she has summoned him so that he can obtain for her a box of Mohini Sindoor (a brand of vermilion), advertised as having magical powers capable of bringing a recalcitrant lover back into the arms of the true love. Chhoti Bahu wants to employ this desperate gambit to win back her husband.
Each time one thinks one has a grasp on the relationship, a line or a gesture makes one rethink a bit. The subtext to the intriguing relationship is what makes it interesting. Guru Dutt’s cinema is the cinema of interpretation.
Not surprisingly, he often framed his characters among shadows and silhouettes. This Wellesian trait is evident in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), in which two household employees, entirely in silhouette, discuss the protagonist’s changed routine, bringing to mind the famous Lady From Shanghai sequence which had the silhouetted lead pair conversing in the aquarium. For much of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam too, director Abrar Alvi and cinematographer VK Murthy present Meena Kumari semi-lit or surrounded by shadows, this half-obscured image adding to her character’s mystique and layering the meaning of her actions. The Caravaggioesque shadows also accentuate the atmosphere of loneliness and neglect, and evoke a sense of foreboding and claustrophobia. ‘Light’ presents facts baldly, but here the director imparts variegated interpretations with the employment of shadows.
In their second meeting itself, Chhoti Bahu warms to the worshipful light in Bhootnath’s eyes and makes him her confidante. She shares her innermost thoughts with him when he gives her the box of sindoor that he has purchased for her. Lamenting the state of her marriage, Chhoti Bahu reveals to him that material possessions do not give her any happiness because she yearns for her husband’s love. She promises to always remember the favour Bhootnath has done for her and assures him that he can always look upon her as a benefactor. Though her conversation implies a certain sense of closure, she cannot resist adding after she bids him goodbye: “Bhool na jaana apni Chhoti Bahu ko” (Don’t forget your Chhoti Bahu).
The next time Bhootnath meets Jaba, she curtly asks him to define his relationship with Chhoti Bahu and he describes the latter in Abrar Alvi’s evocative dialogue: “Har sundar cheez ki kalpana kar sakti ho tum...par humari Chhoti Bahu? Woh kalpana se bahar hai” (You can imagine every beautiful object in this world...but my Chhoti Bahu? She is beyond imagination). It is difficult to fathom his motive — is it to evoke a jealous response from Jaba or is it a spontaneous articulation of his dormant feelings for Chhoti Bahu, or a bit of both? Jaba is clearly jealous of Chhoti Bahu.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam: The Original Screenplay is part of a compendium of books on three ageless classics — Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Compilation, Translation, Essays & Interviews: Dinesh Raheja & Jitendra Kothari
Paperback 204 pages Price: Rs 595 Free Film DVD
Published by Om Books International
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