Friday, May 21, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Pakeezah

It was a difficult production, over thirteen years in the making, witnessing the deaths of its principal composer and cinematographer before Kamal Amrohi could complete his troubled film. Meena Kumari, his lead actress and ex-wife would also pass away soon after its completion. Indeed, their divorce substantially contributed to the film’s many delays. However, Amrohi’s Pakeezah would eventually become a longstanding Bollywood favorite, making it a logical selection for Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s ongoing retrospective of aesthetically ambitious and socially conscious Bollywood films.

When casual viewers hear the term Bollywood, they most likely think of films like Pakeezah. Unabashedly melodramatic, it tells the story of a prostitute whose fate is entwined with that of a noble family. There is also a lot of singing and dancing, as well as gender and class based critiques of India’s rigid social hierarchy, and even a major foot fetish.

Sahibjaan is indeed a prostitute, like her mother Nargis before her. However, her life appears to be more like that of a geisha, singing, dancing, and entertaining rather than engaging in cruder services. She is still considered a scandalous, fallen woman, despite being born into her brothel through no fault of her own. As the film opens, her mother thinks she has escaped that demeaning life when the son of a prominent Utter Pradesh family falls in love with her. Unfortunately, his rigid father forbade their union, breaking Nargis’s heart and spirit. She would die in child birth shortly thereafter.

Now a grown woman, her daughter Sahibjaan attracts her share of admirers. Yet the love of her life is the mystery man who wrote her an anonymous love letter after spying her feet while she slumbered on an overnight train. Sure, it is a little creepy, but we just know destiny will eventually bring them together again.

To enjoy Pakeezah, viewers definitely must have a love and appreciation for all the conventions of Bollywood. Its flamboyance often borders on the garish and it is tone is often inconsistent, which is perfectly understandable considering it was shot in bits and pieces over many years, by a platoon of cinematographers following the death of Josef Wirsching (one of several German filmmakers who helped make Bollywood what it became during the early days of the Bombay Talkies studio). At times though, the film’s vibe is just plain odd, as exemplified by a Final Destination-like scene of a near fatal chain of disastrous events. Physically weakened in scenes shot in later years, Kumari also spends a disproportionate amount of screen time lying prone.

While Mughal-E-Azam and Jodhaa Akbar should have a wide appeal to viewers of epic historical drama, Pakeezah is essentially Bollywood for those that already love Bollywood. It is certainly colorful and Kumari has some poignant moments (as both mother and daughter), but it is very much a product of its time and circumstances. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater today (5/21) and Tuesday (5/25).