Pakeezah, Kamli, Bollywood and Politics - idle ruminations on a Friday afternoon
Pakeezah is probably the first feature film I watched. Considering I was very young at that time, and impressionable, my earliest memories are of a ruin, an air of mystery, a woman in white, much singing, more sorrow. As luck would have it, or my mother’s fancy, I ended up watching Pakeezah - if you can call it watching when all you are doing is bouncing on-off your mother’s lap as she, in the company of sundry other women, is re-re-watching the film. Subsequently, when I reached an age where I began to partially comprehend the dynamics of human relationships, I watched Pakeezah again and was, much like my mother, bewitched. Gradually, I also understood the hold Pakeezah has on Indians of a certain generation.
The story of a courtesan, Meena Kumari, whom life and society has wronged, is nothing new. Yet, what gives the film its almost mythic status is what the film alludes to, in its lyrical-philosophical poetry, its luminous cinematography, lavish sets, the larger-than-life romance, and the intuitive understanding that what the writer-director was doing was etching his own life’s tragic love story on the big screen. The tumultuous passionate romance of Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari stretched filming over a period of 14 years. Time in which Meena Kumari became alcoholic and terminally ill, dying a month after the film’s release.
Pakeezah, the ‘pure of heart’ tawaif. The film belongs to that time in Bollywood when the distinction between heroine and vamp was clear. Meena Kumari smudged that line with her portrayal of the wronged alcoholic wife in Sahib Bibi air Ghulam. (Add to this the fact that the beautiful actress lived her life on her own terms, refusing to be tamed by the diktat of a patriarchal society and film industry.)
However, the heroine of today’s Hindi films has rendered the vamp irrelevant, capable as she is of doing a strip tease for family viewing - Katrina Kaif, Dhoom 3, as Kamli. Kamli, crazy girl, in Punjabi. Or vampine, vamp-cum-heroine, of the Indian male director’s casting. The Indian household watches Munni badnam and Babli badmash, glued as it is fevicol se to visions of halkat jawaani.
If Bollywood is a good barometer of Indian society, and arguably it is, (Amitabh Bachchan's success as angry-young-man has spun several case studies), then what does this phenomenon of vampine tell us? That we, an always hypocritical society, have become unembarrassed of our hypocrisy? That we are now comfortable with our saying-one-thing-doing-another persona? When Valentine’s Day has become a national festival, yet the proclamation of love will get you forcibly married off by the Hindu Mahasabha? Suffice to say, our schizophrenia is on public display now.
From Pakeezah to Kamli has been quite a march for the Indian heroine, the aspirational Indian woman - from a male gaze, certainly. From the ‘defiled but pure of heart’ to the ‘crazy vampine’. Pakeezah is set in the decaying Lucknow of the 60s, a time when tawaifs and their patrons were in decline. It reflects a section of Indian society at a point in time. What, pray, does the vampine represent? Male fantasy on celluloid. Unless you have encountered a vampine yourself - in which case, please do introduce me to this esoteric specimen. I’d very much like to behold up-close the charms of this chikni chameli.
Meanwhile, February 14 is a blessed week away and I wonder what the vampine will say to the Hindu Mahasabha’s diktat: “Display of love in the entire Valentine’s week is equivalent to not following Indian traditions. Anyone found displaying love on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp will be caught hold of.” Considering that the vampine is the reigning Indian heroine, a role model for aspiring young Indian women, how will she respond to this moral policing?
Anarkali, disco chali?
#ValentinesDay #HinduMahasabha #Dhoom3