Thoughts on Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

21 Jun

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam has so many facets to it. that one can hardly cover it up with one posting. Moreover, there are so many thoughts and ideas, which come into the mind while watching it, but I just couldn’t find words for it. I think one can surely write a doctoral thesis on it. I could leave mine and start with this one! 😉

The film begins with a view through an arch of workers at work pulling down ruins of an old mansion. It gives a feeling as if it is a peek through the keyhole. This is felt more when Bhootnath enters the haveli compound for the first time and he sees the women in the carriage. The camera follows his gaze and lets us have a look at things through his perspective. The camera moves in a way that one feels the awe and fear that Bhootnath.

The camera is often placed behind the character, which is being addressed. It gives the audience a feeling of being spoken to personally.

A distance is maintained, when Bhootnath after his arrival peeks towards the haveli. No close-ups of the persons are seen, just dimly lit distant persons; one can barely make out what they are doing. Only after Bhootnath has entered the mansion do we see close-ups of the people inside.

Guru Dutt plays the village bumpkin in a natural way not over-emphasizing his ‘dehatipan’. It is a pleasure to see him overjoyed when he hears that he will be getting not only Rs. 7 as payment but also lunch. One remembers the fact that famines were rampant in Bengal during those days. Famines partly caused by natural catastrophes but mainly by the trade and by the agricultural policy of the British.

As pointed out by dustedoff “there is the contrast between the bright, cheerful household of Suvinay Kumar, where all is openness and honesty—and the Choudhary haveli, riddled with unhappiness and mindless extravagance, heading for an inevitable doom”. This openness and honesty is seen in different ways. The first time is when Suvinay Babu is shocked that the proposed candidate for clerk in his factory has been made to wait outside and not treated as an equal. Second time is when he fires the cook for bullying Bhootnath. Third and most touching is when Suvinaybabu gives up his business, because he realises that his advertisement of his product wasn’t true at all.

The scene transition is wonderful. A good example is from the scene, where Bhootnath protests to the cook that he gets so little for lunch, and we hear ‘yeh jurm hai’ (this is unjust), but the voice is that of the farmer, who is protesting against the land grabbing by the Choudharys. His cries at being beaten up by Choudhary’s thugs go over to the fireworks at the celebration of Choudhary’s cat!

A not so simple to explain transition is when Jabba asks the shy, departing Bhootnath if the Durban should accompany him, since the night is so dark and lonely. Bhootnath angry furious at this statement retorts back ‘I haven’t put on bangles like you’. In the next scene he is shown walking through the red-light district in the morning, where he meets Bansi, who is in search of his master. The simple answer would be that he has to walk to this lane to his place of work. But normally such houses border on by-lanes. Hmmm…..

Much has been written of Bhootnath’s first meeting with Chottibahu. That is why I won’t go into it much. It is beautiful how it is shown that Chottibahu knows exactly what the matter is between Bhootnath and Jabba. Look at her change of expressions while he talks of Jabba, from surprise to irritation to laughter. His feeling at ease with Chottibahu is quite in contrast to his awe of her. Firstly because of her kindness; she is the first person in his life who doesn’t laugh at his name, but lauds it as one of god’s names. Secondly also because of the customs, which require him to sit on the floor in front of the mistress, which he familiar of due to his rural upbringing and at Suvinaybabu’s house where equality reigns and he is able to talk on the same level with others he is not so comfortable. Jabba’s teasing him naturally also doesn’t help matters much. One thing that I always feel, when I watch this scene is that Chottibahu is completely aware of her sensuality and uses it to ‘manipulate’ Bhootnath.

As a comment to dustedoff’s review I wrote:

I agree with all of you about the movie and the story being a commentary on the fall of the zamindari system and the rise of the ‘industrialism’.

And I think it is Abrar Alvi in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Docu on Guru Dutt, who waxes about Guru Dutt putting women in the spotlight of his movies.

Philip Lutgendorf sees in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam “female-centred meditation on gender inequity”. But giving Guru Dutt’s track record on his image of women, I hardly think it is a meditation on gender inequity but rather a deliberate depiction of a role model for women of India.

It is not a straight-forward message as in Mr. & Mrs. 55 but very subtle.

It starts with certain comments on Brahmo Samaj, a Hinduism-Reform movement.

We have Jabba, who is the daughter of a Brahmo Samaji, modern, independent, voicing her opinion and taking initiative. But to find her happiness she has to abide by the rules of ‘conservative’ Hinduism and accept her husband of child-marriage, from which her father had saved her and even found a good suit, who loves and would like to marry her. Since she is such a ‘pativrata’ her husband turns out to be her beloved. So you see, if you are a real ‘Sati-Savitri’, God will fulfill your wishes.

Then there is the central character of the movie, the Choti Bahu, who is a Sita impersonified. She loves her husband to a fault. She is even ready to ‘drink’ and behave like a ‘tawaif’ just to hold on to her husband. And if I remember right the character of Bhootnath is fascinated by her loyalty and devotion to her husband, which we often see symbolized in her big tikka on her forehead. It is four years since I last saw the movie, but doesn’t she tell Bhootnath, to fill her mang with lots of sindoor, when she dies? I might be mistaken.

Hence, we see in Jabba a woman, who is modern, learned, free and independent return to the fold of conservative society and is rewarded with a ‘happy married life’. We assume it is a happy married life, since she the man she was married to turned up to be the man she loves/d. But the way which she sits in the carriage coy and subdued it looks very much like ‘Taming of the Shrew’.

Choti Bahu on the other hand is conservative, uneducated (she comes from a poor family), shackled and dependent. But she revolts within the conventions of her society. She takes up drinking, she sings, she dances and more importantly demands hers rights. The rights, which her society has bestowed upon her. She doesn’t want much. She wants company of her husband and, very important for an ‘Indian’ woman, her right to be a mother. She is even bold enough to blame her husband for not giving her a child. In the Indian society, as I know it, the blame lies mostly on the woman’s side. But what is the reward of her revolt? Her husband ‘returns’ to her because he can’t go anywhere else. He has paralyses. And then she does a too bold an act, from which even her status can not save her. She crosses the threshold, the ‘dahleez’, the Lakshman-Rekha and that too with a man not related to her. Sita of Ramayana had to repent this act woefully and so does Choti Bahu as well. She has to die.

Therefore, the message, which comes across the film for me is “Women of India, don’t be too bold, you will get your happiness if you suffer enough and (more important) are ready to sacrifice”.

And still, despite of all these irritations (too subtle a word for that), I love watching this movie. The way the story is told is spell binding. Each frame is poetry. Each glance of a character tells a story.

Waah, jawab nahin!

Now I am not so sure of the ‘message’ as I have written above. And I surely take back my statement on Brahmo Samaj. It seems I just misunderstood something. And moreover at that time I still hadn’t watched the DVD, which I had, but made the comment from memory of watching the film some four years back. I would have sworn that in the last scene Jabba sits meekly without saying a word or showing a gesture. Now the ending as I have seen it, is quite a nice one and her gesture of holding his hand and consoling him is very touching.

All the same, Jabba is one character, whose development doesn’t make sense. An independent, self-confident Brahmo Samaji woman suddenly at the death of her father turns her back to the reform movement, which has shaped and formed her. That just doesn’t sound logical to me.

As Richard says “A lot of credit has also been given to the cinematographer, V. K. Murthy, which makes sense, because Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is so beautiful to look at right from the start.” Look at the pic below, doesn’t it remind one of M. C. Escher’s paintings. I have put one below it. It is eerie!

Now compare the screen cap above, which is when the ruin of the Choudharys is under progress and the screen cap below

This is a screen cap when the masters of the house are at the peak of their power. The pillars support him and are like a fortress around him. In the Escheresque screencap, though the pillars are standing, the light which passes in between give the effect as if fallen pillars are strewn on the floor, thus reflecting the crumbling of power.

Pillars do play a major role in the film. The film itself begins with the raising down of a pillar.

Pillars hide the going ons in the haveli.

Pillars hold up the power at the haveli.

They separate Bhootnath and Jabba, when her marriage is announced.

Pillars frame Chottibahu’s and Bhootnath’s secret meetings.

The songs are all sung by women. The only male-song by Hemant Kumar has been cut. A pity!

One can go on about this film this way for a long time, but I think this is good place to end. This I think will be the last post in the Guru Dutt series. I hope, I can write about a film other than Hindi cinema soon!


Posted by on June 21, 2010 in Bollywood, Guru Dutt Series


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29 responses to “Thoughts on Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

  1. yves

    June 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Hmm… Thanks, very nice Harvey. Those pillars… you’re right!
    I’d be quite interested to examine more the link you are making between Choti Bahu and Sita, because I am not quite convinced it fits! Sita’s a wronged wife, but her ordeal is that she is condemned on accusations of unchastity, wrongly of course. Does this correspond to Choti Bahu?
    But you’ll tell me.

    • harveypam

      June 21, 2010 at 10:51 pm

      Thanks for your nice words, yves!

      Re: Sita and Chottibahu. There are no big parallels between the two. When I compared them above, I meant only the context of crossing the dahleez (the threshold). In India it is also used as a metaphor to cross a certain border. Sita crossed the Lakshmanrekha succumbing to her desire, which led her to be kidnapped by Ravana and thus be accused of unchastity. Chottibahu also crosses the borders of her haven and goes of with her confidante and also brings upon herself the accusation of bieng unchaste and thus soiling the Choudhary’s pride. For that she gets murdered. Those are the only parallels which I saw between them both.
      BTW, I posted a comment at your site, but am not sure if the site accepted it.

  2. yves

    June 21, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Yes, your comments were posted: thanks!
    As for Sita: very interesting! I’m not at all a specialist of the Ramayana, mind, it’s just that I had to read a little to understand certain allusion in certain movies, and remembered this beautiful story.
    But perhaps you know BTW: why is Sita such a model for Indian women? I would understand why men would revere her, as she acepts her banishment on the grounds of being potentially unchaste (she can’t prove her virtue) and therefore protecting men’s honour. But women? Wouldn’t women feel insulted to be wrongfully accused? They have nothing to gain, it seems, by being referred to a heroine who not only was accused wrongly, but also was not vindicated later!

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 5:53 pm

      The answer to your question is a bit complex. But to start with men rever Sita as a motherly figure, although in Ramayana her motherly qualities come quite later and are hardly elaborated on. Lakshman and Hanuman look upon her as mother.

      why is Sita such a model for Indian women?
      1. Because the men saw her fit to be
      2. Sita is never revered alone always in the form of Sitaram
      3. Sita is not totally a doormat as presumed. She demands her right to accompany Rama to the forest (just like Chotibahu wants to be with her husband). She chastises him for carrying weapons in the forest though he has taken up the life of an ascetic and in the end when Rama ‘pardons’ her and is ready to take her back she walks out on him and goes back to her mother.

  3. dustedoff

    June 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Harvey, fabulous insights – especially the pillars! You’re so right: they’re a very important part of so many frames. Interesting: I’d never noticed that before. 🙂

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 5:54 pm

      Aren’t they lovely? the Pillars! I should admit the screen cap at Philip’s fillums gave me the idea.

      I’m looking forward to reading your Ek Ladki thi. I started today morning but had to go back to work! 😉

  4. Richard S.

    June 22, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Harvey, this is very interesting, as you have put an incredible amount of thought into this film. You also took some unusual positions, which makes the writeup even more interesting, though I am glad you gave second thought to your ideas about this movie being “a deliberate depiction of a role model for women of India.” Philip Lutgendorf’s perspective on this made sense to me from the start. As I was discussing again in comments to my review (which review you so kindly revived after it was sitting in my archives for a year and a half), the terrible irony in the tragedy of Chhoti Bahu (as I learned to spell her name 🙂 ) is that her way of rebelling against her oppressive condition also leads her to become self-destructively subservient (though subservient in a different way). This is, most of all, a picture of bleak choices that do not give the heroine a chance to become a role model for anyone.

    I would have to agree that Jabba doesn’t seem like a very consistent character, and I think she ended up being far less important than Chhoti Bahu. That scene at the very end was nice, though.

    And good work regarding the pillars! I may have said nice things about the cinematography, but I never would have thought to screen cap all those pillars!

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 6:06 pm

      Hey you are right about the spelling! The way I have been writing it, it would mean ‘braided bride”! 😀
      I’m still not quite so sure of moving away from my opinion of “a deliberate depiction of a role model for women of India”. But on the other hand, Chhoti Bahu really doesn’t have much options to revolt. She uses all the means and more to get what she wants.

      This is, most of all, a picture of bleak choices that do not give the heroine a chance to become a role model for anyone
      That is true, none of the people concerned are material for role-models, with the exception of Suvinaybabu. In the end he is also a defeated person. Nobody is quite successful in the story except maybe Jabba, but she goes through so many setbacks. And maybe it is her triumph, that makes her ‘less important’

      Thanks for your nice words on the pillars! 🙂

  5. yves

    June 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Hi Richard,
    No, Jabba is no less important than Choti Bahu: for Bhootnath, she represents the reality of love, or rather its realism, its modernity, as opposed to Choti Bahu who stands for the old system of values, that is crumbling away. The interest of the movie is that it is transferring on the psychological relations the social situation which India was suffering from at the time. The aristocratic ideal was seen as crumbling, as decaying because of corruption and moral disintegration, and Choti Bahu is unfortunately part of that decay. On the other hand, Jabba, daughter to the Brahmo Samaj leader, represents a way out, or a purification of the spiritual sickness which infected aristocratic India, and more generally, the power of those days, corrupted by colonial collaboration and self-centered selfishness. So by choosing her, in spite of his attraction for Choti Bahu (the lure of an ideal order and beauty which is doomed), Bhootnath is choosing the path towards a possible future for India.
    BTW, perhaps this is where one might integrate the pillar metaphor: during the flashback, the abundance of pillars could symbolize the excess of power based on the still-standing zamindar system, but their crumbling state among the dilapidated haveli would indicate that this power is now dead.

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      Nice interpretation Yves! Didn’t think of it before I read your post at your site.
      But you also have to take into consideration that Bhootnath is not taking the path of Brahmo samaj. At the most the path of Brahmo Samaj which has reconciliated with the Brahminic ritualistic Hinduism. Remember that Jabba gets her ‘rewards’ for waiting for her child marriage bridegroom. A practice opposed totally by the Brahmo Samaj. The decadent (thanks richard!) feudalistic society is dead, but what come sin its place is just hinted at in the film: the industrial, capitalistic society. It will set in due course the small farmers free from the feudal lords but it will make them slaves of the industry. The film Do Bheegha Zamewould be the continuation of the story of the peasant who revolts.
      Another movie, which would come nearly three decades later, puts through this message is Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai. I have forgotten the salient features of the film but still feel the resounding slap at the end for laughing throughout the film.

  6. Richard S.

    June 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Hello, Yves. Those are interesting thoughts. Actually, I had included in my comment a line about the “decadent – as in decaying” society that leads to Chhoti Bahu’s bleak choices, but I cut it because I wasn’t sure I was phrasing it right and then saw more need to explain, and that would have made for an even longer comment, and it was taking very long. Thank you for picking up on that point.

    I understand what you are saying about Jabba’s social, symbolic significance and significance to Bhootnath, and that is very interesting. However, I was thinking more of how this character stood out (or not) in the movie compared to Chhoti Bahu, and I still think Chhoti Bahu became much more signficant in the film in terms of character and impact (even if she may not have been in terms of meaning). This may have been partly due to the problems in the development of Jabba’s character, as mentioned by Harvey.

    Also, Meena Kumari gave such a stunning performance, I think she stood out much more than Waheeda Rehman. Of course, Waheeda was good too, but this was Meena’s movie (plus I do admit I am more a Meena fan than a Waheeda fan – except when it comes to dancing).

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 6:24 pm

      Oh, it is a hard choice between Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman, though I’m a bigger fan of the latter and Meena Kumari’s later films put me off. Meena Kumari had a superb role here and with this role she is on home ground. What really saves the role from becoming another rona-dhona (weepy) role is, I think, Guru Dutts direction. She gets to cry out loudly only once. But that also angrily! And her voice! Wow!

  7. yves

    June 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    You’re right Richard to say that this is Meena Kumari’s film: the action is centered around her, definitely. Not only that, but the movie being a depiction of that master and slave reversal, she’s instrumental in the downfall: she becomes a slave in order to attract her master’s slavery to herself, and no longer to the other women in the nautch-house. Her master’s corruption is exposed as a result of her enslavement to him (cf. the role of the sharab, the liquor)
    And paradoxically, it’s because of her debasement that she rises: because her debasement, contrary to her husband’s, is a sacrifice, and shows her real love. But she irremediably belongs nevertheless to the decadent society which is being phased out: she’s from the past; Jabba represents the Indian woman of tomorrow.
    So yes, Chhoti Bahu is the star of the film. But she’s a falling star, and such stars do have a greater splendor. But their brightness means their death.

    • harveypam

      June 22, 2010 at 6:29 pm

      I don’t undestand it when you say “Her master’s corruption is exposed as a result of her enslavement to him”. In my opinon these two things are in no relation to each other. But I’m sure your elaboration would put some light on it.

      Jabba represents the Indian woman of tomorrow
      Is she? maybe yes! When one looks at the female roles in the saas-bahu serials, it might be true. But in true life, I hardly think that the majority of indian women would pine away for their childhood bridegroom.

  8. yves

    June 22, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Hello Harvey,
    It’s nice, isn’t it, all these exchanges about SB&G!
    When I wrote this idea about Chhoti Bahu exposing her husband/master’s corruption, I meant that for the spectator, her love and sacrifice denounces his immorality all the more clearly. “Being enslaved” meant that she debases herself, starts drinking etc.
    You’re right about Jabba pining away for her childhood groom, but I don’t remember this taking such an importance: am I wrong? When I say she’s the Indian woman of tomorrow, I meant she’s more modern, and I only say this in regards to the style of life she represents compared to that of the Lady of the House.

    • harvey

      June 22, 2010 at 10:29 pm

      hi yves,
      It is indeed exhilarating! 🙂
      Now I understand what you mean! That whens he starts drinking and dancing does she show the society the hypocrisy of it all. If she does it is bad and when he does it, it is the right thing! Clever!
      Jabba pining away for her childhood groom is at least important for me, because it is in contrast to everything she stood for, till that moment. One can explain it away as post-pubertal revolting against her father but it casts a ‘bad’ light on the story. It is a clear support for the child marriage!

  9. pacifist

    June 24, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Loved your insights regarding the pillars.
    Just for that I’m going to watch it again this weekend. 🙂

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on Guru Dutt films. Wonderful way to begin.
    In fact its such a good idea to write about films of a particular producer/director.
    Who will be your next? There are so many greats. Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, V Shantaram, even Dev Anand.

    Looking forward to further reviews and thoughts.

    • pacifist

      June 24, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      PS: Isn’t the film based on a novel?

    • harveypam

      June 24, 2010 at 8:23 pm

      Thank you pacifist! Nice to hear that!
      I wonder what you will discover in the film. There are so many hidden things. One of them is (well not really hidden) the small board with the the slogan of the Brahmo Samaj ‘Brahmkripa yahi kevalam’ (The grace of Brahman is enough)!
      Or the fact that the camera frame which is used when the peasant demands his land back is repeated when the money lenders demand money from the Choudharys.
      I’m sure you’ll love it!
      As for the next topic. I haven’t thought about it. Most probably I’ll be moving toward a different language altogether. I’d love to see Nigerian movies for example. But most probably I’ll be reviewing an Austrian film,w hich is very near to my heart. But since I’m shifting it’ll be a bit difficult and more difficult is the fact that the story is so simple and complex at the same time. But it does have connection to the Hindi cinema. But more about that in the next posting! 😉

      The movie is based on the novel Saheb Bibi Golam by Bimal Mitra. See my post!

  10. pacifist

    June 26, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    Austrian film? That should be interesting. It’s almost regional cinema to me 🙂

    • harvey

      June 27, 2010 at 10:44 pm

      not only almost it is regional cinema, with nuances so regional that at times Germans can’t follow it although they speak the same language!
      but it will take time to appear since I’m shifting right now!

      • pacifist

        June 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm

        I know what you mean 🙂
        The Swiss, The Austrians, and the Germans speak their own languages – but call it German! Of course they combine it with their natinality, swiss german, austrian german.
        I stay a very short distance from the Austrian border. Less than a quarter of an hour.

        I’m really looking forward to your reviews as I’m absolutely ignorant of Austrian cinema in spite of the geographical closeness.

        • harvey

          June 29, 2010 at 8:48 pm


  11. sunheriyaadein

    June 28, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Wah! What an insight, yet again! I had never thoguht of comparing Chhoti Bahut to Sita…and the Role model for Bharatiya naari never corssed my mind. Guess I was too engrossed in other things.
    The pillars are lovely and they hold such a big significance int he story, but I had never noticed them 😦
    Another observation of yours that I loved is – The camera is often placed behind the character, which is being addressed. It gives the audience a feeling of being spoken to personally. – how true!
    Like you said, one could go on and on about every frame of this movie – could actually write a book on it.

    • harvey

      June 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks Sunheri for the compliments!
      I think SBaG is a multi-layered film. As you say one could write a book on it.
      Do you remember the critical appreciation of poems we used to have? It is something on the same lines, what we bloggers are trying to do with the films; each in his/her won manner. And thus we get lots to share! 🙂

    • sunheriyaadein

      June 30, 2010 at 8:22 pm

      Critical appreciation of poems…good old days! True, we all do get lots to share here.


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