Sahib bibi aur ghulam, an Initiation to Desire

Publié le 13 Octobre 2008

While I was reading about Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), and thinking of Pakeezah (1972), critics mentioned Abrar Alvi's (or Guru Dutt’s - he apparently was almost as much behind the camera) Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) as a paradigmatic sort of film. So I thought I had to check it out!

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a meditation on Initiation (1). The film starts at the end, with a mature engineer meditating on time and experience, as he re-discovers a ruined building in which he had lived fundamental things in his youth. Sorrow and nostalgia pervade the scene, and soon memory takes the lead. The long flashback begins. The young and naïve Bhootnath (Guru Dutt), not yet an engineer, who arrives in the big city’s mansion, knows as yet little about the reality of Desire. He has, as yet, not been burnt by it. Its roaring furnace has been busy in cities, far away from him. But now, having left his village, he has come closer and, like all others, he will suffer the pull of its immense power. He will be more than others protected by his purity, but his eyes, like everybody’s, are open. And eyes are the passageway of desire. Through them Desire enters the soul and can wreak its havoc. Through them, and with it enters also a burn, a thrill which the soul will never forget. What we see, therefore, in the film, is the initiation of this young man to the fire of Desire, and his reaction to this initiation.

Unsaid, unexplained, but present and indicated through little signs at his arrival at the Calcutta haveli, the opening up of his soul to this fascinating new reality takes the form of a night-time mystery through which one can watch certain visible forms, a dark and fearful enigma that he feels attracted to and at the same time afraid about. His name Bhootnath, taken from Shiva’s title of “lord of ghosts”, also seems to set him as a go-between, an intermediary between the unknowing world of material pursuits, and that of initiation to the mysteries of Love. His conscious self is slowly made to enter those mysteries, and the photography helps to understand this symbolism.

“The heart will definitely fall for the person

from whom there is no escape.

As soon as the eyes meet,

Everything in life will be lost”

(sings the dancer in the famous “tonight I shall not sleep” song)

In the great house (somewhat vaguely reminiscent of the House of Usher, in Edgar A. Poe’s tale), there is a lady who bewails her solitude, a beautiful lady, the hero is told, whom her husband unexplainably disdains and who is pining away in melancholy. There are also strange aristocratic inmates, who are all either half mad or deranged in their moral sense of what is good and bad. Of course the social criticism works well here and has been often underlined. But the decadence of the zamindari system in XIXth century Bengal is, I believe, the symbol of a deeper fall, a more profound disease.

Some individuals in the film try to reform themselves, and refuse the established way of life set by the zamindars (who are shown to be nothing but cruel and degenerated profiteers): they belong to Brahmo Samaj (2) movement, intent on purifying Hinduism from its ritualism, and rejuvenate a faith largely corrupted by secular and exterior practices. But this nationalistic movement, that belongs to history, can also be looked upon symbolically as a way for the soul to escape the spiral of self-annihilation in which the more sophisticated are trapped. Bhootnath, by marrying Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), the daughter of the leader of this reform movement, obviously indicates the road to take. His association with this spiritual choice is a clear sign that the plunge into desire and its mimetic magnetism (represented by the aristocrats) means death and worse than death.

Choti Bahu, the pent-up lady in her mysterious Tower, soon calls upon him. She wants some vermillion that is said to make husbands faithful (that’s the red sindoor wives press on the parting of their hair at their wedding), and Bhootnath has precisely found some work in the sindoor factory run by the Brahmo Samaj man (Suvinay Babu). The scene where he approaches her is shown as a sort of mystical experience, where her feet symbolize a presence both sexual and ethereal. As soon as their eyes meet, Bhootnath, who has already started falling for Jaba, is this time smitten. He becomes her “ghulam” (slave). But it is less the love and fascination that Bhootnath will feel in her presence, than the lady’s use of Bhootnath that is important. It’s clear she knows how beautiful and mesmerizing she looks, and poor Bhootnath is going to be the victim of her unemployed powers. She doesn’t want to seduce him, but just by being what she is, an idle admirer of an unattainable idol (her husband, played by Rehman), she cannot help magnetising him. In fact she does to Bhootnath what she would like to do to her husband (who has his gaze set on other idols), attract his gaze on her and become his desired sight.

What happens next is a logical follow-up to this encounter. The vermillion of course doesn’t work, and having crossed one line, she now has to cross another, and attract her husband to her by the means that these courtesan-women (or tawaif) use in the brothels he visits. What’s interesting is that this all happens through the use of sharab, or intoxicating drink. After all, she could have chosen to seduce him thanks to other feminine snares. But her husband needs alcohol to reach the high with the women he watches in those pleasure houses. So much as to say he’s reached an advanced state of addiction and cynicism, and that now three things are necessary for him to be jolted into ecstasy: drink, other women, and transgression. Without these, he’s not roused.

Choti Babu, idle zamindar and pitiless husband, is the prisoner of a disease of the soul, where Desire has burnt his own free-will, has deprived him of the enjoyment of normal life pleasures, and enslaved him to the endless repetition of transgression and debasement. He might be the called the “master” (sahib), but in fact he’s the real “ghulam” (slave). His paralysis at the end is the symbol of his fatal subjection. The tragic of the story is that his wife will throw herself into this abyss in order to find the love she sorely misses. She does reach a temporary satisfaction, but of course she becomes the ghost of her former self, which Bhootnath can only watch as she lucidly precipitates herself towards her doom. Her death in the end is also for her a symbol of her dreadful choice. But it must be said that there is a difference: Choti Bahu falls because of love, and her fall is somewhat redeemed by the sacrifice she makes of her life. In spite of her defiling, she is driven by a kind of absolute; one might even say a sort of purity (the word comes "fire" in Greek). Choti Babu on the other hand has been corrupted by Desire, that selfish and sterile pursuit of an idolised ecstasy, and he is responsible for the destruction of his wife. He’s the monster, and she has been his passing prey. Watching all this is Bhootnath, not so naive any more, but powerless at changing the course of destiny.

I think the film’s story presents us with a fascinating demonstration of the nature of desire. Desire in itself is a good thing, a life-force that is at the very root of our being. But, unchecked, it focuses on objects which multiply to an extent that it becomes wild, and cancer-like, it reproduces its own image to the power of infinity, and worships it as one adores the divine. Now the problem is that once you have felt and known this power inside you, this intoxication, it’s there to stay. That’s what the film, and Bhootnath’s character, shows. You can manage to control it, and not fall headlong into a reckless pursuit of its fury. If you do, you are gifted with the wisdom and the sanity which the world needs so much. In spite of a sort of sadness, a soberness which comes from the scar left on your soul from its encounter with desire (it’s called maturity), you may live a life of peace and joy. But if you let your will follow it, if you let yourself trapped in its fire and believe it is God, then your soul will die, and Desire will leave you burnt and crippled, your mind will be mad, your body will be maimed; your unity will be torn apart. The consequences of this fire are an animal-like addiction to its burn (think of the fly and the candle-flame), and the destruction of the fabric of your soul. The effects of this destruction can be seen in the various forms of madness in the film: Clock Babu and his fixation on clocks, Mahjle Bahu who loses herself in rituals. And Choti Bahu, who is stung into denial when she is accused by Bhootnath of becoming mad.

So the film’s title alludes to a double inversion: as suggested above, Choti Babu is the real slave, the ghulam of his degrading passion, and Bhootnath is in fact the master. He’s the one who, in spite of his exposure to desire, has mastered it, and can muse about its power and its glory.

There are many other dimensions in the films, which I have chosen not to deal with, for example its comic relief: there's Mansi, the cunning man of all-trades who acts as Bhootnath's confident throughout the film; there's also Jaba, Suviany Babu's exciting daughter is also quite well used in that respect. But the quality of these two characters is that they're not only comic, Guru Dutt can create comedy effects with their characters, but he's not tied to them. Bhootnath is also made fun of regularly (his creaking shoes).

I’d like to attract the attention of readers to two other very good reviews of Sahib bibi aur ghulam, the best of which is Philip's review, with his excellent presentation of the « woman question », and his suggestive description of the dance-intervals. centres his review on the “pivotal character” played by a regal Meena Kumari, whose life we know came to resemble her role. He has interesting information about the controversies the film created, as well as some concerning Guru Dutt’s hesitations of certain choices made in the film.


(1)   For those interested, the analysis of this film owes much to René Girard’s theories of psychological and social mimesis, as found in his books Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, or Des choses cachées depuis la foundation du monde. (English translations exist)

(2)   Created by Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) who believed Hinduism should be directed toward a monotheism which he thought was rooted in the Upanishads. The movement focussed on “women’s uplift”, and tried to change somewhat the plight of women in India, especially widows.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

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A very thought provoking analysis. I saw this film years and years ago, and young as I was then, I was repelled by the character played by Meena Kumari. Perhaps repelled is a strong word, but I
horrified that one could let oneself slide into 'ghulami' like that..Now I am so much older and on reflection see how easily one can do exactly that. I think its time I saw this movie
again.  BTW I can't remember the movie that well, but I wonder what the connection is to playing cards? The title alludes to the King, Queen and Jack(Knave) I think..Perhaps it is that
they construct a house of cards between themselves, with no foundation, no strength, no capacity to face disasters..


Hmm... A good point, which had escaped me, I must say. Are the card names of King, queen and knave in hindi "Sahim, bibi aur ghulam"? If that is so, it's most interesting. I don't recall any card
game in the movie though, but one might say that the game these idle decadent players are playing is a game of cards; each plays his or her cards in the game of desire, in order to win over the


Just read your take on the film Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam! It is very itneresting and find your interpretation that the Sahib is the real Ghulam very fascinating and also very true. Your comments on
the effects of desire on different character pleased me a lot. It is a look though a different dimension! But as I said in my 'Thoughts on Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam', I find it very depressing that
Jabba, who has the Brahmo Samaji upbringing should turn her back to it. Or does the author want to bring Brahmo Samajis back to the fold?


Yes Harvey, you're right, and I too wonder at this departure. Unfortunately, I don't remember the movie enough to give you a sufficient explanation. I'll try to remember your query, though, when
I do watch it again!



Hi Yves,

I love how you have explained the effects that desire has on different people in different ways. Also that play on the title is rfascinating. Great read. One change you might make though. That
character is Bansi and not Mansi. Great great post by the way :)


Thanks Sharmi for your appreciation: had you heard of René Girard's theories? He's a French professor who teaches (or used to teach, I don't know if he's retired now) at Stanford and Duke. Over
here in France, he's an importance reference, both in literature studies and anthropology.


This another film I like though I do not know if I will be able to re-watch it ever; I too find it too painful.Just one thought about your comments on Meena Kumari and then the scene with the feet. I understood it as (I may be wrong) that a man, especially a stranger and a servant, as is the case of Guru Dutt, would not look at the lady of the house directly. Hence in the beginning, when he hasn't done that, and as we are seeing the story from his point of view, we only hear her. Then she calls him, and he would still only look at the ground and at her feet. as it would eb put of place for him to look at her directly. I thought it was beautiful the way the camera looks up like the character's eyes and then see her face the way he sees her. Masterful directing.Does anyone else feel the same?

I agree about your remark, especially as the flm is so careful about this theme of vision. The moment when the spectator meets her eyes is crucial for his appreciation of it.

Ohh yves, I love to use the word soo, it is a bad thing when showing my age as well! Self-destruction, because after this movie he broke up with Waheeda and started drinking according to abrar alvi and he was so talented yet cut it short due to his drinking and over-perception according to the movie included on the yash raj dvd!
Ohhh yves, great for joining the Guru Dutt train of self-destruction and great movies, I adored this movie, it was sooo great and it was a very true to life role for Meena Kumari who was sloshed most of the time during this movie! And guru and waheeda's chemistry is soo cute and romantic!

Hi Rum,
Nice to read your message: what makes you say that Guru Dutt's train is one of self-destruction? I am also wondering if your "sooo" aren't a little ironic? Am I guessing wrong?
Take care

Haha- I love Rehman, Guru Dutt and Waheeda unquestionably- even though Rehman was villanous here, and in so many other movies :)Seriously, I think Guru Dutt was brilliant here- he would somehow drive the movie, and yet somehow not be front and center- I think Waheeda appears at her prettiest with him. Trouble is he left too few movies behind :S

I agree with what you say. Guru Dutt does pull off a very nice actor's performance. As for Waheeda Rehman, I found her even more enticing in Pyaasa... But in that film, I didn't like Guru Dutt's
acting, he was too gloomy.

Thats the sad part- I absolutely agree with you that its a beautiful movie- but I cannot reconcile myself to Meena's character's sacrificies- she gets nothing out of it! Her love and sacrifices are just hers-  Rehman's character has no "giving"- just taking!I am being brutal perhaps to demand that her sacrifice should have been for something real- if Rehman at least loved her, and stuck around for her I would be OK w/ it.  Rehman's character gives her nothing but a few hrs of his time :(I always get caught up in these discussions with u!- probably because your writings are truly v thought provoking :)

Ha, that's nice of you...
But you know, come to think of it, I'd say Rehman truly "gives" her nothing: he just takes, 100% takes. She won those hours out of him purely because she was clever enough to do what she knew he
wanted her to do... That's why I said she wasn't disinterested. And why for me Rehman's character is such a monster in the film! BTW, this must have been hard for you to accept, seeing as you
actually once had a *crush* on him :-)

I think this is a v well made movie, but I have trouble loving it because of all the subjagation of women portrayed- it is just hard for me to watch. Especially when Meena becomes an alcoholic just to please Rehman! Even the supposedly independent Waheeda isnt really independent, I dont think. Therefore watching this once was enough for me- I dont think I'll see it again in the near future. Guru Dutt's vision is unparalleled though- and yes, until you clarified, I really did think it was entirely his movie!

Hi Shweta,
Thanks for visiting. I was a little surprised by your remark, because I enjoyed the film so much I didn't one second envisage it would pose such a problem for other viewers... But I was just
carried away by enthusiasm!
It is indeed painful to watch any woman debase herself like Choti Bahu does in the movie. Still, don't you agree that she does it out of love? And that because of that, her defilement becomes a
sort of beautiful sacrifice? Perhaps you'll tell me she's not quite disinterested, and that's true. Still, we have to put ourselves into the social and historical context: today's (very natural and
sound) feminist rejection of such a sacrifice might in fact be anachronistic.
What do you think?