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. Upperstall.com 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.