Literature translated into cinema has a special appeal. It is always fascinating to see how an author’s imagination gets re-created on screen and to see if one’s visualisation (as a reader) matches up with the actual visuals.
In two of my posts last week, I listed songs from the 1962 Guru Dutt classic movie, Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam. A movie that I enjoyed very much when I watched it when older (I distinctly remember not liking the movie in my younger days, despite the fact that it was a period movie – it was too dark and nuanced for my simple Kashmir-Ki-Kali & Professor-loving mind! But the songs were lovely.) Upon some subsequent viewings later on, this movie did become a much-loved one. So this time, when I was tempted to watch the movie again, I decided to re-read the book instead.
(The cover is from the English translation by Subhash Chandra Sarkar and Sucharita Sarkar published by National Book Trust in 2004)
The movie is based on the 1953 Bengali novel, Saheb Bibi Golam by Bimal Mitra. The novel first appeared in serialized installments in the Bengali newspaper, Desh. The story is set in the last few years of the nineteenth century, rapidly changing Calcutta. It was a world in which feudalism was on the wane, the traditional Bengali society was on the decline and class and caste barriers were being broken. It is a tale of the city that Job Charnock set up in 1690. And on the other, it is a story of two families (very different from each other) seen through the eyes of the main protagonist, who is more of an observer than a classical hero.
The novel begins with a demolition of an old feudal mansion in Banamali Sarkar lane, Calcutta. It is sometime in the twentieth century and the overseer, Bhutnath Chakraborty is haunted by the memories of the past – when this mansion housed not only the great Chowdhury clan but also many different families of people who had been serving this family for generations. The Chowdhury mansion is a microcosm of the upper-class feudal set-up that was on it’s last legs in a city that was increasingly dominated by British colonialism and the rapid industrialisation.
The story then begins (in flashback) – Bhutnath Chakraborty – of village Fatehpur, District Nadia – lands in Calcutta from his small village, in search of employment. Bhutnath has been fascinated by Calcutta for a considerable time by then. He has heard of Calcutta “buildings..rise much higher, thousand times the height of that (Chalita) tree – and where, “atop the tall buildings – ladies (would) gaze down on the road below.” As he lands in the Sealdah station, he is completely wonderstruck by the Calcutta he saw. The reader is made aware that “this was not the 1690s Calcutta of Job Charnock. Neither had the twentieth century begun.” The year later mentioned in the book is 1897. Unsure of where to go, completely overwhelmed by the coaches, the horses, the hustle bustle. He finds his way slowly by evening (after meeting many interesting characters) to Banamali Sarkar lane, which is the address given to him by his brother-in-law, Brajarakhal. Brajarakhal lives in the staff quarters that are a part of this mansion. Bhutnath had not informed Brajarakhal that he was going to come to Calcutta. Standing out, unsure of whether to enter, also daunted by the massive Brij Singh, Bhutnath contemplates walking back to the jilipi wala, Prakash who had not charged him any money because they were from the same village. But he does meet him and enters the staff quarters of this massive mansion.
The reader thus gets an entry along with Bhutnath into the life of this palatial building inhabited by staunch Hindus. Brajarakhal, a follower of Thakur Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Sarada devi, is employed in this building and assures Bhutnath that he would soon help him get a job. And he does – at Mohini Sindoor factory run by Subinoy babu, who is a Brahmo Samaji, for the princely sum of seven rupees a month plus lunch (of course cooked by a Brahmin Maharaj – to Bhutnath’s relief!) This is alsowhere he meets Jaba, Subinoy babu’s lovely, taunting daughter. As he starts work in the Mohini Sindur office, along with him, we get an insight into how this Brahmo Samaj home functioned. He gets to learn more about the magical Mohini-Sindoor, and its powers, and to pack thousands of packets into small packages and send them to far -away packets. The other people working in the factory were non-Bengalis from the north. The lunch routine is described – and we get to witness the tyranny of the cook (who gives Bhutnath very little food) and blames it all on the teasing Jaba! After all, Jaba didi-moni makes a list and takes out the day’s supply for the whole household from the store-room – including staff (servants, clerks) and pets (cows, horses and birds). Bhutnath’s evenings were spent, practising the Tabla, and getting to know from Banshi, the going-ons and the routine at the mansion: how Chhoto-Babu would come so late in the night, that it was always morning and how the educated Chhoto-Ma does not sleep, how Mejo-Karta would come very late too and Mejo-Ginni would be so fast asleep that she wouldn’t get up to open the room door – despite Mejo-karta’s kicks. The eldest Chowdhury brother is long dead and only his orthodox widow (the OCD ish Bara-ma, who keeps washing her hands) lives on.
And then one day, Banshi (Chhoto-Babu’s valet) comes and tells a surprised Bhutnath that Chhoto-bou wanted to meet him that evening. Chhoto-bou was the wife of the youngest Chowdhury brother, who was a degenerate thakur- yes the same one who would come home in the morning. Bhutnath cannot fathom why she would want to meet a strange man like him. It was an eventful day at work for Bhutnath. The tyrannous cook threatens Bhutnath, Jaba overhears it and the truth is out. Poor Bhutnath – Jaba is furious that he did not complain and that he thought that she was behind this tyranny. He comes back and meets some other people, including Beni (Mejo-Karta’s valet), Chhutuk Babu and at the mansion and finds out more about the two Chowdhury brothers’ degenerate lifestyle – spending time conducting pigeon fights and visiting dancers in the evenings. He hears about the exotic Chinese orchid that Bara-karta gifted to the British Governor and was knighted subsequently. Bhutnath has witnessed a procession of Mejo-Karta’s chamchas and his mistress, the dancer Hasini leaving for his lavish parties – either for a boat ride on the Ganga or in the garden house. It was a wonder for the simple Bhutnath that Mejo-ginni is aware of her husband’s profligacy and is fine with it. But then as Beni explains, she was from a rich Thakur family and her father also had a mistress Ranga-ma. Bhutnath also wonders who earns in this household and how – for all he can see, these babus don’t wake up till afternoon and do nothing the whole day.
Bhutnath finally is asked to meet the mysterious Chhoto-Bou on a Sunday. Very unsure as to whether he should, especially in the zenana, Bhutnath does meet her that evening. Banshi tells him about Chhoto-ma, the girl from a poor household, who had been handpicked by the late Bara-babu for his youngest brother, who spends his time with that dancer woman at Janbazar. He is led into the zenana, and we get to see the ladies and their lives in this magnificent but dead household. Bhutnath is taken in by Chhoto-ma’s beauty when he meets her -“Bhutnath had never seen so much of beauty concentrated in one human being. There was a type of beauty that soothed, which pleased the eye, which did not sting the viewer- her beauty was like that.” She asks him to sit down and gives him some sweets to eat. Bhutnath is like a stricken automaton, not reacting, not moving. He eats it and is about to leave, when she asks him if he does not know why he is here. Has Banshi not told him? The simple but lonely Bhutnath instead tells her about his work at Mohini-Sindoor office, the kind Subinoy babu, his pay, the lunch, Jaba’s behaviour, Jaba’s insane mother – everything. Chhoto-bou asks him what a box of Mohini-sindoor costs and handed him five rupees for one box. To his shock, the sad Chhoto-bou tells him of the strange house and how she, a simple poor girl, has landed here, due to sins committed in her past lives and is stuck in this strange world. She has been married into this wealthy family and has servants but lacks the attention and love of her husband. Maybe the magical Mohini-sindur can help? After all she just wants to serve her husband. Fascinated and in a trance, Bhutnath gets back to his quarter and confides in Brajarakhal who warns him, ” Barakutum, they are our masters… we are after all their servants – it is better not to get too friendly with them.”
Days pass; he gets the Mohini-sindur and gives it to Chhoto-bou; goes to see Swami Vivekananda at the station with Brajarakhal where he meets his old school friend Nanilal, who has completely changed.; meets the weird Badrika-babu (who collects watches and studies the passage of time). He is at the same time torn between his emotions for both the enigmatic women he has encountered – the Goddess like Chhoto-ma and the infuriating but pretty Jaba. It is now the twentieth century – the years of Lord Curzon – the outside world witnesses clashes between the freedom fighters and Britishers (in which Bhutnath gets injured and lands up in Subinoy babu’s house), Swami Vivekananda passes away, and so did Jaba’s mother. Subinoy babu has a fit of conscience and is repenting cheating people in the name of the magical Mohini-sindur. Bhutnath is horrified and wondered (as he had done before) about what happened to Chhoto-bou. Obviously it would not have worked. Chhoto-bou is worried about him, having heard about what happened, and sends Banshi with the palanquin to come back to Barabari. Banshi tells him about all the news in Barabari. Banshi takes him back to Barabari where after a couple of days, he meets Chhoto-bou, who asks him to get her some liqour and even though he first refuses, he does. She slowly becomes addicted. Meanwhile, he is called by Subinoy babu who is indisposed and on his death bed.. The date is February 21, 1905. Subinoy babu tells Bhutnath that he has closed the Mohini-Sindur business. Also Jaba is by now betrothed to Supabitra.
It is now that the story picks up pace. The rest of the novel cover the events that follow – both the larger ones affecting the Calcutta society and those that chart the course of the lives of these two women. What happens to Chhoti-Bou and Jaba? Do they find happiness in their respective lives? Bhutnath’s flashback comes to an end, as he goes over this in his mind. The year of the demolition is 1914 and the Calcutta world is much different from the world of the late twentieth century.
Answering these questions and tracing the various character paths (especially of Bhutnath) this brilliant literary masterpiece comes to an end.
The book offers a panoramic view of Calcutta between the years of 1895- 1914, exploring its various facets as it changed over time. It is as much about Calcutta as it is about two women from two different households with contrasting lives. It is vivid in its descriptions of the city and people, filled with interesting and real characters, offering the modern reader a distinct feel of the time and place. The period of the novel covers epochal events in Indian history. Famous personalities and events are covered with the focus strictly on how those affected the common people of this story. What I liked very much was the attention paid to detail – be it characters or events – that makes this a very enjoyable read.
SAHEB, BIBI AUR GHULAM (1962) – THE MOVIE
This novel has been adapted on the silver screen in both Hindi and Bengali. The Hindi version was produced by Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi (who learnt Bengali and read the original and worked on its screenplay) is credited to be the director. (However, people think that Guru Dutt was the director but was so scarred after the debacle of Kaagaz Ke Phool to put his name!) V.K. Murthy was the cinematographer and Hemant Kumar was the music director. (Guru Dutt apparently wanted to repeat the SDB-Sahir combo for this movie, but SDB was sick and Sahir refused.) The film starred Guru Dutt (Bhutnath), Meena Kumari (Chhoti Bahu), Waheeda Rehman (Jaba), Rehman (Chhote-Babu) and Nazir Hussain (Subinoy Babu). Released in 1962, this was a resounding critical and commercial success, winning four Filmfare awards and was nominated for the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
The movie is a faithful and an excellent adaptation of the novel as it focusses on the central story of the Chowdhury household through the eyes of its fascinated observer, Bhutnath. Several non-intrinsic characters and anecdotes have been skipped but by and large it sticks to the novel.
The one major departure from the novel was that Bhutnath reveals his identity as Atul Chakraborty to Jaba and they are shown as being married in the end. One thing captured beautifully on screen was the contrast between the two households (in décor and lighting). The decadent Chowdhury household is dark and gloomy. There is an aura of tragedy with it from the word go. While the Brahmo household of Subinoy babu is lighter, cheerier and more hopeful.
One point that had struck me while watching the movie years ago was Jaba’s characterization. Brought up in a modern Brahmo household of those days, with much freedom, her decision to cut off ties with her betrothed upon learning about her child marriage came across (to me) as discordant. Why would someone like her recognize that child marriage? This has been covered in the book – in much detail. Jaba had been brought up essentially as a Hindu in her grandfather’s village till the time she was ten. And through various conversations we get to know that this played a very important role in her thinking and her opinions.
The translation of this on to the big screen was just perfect – be it the screenplay, cinematography, music or the performances.
Shashi Kapoor was said to be Guru Dutt’s first choice for playing Bhutnath. After reading the book, I agree. He would have fit the role to the T. Bhutnath is a simple village guy, not a cartoon, but an extremely sensitive, perceptive person. While Guru Dutt did portray the character with much love, he was too old by the time the movie was made. Shashi Kapoor would have been a better Bhutnath.
Meena Kumari was Chhoti Bau/Chhoti-Bou. In what was to be the defining role of her career, it is as if she poured in the anguish of her real life into this masterful portrayal.
Waheeda Rehman did a very good job as Jaba – though again, here I personally felt a younger actress would have been better – though cannot name a single actress of that time who could have done this role better!
The music by Hemant da is exceptional – Geeta Dutt pours her heart in the three amazing songs – the haunting Koi door se Aawaz De Chale Aao, the beautiful (and full of longing) Piya Aiso Jiya mein and the tragic Na Jao Saiyaan.
Asha Bhosle is the voice of Jaba and sings two equally amazing songs. Bhanwara Bada Nadaan is teasing in places, sweet in other – perfect. Meri Baat Rahi mere man mein conveys Jaba’s unsaid desires aptly. And then there is the classic mujra picturised on Meenu Mumtaz, Saqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi.
I thought I would watch the movie again after reading the book. But no, the experience of reading this rich cultural masterpiece was fulfilling and enriching in itself that I would rather live with my own imagination (of how the times would have been) than impose Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi’s masterful one on it for the moment. But yes, will surely revisit the classic movie some other day…
The English translation of this great literary work is available for a mere sum of Rs 170. Do read it!