This masterpiece, which took close to 14 years to make, is a surprisingly dynamic movie for its times. Dealing with issues such as identity, societal pressures, family and tabooed love, this movie broke many barriers with its courageous depiction of the figure of a Tawaif at its center. Sahibjaan, born to a brothel dancer Nargis, is taken up by her aunt after her mother dies in a graveyard, having been spurned by her lover’s family.
Years later Sahibjaan’s father receives a letter that Nargis had written to him 17 years ago, containing the news of the existence of his daughter. We are introduced to Sahibjaan as she replaces her mother in the epicenter of the ‘mohalla,’ pointing fingers at her destiny as she dances to ‘Inhi Logon Ne.’ Soon after her father arrives at the mohalla in search of her, Nargis’s sister takes her away from his distrustful presence to… guess what?
That’s right, another brothel. On her journey to this particular shithole, her sleeping feet encounter a handsome young man called Salim on the train. He leaves her a poetic letter entangled between her toes, which she (quite painfully) reads out more than five times in the course of the movie. After a few more beautiful performances, she finds herself on a boathouse with a rich and arrogant man. The boat is attacked by elephants, and she is drifted away safely and directly into her mystery lover’s arms.
Their romance progresses as they are united, separated and reunited in bizarre ways. The one thing that doesn’t change is Sahibjaan’s past, which follows her wherever she goes. Men follow her like ghosts, reminding her of who she is and has been all her life. In a particularly vulnerable scene, Salim asks her about a man they encounter.
“Kis kis ka naam poochoge aap?” she asks, silencing him.
She begins to equate her identity with her profession as a Tawaif, and the voices in her head refuse to leave her at peace with her lover. Unable to deal with the mental turmoil inside her, she spurns Salim and flees to return to her destined place, the ‘mehfil.’ In a heartbreaking climax, she is asked to perform at Salim’s wedding as a Tawaif, and she dances like a woman possessed. The irony lies in the fact that her lover, father and aunt are all present to watch her entertain her own family. Her feet bleed on the broken shards of glass, but the physical pain does nothing to injure her. She has become a live corpse. Her profession has allowed her body to live on, but her soul is dying, dancing one last time to bid goodbye to her lover.
Of course, after a few dramatic occurrences (like the death of Sahibjaan’s father), all is revealed and the lovers are reunited with the promise of marriage. Pakeezah, as she is named by Salim, walks away with her new life, away from the miseries of the previous one. The christening of the Tawaif is an essential part of the movie, as she is given a name which symbolizes purity of heart. In the end, then, the purity of the soul is weighed above the impurity of the body, and all is forgiven.
‘Pakeezah’ is a touching movie about a woman’s struggles to overcome her past identity in order to begin a new journey of self discovery, happiness and love. The film, released in 1972, has managed to touch millions of hearts and is a must-watch for any Bollywood enthusiast.
My rating- 4 on 5.