Few films have more behind-the-scenes gossip and excitement than Pakeezah (1971). If you know anything about classic Hindi film songs, you’ve probably heard some part of the Pakeezah soundtrack from director Kamal Amrohi’s 1971 legend. The film stars tragedy queen Meena Kumari as Pakeezah and gorgeous, gravely-voiced Raajkumar in a story of unforgiving traditional values that collide with the forbidden love of a pure-hearted courtesan. In an ironic twist, Pakeezah is revealed at the climax to be the hero’s long lost cousin, thus at last sanctioning their marriage (the ethical complexities of this kicker are a whole different issue.) But the movie itself is pure cinematic magic–Kamal Amrohi was notorious for his artistry and attention to detail. Pakeezah’s breath-taking production design, Ghulam Muhammed’s haunting semi-classical thumris, and the effortless poetry of the film’s dialogue is like entering one long, opium-induced dream.
But what was happening beneath the surface? A whole lot of drama.
Director Kamal Amrohi married Meena Kumari when she was 19 years old in 1952. They began filming Pakeezah within a few years–in fact, the song Inhi Logon Ne (raga Yaman) was filmed and edited before Amrohi switched to coloured film stock. The 1956 black-and-white version of the song was never used, but many of the shots are extremely similar to the final version. Notice how different young Lata’s voice sounds in this song compared to parts of the soundtrack recorded years later. Even more interestingly, Inhi Logon Ne was originally taken from the film Himmat (1941) in a version sung by none other than Shamshad Begum!
My favorite non-Lata song from the film is, Nazariyan Ki Maari, sung by 1930s playback singer Rajkumari Dubey. During production, when Naushad spotted Rajkumari singing in his chorus to make ends meet (and this is a woman who had been first female playback singer of India!), he reportedly caused an uproar and gave his former collaborator her own solo. This is why we love Naushad.
Pakeezah took over 14 years to complete, mainly because of the famously tumultuous relationship between Kamal and Meena (and her eventual alcoholism). Rumor has it that Meena was such a hot mess during the filming of Chalo Dildar Chalo, Amrohi cut her out and reworked the shot list so that her face is actually never seen in the song. Her condition became so bad that during the filming of the grueling emotional mujraa “Teer-e Nazar,” Meena Kumari collapsed. A body double, none other than filmi vamp Padma Khanna, was recruited to replace her! Meena Kumari personally trained her for the scene, and the song was filmed with the majority of the dancing done with an opaque chunni hiding Padma’s face! I would’ve killed to be a yes-man on that set and drink in all the gossip.
Speaking of which, did you know the beautiful Mohammed Rafi-Lata Mangeshkar duet, Chalo Dildar Chalo (raga Pahadi), was actually also recorded as a female solo? Intended for use as a dancing number, the fascinating solo version was cut from both the film and record releases, although in my opinion, coupling the theme of romantic freedom in the lyrics with the close-up imagery of a ghungroo-bound Pakeezah could have been beautiful filmic irony. But it just didn’t make the cut.
And you know what else got cut from this film? I mean, literally, cut off. Turns out Meena Kumari was actually missing her left pinky from an accident that occurred around the time of her marriage! For a film that is so heavily focused on music and dancing, you can imagine that structuring every tiny shot and dance move to hide the left hand was tricky–but if you watch the film closely, Amrohi does a meticulous job of making sure her left hand stays hidden. And Meena Kumari’s right hand works such graceful magic, I dare you to find a prettier dancer with all 10 fingers.
- Mrs. 55