Making the Cut in Pakeezah: Behind-the-scenes of one of Bollywood’s most elaborate musicals

The ethereal Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (1971)

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.

A very convenient camera angle…

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.

For more information on the classic film, check out our page dedicated to the immortal dialogue from Pakeezah and the songs from Pakeezah!

- Mrs. 55

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12 thoughts on “Making the Cut in Pakeezah: Behind-the-scenes of one of Bollywood’s most elaborate musicals

  1. Pakeeza is my favourite Hindi movie of all time. The songs are of course widely acknowledged as classics…it’s one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever, but what is often understated is stellar quality of the actual movie. Unlike most hindi movies (certainly most contemporary hindi movies) the script is remarkable for the subtlety and nuance employed. Each line delivered is powerful and conveys meaning. E.g when meena kumari’s friend states ‘yeh payaam tumhaare liye nahin heh….us waqt tumhare paon me ghungru nahi bandhe the)..i.e. this message is not intended for you..the ghungru (dancing anklets) were not bound around your feet then.

    While the movie in a sense was Kamal Amrohi’s ultimate tribute to Meena Kumari, and she has most of the screen time (and gives a top-notch performance)…what is also often understated is Raaj Kumar’s powerful role and performance…he is THE man….ever since I saw the movie he’s been my ideal of the romantic hero…extremely shareef, chivalrous, generous hearted, and courageous, he is his own man. The scene where he takes her to his home, and takes on his grandfather, is powerful. When they’re standing at the bridge near the waterfall, and she confesses …’ki main ek tawaif hun’ and falls at his feet sobbing, his pause, and the tender way in which he picks her up and comforts her, stirrs your heart.

    Also, the movie is incredibly authentic in how its portrays North Indian muslim upper-middle class culture of that era. We only see 10 minutes or so of Saleem Ahmad Khan’s (raaj kumar’s) family…and yet the portrayal is incredibly authentic and not overstated. I could go on forever about the movie…as I stated its my favourite hindi movie of all time…..really wish I could learn more about it..the inside scoop…lol…but maybe what i would learn would actually detract from the movie,..e.g. such as the making of teh ‘chalo dildar chalo…chand ke paar chalo song)…It si unfortunate that so little of this stuff is documented….anyways I adore Raaj Kumar because of this movie….there is something truly sublime about it.

    • Thank you for the wonderful comments! We absolutely agree–Raajkumar’s role in this film is often overshadowed by Meena, but he deserves at least as much credit for his stellar performance (and let’s not forget devastating good looks!) The only other film that I think captures some similar cultural aspects is Guru Dutt’s “Chaudhvin Ka Chand.” He notoriously researched subtleties of expression, language, and atmosphere of Lucknowi Muslim society from that time in making the film (although it is obviously a very different movie from Pakeezah!)

      Stay tuned for coming posts on songs of Pakeezah as well as classic dialogue!

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