At a time when the nation is gearing up to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, feature films in particular, it seems to indulge a bit in nostalgia and revisit some of the gems produced from time-to-time, and recalling untold stories about their makings wouldn’t be a bad idea altogether. Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam—based on Bimal Mitra’s famous Bengali novel by the same name and directed and by Abrar Alvi—will certainly go down in Indian film history and will certainly be counted as one of them. For the uninitiated, a lot of planning goes into the making of any film, especially a classic before even the first shot is okayed. And right casting is certainly one of them. The novel had first been adapted for screen in the original by Kartick Chattopadhyay (1956) with Uttam Kumar as Bhootnath and Sumitra Devi as Chhoti Bahu.
Shashi Kapoor had been the original choice for Bhootnath’s role but when he couldn’t dole out bulk dates even Biswajit had been considered an option, but eventually once again—like he had for Pyaasa when Dilip Kumar turned down the offer—took on the mettle himself. Similarly, it is believed that Meena Kumari had also refused the role but when the second choice Nargis did not accept the offer, he managed to persuade her and it made all the difference to the film because despite her talent, the latter wouldn’t have brought the necessary pathos for which the former had been famous. Waheeda Rehman, who essayed the role of Jabba, is on record that she had herself wanted to play Chhoti Bahu, and when no amount of reasoning could convince her, Guru Dutt and cameraman VK Murthy “made me do a photo session in which I was dressed up as Chhoti Bahu in a Bengali saree and with a round tika on the forehead. When Murthy looked at the final prints he expressed his reservations (she still looked a young girl while the role demanded a mature woman)…Looking back, Guru Duttji rightly convinced me that I wasn’t the apt choice for the Bibi’s role. When I saw the complete film, I realised I wasn’t old enough to play Chhoti Bahu.”
Amongst the other changes warranted were replacements of SD Burman by Hemant Kumar, and Sahir Ludhianvi by Shakeel Badayuni. Nobody talked of what could have transpired. Unsure, and somewhat superstitious after the failure of Kaagaz ke Phool, Guru Dutt invited Satyen Bose to wield the megaphone but when he declined the offer, Nitin Bose was requested to come on board. When that too did not work, on hindsight, against counsel otherwise, he offered it to his scriptwriter, Abrar Alvi whom he had otherwise wanted to essay a small role which ultimately went to Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Amongst other changes was the climax scene, Bhoothnath and Jabba go away in a carriage while in the original they do not meet at all.
Once entrusted with the job, Abrar not only wanted to replace Waheeda with either Geeta Bali or Madhubala he wasn’t even keen on Guru Dutt playing Bhootnath, to essay which role the actor-producer-director shaved off his trademark moustache. So keen was Alvi to get Waheeda out of sight that he completed her work in the first schedule itself. Chhaya Arya, a Bengali actor who had enacted Chhoti Bahu in the Bengali original, then living in London, had been the first choice, but when that did not work, the only other actor who bring about the intensity and pathos required was Meena Kumari.
For location shoot Guru Dutt had zeroed down on a village called Dhanporia, forty miles from Calcutta, with a decaying haveli, ideal for Chhoti Bahu’s indoor sequences. Necessary structural changes in and around the place were deployed.
While scenes and shots, even songs are pruned or deleted after a theatrical release, but this was one of those rare films where scenes were reshoot between Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) and Chhote Babu (Rehman) and a whole song Sahil ki taraf kishti le chal (pictrurised on her and Bhoothnath) because it seemed to suggest physical intimacy. And although it was, sans the song, part of Bimal Mitra’s narrative its visual interpretation could have been misleading to cinema viewers, affecting box office potential. Eventually, this went on to become the banner’s biggest success. It won four Filmfare awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Meena Kumari), Best Cinematography; and an equal number of nominations, Best Actor (Guru Dutt), Best Supporting Actor (Rehman), Best Supporting Actress (Waheeda Rehman), and Best Story (Bimal Mitra). It also won the Silver Medal at the National Film Awards, as well as a nomination for the Golden Bear Award for Best Picture at the Berlin Film Festival, 1963. It has since assumed a cult status in the annals of Hindi cinema.
Although technically Abrar Alvi was asked to direct, Guru Dutt did not ease his control, from selecting location to supervise every little detail, and providing creative inputs wherever necessary because more than the director he trusted cinematographer VK Murthy (though Alvi’s version seems to indicate that he wanted the director-to-be vary of his suggestions) in disallowing anything substandard. Differences in shot takings apart, it would have been sacrilegious to expect Guru Dutt to entrust picturisation of songs in his film to anybody else. It was an acknowledged fact that when it came to lensing song sequences, he had no peers.
The film starts with the flashback of a middle-aged architect roaming the narrow bylanes of Calcutta before coming to a halt, a soundtrack echoing in his subconscious, in front of a building in ruins and a voice edging him on, and a female form in silhouette in the distance. He is Bhoothnath back to the place with memories of his youth still vivid, leading to his first encounter with Chhoti Bahu. He is shocked to see not only the haveli in a devastated state, and Chhoti Bahu a chronic alcoholic who asks him to accompany her to a nearby holy place in a carriage which is attacked, injuring Bhoothnath gravely. On regaining consciousness he is informed about the disappearance of Chhoti Bahu, and the demise of her husband. Resuming excavation he is told about a skeleton in the ruins in the haveli that once stood as a symbol for aristocracy. One look at the pieces of jewellery reveals to him the truth.
By Suresh Kohli