Shahjehan (1946)

This film is nominally about the circumstances which led to the building of the Taj Mahal, although it’s so wildly fictionalized that it bears no resemblance to history’s version of those events. In any case, the plot was the least of the things I was paying attention to. In fact, the things I was paying attention to were far more entertaining, believe me.

I wanted to watch this film for two reasons: because it features the legendary actor and singer K.L. Saigal, whom I’ve never seen; and because Shahjehan is played by one of my favorite actors, Rehman*, in what imdb lists as his first film. I was disappointed on both counts. K.L. Saigal didn’t have much to do except sing a bunch of songs with his arms outstretched:

Occasionally he stumbled as though drunk, which he probably was (this was his next to last film, and he died of alcoholism in 1947). The songs for the most part were pretty though, composed by Naushad.

And I found it v.v. difficult to believe that this was Rehman:

He never did look like Rehman to me, ever. He could have been anybody! Sigh.

Essentially this is the story: A poet (KL Saigal) sees a girl named Ruhi (Nasreen) who is so beautiful that he writes volumes of poetry and songs about her, thus spreading her fame to millions of men. When her father tries to get her married, crowds of would-be suitors show up and create havoc so that the wedding can’t continue; and several of her brothers have been killed trying to protect her.

Her father finally approaches the Emperor in despair, asking him for help. Shahjehan (Rehman) takes the girl in and promises to get her married. Various events combine so that the Emperor accidentally promises her to two different men: the poet who advertised her beauty, and an Iranian sculptor named Shirazi (Jairaj). Shahjehan cannot decide which of his two promises to break, and vows to stay away from his beloved Empress Mumtaz (Ragini) until he does. She pines away for him, and when the poet finally gives up his claim it’s too late and she dies, after requesting a monument to her life that will be “matchless.”

So that’s the plot; here are the things which kept me engaged.

Ruhi’s beauty is described in detail before we ever actually see her (this is just a partial list):

Here she is!

Mumtaz’s favorite court singer Jafiza (Sulochana Chatterjee) is afraid that Shahjehan will cheat on Mumtaz when he sees Ruhi’s great beauty (and she says so endlessly, and ruins several lives through her paranoid machinations). This is Mumtaz.

They look pretty much the same to me (including the rakish tilt of their headgear). I don’t know what Jafiza is so worried about!

Here is Shirazi arriving from Iran and going through Customs & Immigration, Hindustan-style:

And looming larger than anything, in just about every frame, are Giant Ostrich Feather Fans wielded by slaves.

They are often placed right in front of the camera, obscuring the action.

(That’s an entire group of dancers, behind the last one.)

Sometimes this guy was waving a GOFF.

But he had other jobs:

He worked at Customs & Immigration too, but I couldn’t get a good screen cap. Still, he stood out!

The acting was stilted and the actors rarely looked at each other. They mostly declaimed their lines while looking off into the distance (or perhaps at a prompter).

He still doesn’t look like Rehman.

But at least now I can say I’ve seen a KL Saigal film, at least when there was no GOFF in the way.

*Edited to add: He doesn’t look like Rehman, because he isn’t Rehman. His name was Kanwar. See comments below for all the good info!

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36 Comments to “Shahjehan (1946)”

  1. Oh my goodness, those ostrich feathers had me LOL! They must’ve shot this film in a heckuva hurry. So, what Rehman movies *do* you recommend?

  2. Doesnt really look like Rehman but is really really pretty! :-)

    What did you think of Saigal? He is supposed to be the greatest Bollywood singer of all times and is much revered by everybody. I have tried hard to find a song of his that appeals to me – and failed dismally!

  3. Those GOFFs were literally in every scene. They sort of took on a life of their own in a very Tolkien kind of way, if you know what I mean. I pretty much love every film Rehman is in while he’s onscreen, anyway!

    Yes, only for one fleeting minute did I say to myself “Okay that was Rehman” but in general he is so thin and has that heavy beard so it’s not obvious at all. I was underwhelmed by Saigal; he looked very dissipated and decrepit, and didn’t really do much except stand around and sing. His voice doesn’t do much for me either. Maybe some day I can see an earlier film of his, but if this is all there was to him…eh.

  4. “Her forehead shines like the moon”… LOL!

  5. I literally LOLed after all the adulations for Ruhi and then your cap of her! Oh dear. Thanks for braving these ancient waters. The only 40s Hindi I’ve seen so far was your favorite, Raj Kapoor’s Aag, which was VERY silent film melodrama. Don’t know how I’d cope with this! (Though I still want to see that great film you talked about with Frozen Expression of Doom guy. Can’t remember the title anymore!)

  6. I began to really appreciate K L Saigal as an adult, but there are some songs of his that stood out as even as kid…
    My favourite: Babul Mora… (later sung by Jagjit Singh) the poetry in that is incredible and makes me emotional

    Jab Dil Hi toot Gaya…people beyond the Saigal era know this one

    And this scene from Street Singer where he is giving singin lessons!

    If you find it difficult to appreciate his singing, just try singing Babul Mora, for greater effect, record yourself. Styles have changed, but Lata in a recent interview said she felt sad (!!!) that she had not been able to sing like the greats, who she liked to listen to often. When pressed for the names of the greats, she said Saigal, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, etc.

    I think the recording quality of the time also does him some injustice. As for the acting, I agree it was pretty stiff and theatrical in many Hindi films of the era that I have seen.

  7. Anonymous: I know, I don’t think that’s a good thing any more (it’s what powder is for)…

    PPCC: you do shine like a bright light. I hated Aag (incidentally, the first film I wrote about on this blog). You want to see Chandra Mohan in Humayun :-)

    Bawa: Thanks for the links. I do want to give Saigal a chance; I think he didn’t have much to do in this film and also was past his prime a bit. And certainly I can never point fingers at anyone who can carry a tune! The acting is very stiff and theatrical which is actually interesting to me. It shows how the early proponents of more subtle acting (like Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar) were really quite revolutionary. YouTube has a song from this film too, which I really liked: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhHJeZ844Mc

  8. This really made me laugh – I love how you introduced Ruhi (I was honestly expecting a Madhubala-like beauty)… and I’m still laughing at ‘Ruhi is really damn beautiful’. And at your description of Saigal standing around singing with his arms outsretched. And the GOFFs! This (veeerrry old Hindi cinema) is a world I don’t think I’m brave enough to enter… but it’s really interesting to get a glimpse of what it’s like. Glad you were able to enjoy some aspects of the movie, at least.

  9. It’s not bravery, it’s love :-) I really like watching the older films and getting a wider perspective on Hindi cinema. I wish I could find even earlier ones (the silents from the 20s-30s, Fearless Nadia, young Prithviraj Kapoor, etc). Even if I don’t absolutely love them the way I do fluffy 60s romantic comedies or zany 70s masala, they are a nice break…and they have their own charms too!

  10. That they do!! (charms, I mean)

    Wasn’t pointing fingers btw, just that I like Hindustani vocal music, and that helps in appreciating people like Saigal, I guess
    Styles have changed tremendously, and I do not know anyone of my friends family my age who liked Saigal & other singers of that era; it was good I could appreciate other music too, otherwise it would have been very lonesome indeed!

    One fond memory I have from childhood is that of a family friend, now a famous ghazal singer, singing “Meri bhens ko danda kyon mara” in the style of K L Saigal, to have us kids in splits!!

  11. I know that Bawa :-) I am very glad when people who know more than I do help me in my efforts to at least appreciate these aspects of Hindi films. Keep coming back and commenting, I’m very glad that you do!

  12. those Ruhi descriptions are classic! especially her eyes are ‘two glasses of love” she must have milk bottle lenses then! The shahjehan is so not rehman, rehman has a double chin and cute tires since forever, i refuse imdb!

  13. It’s always fun to go back and see how films were made during that transitional time between theatre and film. I wish more early movies had survived… I’d love to see “Fearless Nadia” in action.

    (And those fans are hilarious!)

  14. The character of Ruhi was played by actress Nasreen (real name Zarina Agha) … the mother of Salma Agha. Zarina Agha was the daughter of Rafiq Ghaznavi and his second wife actress Anwari. Ragini (called ah-o-chasham) played Mumtaz Mahal. The story (myth) goes that Rehman was so enamorured by Ragini that he insisted to play the role of Shahjehan in order to get close to her. However, he had no luck and killed himself afterwards in dejection. It was a big hit of its time. Although I like Saigals songs what spoiled the film for me was the accent of the actors … somehow i would never have imagined the great Mughal Emperor and Emperess to speak with broad punjabi accents!

  15. Hi Ameena—so I have the two actresses backwards in my writeup? I went by imdb’s listing, which is not infallible as we all know! I’ll fix the post. Thank goodness Rehman didn’t kill himself afterwards, we would have all been the poorer for it :-) And I guess sometimes it’s better that I can’t tell one accent from another!

  16. The actor who enacted the role of Shahjehan in the film ‘Shahjehan’ was not Rehman, as most of the viewers have said, but an actor named Kanwar. He was a Punjabi actor who acted in some Punjabi films too, ‘Sassi- Punnu’ being one of them.
    As regards K.L. Saigal, he was definitely not a great actor, but certainly a great singer. Very few people know that the songs that we see Saigal singing in the film are different from the songs that Saigal recorded for the gramophone records. He had to act and sing in films at a time when technology was still in its elementary stage.
    Similarly, in his earlier films too, Saigal had to sing while acting, a difficult job, to say the least. But the same songs, when he recorded them in a studio, sounded marvelously great. For instance, the ‘Babul Mora…’ song that we see Saigal singing in ‘Street Singer’ is quite different from the one that he recorded in the studio.
    It is difficult for the present generation, accustomed as it is to the soulless music being churned out the so-called music directors of today, to understand and appreciate the music of the past.
    A.R. Rehman is now considered to be the greatest among the present-day music directors. But can anyone of his songs shall be remembered after fifty years? Totally unlikely. But you can still listen to and enjoy ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya’, ‘Aye ga aane wala’, ‘Jab payar kiya to darna kya’, for these songs sound as charming today as they did sixty years ago.

    A. C. TULI

  17. AC Tuli: Thanks for that info! But I thought Rehman was billed in this film (but maybe he was a background extra somewhere…) :-) And of course you are right re: studio vs. movie singing, although I think that Saigal was by this time nearing the end and it showed. And I have to say that if I am still alive AR Rahman’s music will be very fondly remembered by me, at least! I do believe that his music has staying power. There’s room for a lot of diversity in musical lore!

  18. Let me make it clear that Rehman was nowhere in the film Shahjehan. The girl who enacted the role of Ruhi in the film was named Nasreen, the mother of Pakistani actress Salma Agha. She sings just one song in this picture, ‘Aag lagi dil mein wo pyari, gaane lagi umange saari…’. Nasreen was a good singer. She also sang a few songs in other films.
    Saigal’s songs picturised on him in the film Shahjehan, and the ones that were recorded on gramophone records are different, as clarified by Naushad, the music director of the film.
    If anyone wants to know what sterling qualities Saigal possessed as a singer, he should listen to Saigal’s non-film ghazals and geets. Just listen to his gazal ‘Rehmat pe teri mere gunahon ko naaz hai…’, ‘Mein unhen chhedu aur wo kuchh na kahen..’, ‘Bahut us gali ke kiye herey pherey, yeh jin ke liye tha hue wo na mere’, ‘Idhar phir bi aana udhar jane wale’, ‘Aah ko chahiye ik umar hone tak’ and several other such gems. It is these songs that the ustads of music know make Saigal a great singer.
    Unfortunately, most of the people of the present generation know Saigal just by one song, ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya…’, which is not his best, but just one of his best.

  19. Well KL Saigal was always regarded as a non-actor. He became an actor only because of his voice – those were the pre – playback singing days . I agree with Bawa when he says that the best way to appreciate Saigal’s voice is to record a few lines from one of his songs in your own voice and then compare that with the original (by the way I didnt know that the songs were recorded twice – one version for the movie on the sets and a second version by the gramaphone company).

    Wonder who played Shajehan if it was not Rehman. And Ameena did the actor really kill himself for Ragini. And which Ragini is this (for sure not Padmini’s sister).

  20. It is quite common with the youth of today to curl up their noses when someone mentions KL Saigal. He is regarded a little too old fashioned singer by them. But Saigal’s songs – film songs, bhajans, non-film ghazals, thumris, hori geet et al – are peerless creations. Note his song, ‘Mein kya janoo kya jadoo hai, in do matwale naino mein’ from the film ‘Zindagi’ (1940). In her Shraddanjali albums Lata has paid tribute to Saigal by singing, among others, his this song. Saigal is not considered to be a tenor singer; he is regarded as a baritone. But the casual ease with which he could sing even high-pitched songs is remarkable. In the SAREGAMA programme formerly conducted by Sonu Nigam, one contestant tried to sing Saigal’s ‘Mein kya janoo kya jadoo hai’ when Naushad was in the chair as judge. He was a good singer, but when it came to singing the high-pitched line of the song, ‘ab nain basen ge naino mein’, his voice cracked. Then, there is a non-film ghazal by Saigal, ‘Ai bekhabriye dil ki diwana bana dena’. Saigal’s voice scales Everestian heights when he sings the line, ‘Tamheede kharabi ki taqmeele kharabi hai..’, without losing its pristime sweetness.
    Bluelotus in his comments has said he wonders who played Shahjehan in the film ‘Shahjehan’. As I said in my earlier comments, the actor who enacted the role of Shahjehan in the eponymous film was Kanwar, not Rehman. Anyone who has seen ‘Shahjehan’ must have noticed that the chap who plays the role of the Mughal king is unusually tall – more than six feet tall. But actor Rehman, if you have seen his films, was hardly five feet six. So, how can the two be confused?
    As regards actress Ragini who performed the role of Mumtaz Mahal in the film, she remained in India even after the Partition of the country. She migrated to Pakistan in the early 50s. Rehman who had never acted with her could not possible be her admirer.

  21. As I said in my earlier comments, the actor who played the role of Shahjehan in the eponymous film was not Rehman, but Kanwar. Kanwar had acted in a number of films of the 40s, his most successful being the Punjabi film ‘Sassi Pannu’, in which he played the hero and the heroine was Ragini.
    Anyone who has seen ‘Shahjehan’ should know that Kanwar who plays the role of Shahjehan in the film is fairly tall, around six feet two. Actor Rehman, on the other hand, was just medium height, hardly five feet six. So, there is absolutely no reason to confuse one with the other.
    Bluelotus says he did not know that the songs in the olden days were recorded twice. In fact, technology was then in its elementary stage. In the films of the 30s, an actor-singer had to sing while acting, a grueling job considering that studios in those days were not air-conditioned. Take, for instance, Saigal’s song, ‘Dukh ke ab din beetat nahin’ from the film ‘Devdas’. In the film Saigal sang this song while enacting the scene in which it figures. With powerful studio lights focused on him, he had to sing while the director must have called, ‘Cut’ a number of times. So, obviously, even a great singer could not give his best under such conditions. But when the same song was recorded on the gramophone disc in a proper studio under ideal conditions, the result was excellent. If you don’t believe my word, then listen to the above- mentioned song on Youtube and then on the or tape or DVD. There is a vast difference between the two versions.

  22. I have seen three kl saigal movies, Tansen, Parwana and Shahjehan. Now I understand why he is regarded as the Tansen of 20th century. After listening to his filmi and non-filmi songs,ghazals, thumries and bhajans I am absolutely sure that kl saigal is the greatest singer ever lived in India. I am a great fan of Rafi, kishore and Mukesh and enjoy their songs but when I listen to Saigal, become mesmerised by the fact that how he was able to sing so deftly and masterfully the most difficult tunes which others can’t even dream to sing.

  23. Can someone give me the wording of ghazal ‘Rehmat pe teri mere gunahon ko naaz hai’ sung by k.l.saigal?

  24. ‘Rehmat pe teri…’ is one of Saigal’s great ghazals. A critic once said that if Saigal had sung just this ghazal and not any other, he would have achieved immortality as a singer. What is truly noteworthy about this ghazal is that it is not just Saigal’s hyponotizing voice that keeps us under its spell, it is also his remarkable breath control. Listen to each stanza carefully and then you will find what I am saying. As regards the wording of this ghazal, well, I am giving it hereunder, though I am not very sure about the correctness of the first stanza.
    ‘Rehmat pe teri mere gunahon ko naaz hai,
    banda hoon janta hoon tu banda nawaz hai!
    Palti jidhar ada lubha dhale khoo ke khoo
    Hoshiar pehar ki nigahen neembaaz hai!
    Ke do yeh sangdil se ke tera sang-e-aazda,
    Yeh dekh let kis ki jabeen-e-niyaaz hai,
    Moonh par lagi mohre khamoshi mein kya kahoon,
    Jo mot ne kaha hai wo hasti ka raaz hai,
    Rehmat pe meri…

  25. Saigal was better in the 1930s; my favorite song by him is “Ek Bangla Bane Nyara” from the film President. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QwnFzxnMj0&feature=related

    • I haven’t seen President but the from the clips on youtube — it looks interesting dealing with modern issues of industrialization and all that. It’s also the inspiration for ‘Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi’.

  26. I see that no one noticed one little thing about this movie… Guru Dutt pays an uncredited cameo… He’s wearing a terrible beard and moustache (not so sure about the mooch), and has one line! it was definitely the only highlight for me, except for the wonderful music of course.

    • Really? Can you send me a screencap of him? I didn’t see him, although I wasn’t looking for him either.

      • I was shocked (and pretty excited) to see him as well. Unfortunately, I dont have a copy of the movie with me at present, but I will look for one and try to get a screenshot. I love spotting stars in their early roles… I once saw Leela Mishra as a dancer in a very old movie…. can’t remember the name unfortunately.

        • I found a blurry print on youtube… can still kinda make out its GD. Whats your email… or how do i send the screen shots to you. Or if you want you can look at the movie on youtube or veoj, he comes on screen at around 34 mins or so, just after Shahjahan makes his announcement and the only word he says is “Namumkin” and shakes his head. BTW, I was wrong about the beard and right about the moustache.

          • email is memsaabstory at gmail dot com (surprise!) :) I will see if I can find it, but send screencaps if you have them, I’ll add to the post if they are clear :)))

  27. Recently, I happened to listen to a song called ‘Saigal Blues’ from the film ‘Delhi Belly’. It has been sung by someone called Chetan Sashital and composed by Ram Sampath. It is supposed to have been sung in the style of Saigal. The singer thinks his voice bears a close resemblance to Saigal’s and the composer claims that he has tried to modernize orchestration but retain the original spirit of the Saigal era.
    I think perhaps Chetan Sashital has never bothered to listen to Saigal with concentration. In the Delhi Belly song his voice sounds more like that of Chandru Atma, the unsuccessful brother of C H Atma, than that of Saigal. In the Delhi Belly song, there is not an iota of resemblance between the voice of the imitator and the voice of the original great singer. So, I would say that this song is not a tribute to the memory of Saigal. On the contrary, the singer and the composer of Saigal Blues have derided Saigal but utterly failed because Saigal never sang like that.

  28. U can watch Saigal’s street singer. The song babul mora is pretty good and i think his Tansen is pretty watchable, mainlybcoz of his songs

  29. Dear Mr Arjun Narayan.
    You have referred to ‘Babul mora hayihar chhuto jaye..from ‘Street Singer’. Let me explain how this song was recorded. Street Singer’ came in 1938. In those days singer-actors had to sing while acting because the technique of recording a song separately in a recording studio and then transferring it to the sound track of the film was not yet developed. So, the cinematographers and music composer’s instrumentalists were made to sit in an open truck and Saigal, holding a harmonium in his hands, came behind on foot, singing this immortal song as he walked along. Can one sing as one walks along holding a harmonium. It certainly tells upon the quality of his singing.
    But Saigal got this song recorded in the recording studio of New Theatres under proper conditions. And that was the song that was released for selling in the market. So, if you want to enjoy this song.then listen to it as it is audio tapes or on discs. This song is considered as one of his masterpieces.
    A.C. TULI

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