The Raaj Kumar love continues here with this lovely Muslim social drama about marriage and gender relations. A big thank-you to my friend Raja and his friend Bharat for getting the dvd all the way from India to my doorstep! Films about women’s status in society and the choices they are given (or not) often disturb me or just plain make me angry. This one disappointed me—it came this close to being a true winner, and then failed—but was better than most from this era all the same (I’ll talk more about it with spoilers at the end).
Mere Huzoor is justly famed for its songs by Shankar Jaikishan, and happily were also subtitled as the lyrics (Hasrat Jaipuri) are lovely too. A big reason I love Muslim socials are the sets and costumes, and they don’t let me down here either! Mala is pretty good until she lets it all hang out at the end (which is highly entertaining all the same), Jeetendra is handsome although bland; it is Raaj Kumar who makes this worth watching though. He is wonderful as the misunderstood and melancholic Nawab who lives life on his own terms. He is such a strangely attractive man, odd wig and all!
Set in Lucknow, the story revolves around a love triangle between Nawab Salim (Raaj Kumar), whose wealth allows him the luxury of a life immersed in dancing girls, horses, tennis and other pleasures; beautiful Sultanat (Mala Sinha, who looks really lovely in this); and Akhtar Hussain Akhtar (Jeetendra), a poet who had once saved the Nawab’s life and has now come to him looking for a job.
On the train to Lucknow, Akhtar has been smitten by a pretty girl after seeing her face reflected in a mirror (she lifts her burkha in order to read a book, thinking her back is safely turned). Subhan Allah!
This leads to poetic ecstasy on his part in the form of a song: “Rukh Se Zara Naqab Utha Do Mere Huzoor.” It is used as a theme throughout, so thank goodness it’s as beautiful as it is! Sultanat is returning home to Lucknow after visiting relatives.
The Nawab welcomes Akhtar warmly and gives him a job. Akhtar has another friend living in Lucknow, the Comic Side Plot in the form of poet Pyarelal (Johnny Walker). Another nice thing about this film is that the CSP actually helps to carry the movie’s themes along instead of going off on a completely different tangent. Plus, Johnny is funny. He always makes me laugh.
It turns out that Pyare lives across the street from Doctor Hakim (KN Singh) and his daughter—who happens to be Sultanat. How fortuitous!
Sultanat is a friend of the Nawab’s sister Shama (Surekha), and he runs smack into her on his way out to play tennis one morning. Like most films of this type, women adhere to purdah on a pretty flexible basis (I call it Purdah Lite): Sultanat is coming in from outside, having taken off her burkha, and conveniently meets the Nawab so he has a chance to see her face and fall head over heels for her (which of course he does) before she demurely “covers up” with the racket.
The Nawab, as I’ve said, has a certain reputation for debauchery and earlier in the film has made his feelings on the shackles of marriage quite clear to his dear Chachaji (David), a man with a magnificent mouche when he is out and about:
but not so much at home with his strident wife (Manorama):
Chachaji and Manorama have a pretty daughter (Zeb Rehman) who is the object of Pyare’s affections, a situation which drives the CSP on a parallel with Akhtar’s pursuance of Sultanat. She is involved in a committee of women formed:
This makes me laugh and laugh: “Tight-pant-wale loafer street Romeos se…” she says furiously. This humor is very welcome, because I am feeling sorry for my poor Nawab, whose new-found love for Sultanat seems doomed: she appears to be falling for the charming and romantic (although dull dull dull to me at least) Akhtar.
(She doesn’t LOOK happily in love I realize, but that’s just Mala.)
And indeed, when the Nawab (not knowing of Akhtar’s feelings for her) sends a proposal of marriage to Sultanat’s father, the doctor turns it down because of the Nawab’s reputation (I think, although he may also realize his daughter is in love elsewhere), even though the Nawab has promised to give up all his vices. He is shattered by the refusal, and my heart breaks for him.
He returns to his dancing girls and drinking, and installs a somewhat creepy life-size statue of Sultanat in his home. I still feel very sad for him though.
Akhtar works up the courage to ask Sultanat’s father for her hand as well—and is accepted. When the Nawab discovers that his protege and friend is also his rival in love, he generously swallows his sorrow and bestows a nice house for the newlyweds to live in and showers them with money. Pyare gets married to his beloved as well, giving the filmmakers a chance for those hen-pecked husband jokes that annoy me, although actual married people often seem to enjoy them.
Years pass, and Sultanat and Akhtar have a boy (Master Ripple). They live next to the Nawab, who alleviates his loneliness with Akhtar’s friendship and treats their son as his own: the child spends long happy hours playing there. Akhtar and Sultanat are now apt to quarrel as all married people with children seem to, and she’s annoyed when he spends time with his and Pyare’s friend Murda (Ram Mohan)—with good reason.
Murda is not a very nice man, and furthermore he acts as a pimp for a manipulative and greedy courtesan in town named Firdaus (Indira Billi). Akhtar resists her artful flattery and advances at first, but it doesn’t take long before he is completely bowled over by her and begins spending all his late nights with her, giving her expensive jewelry into the bargain.
When Sultanat finds out about Akhtar’s betrayal (he comes home drunk and embraces her, calling her Firdaus) she is heartbroken, but also angry. The Nawab tries to intervene on her behalf and make Akhtar see sense, but it’s impossible. When he confronts her for dragging the Nawab into it, they quarrel, which culminates in him divorcing her by talaq. His mother (Praveen Paul) tries to stop him, but Sultanat herself defiantly accepts the divorce and tells him to get out. I nearly fall off my chair in surprise and delight at this development! I also have to pity poor Master Ripple: Hindi film bachche spend a good deal of time with their faces crushed against various spangled and bejewelled grownups, and it’s got to hurt a little.
His father’s desertion causes little Munna to come down with a serious fever as well, and when the Nawab spends days on end at Sultanat’s house nursing her son, the busybody men in the neighborhood start gossiping (but at least it’s the men doing it and not the women!).
I wonder if one of them (specifically the guy in the purple vest) might be our elusive Nazir Kashmiri? But I can’t tell for sure…In any case, they attack the Nawab next time he visits. Both Sultanat and her mother-in-law are horrified, and MIL suggests a solution: Sultanat should marry the Nawab. I completely agree, but Mala goes into a full-on dramatic seizure at this. It’s quite fun, except probably for poor Master Ripple, who is smashed again and wept on.
Did Mala and Shyam Kumar ever act together? Because that is something I would like to see.
When she calms down she agrees to marry the Nawab—but across town, her ex-husband discovers Firdaus’ perfidy when Murda finds her a new rich young thing to exploit and play with.
This is probably a good time to insert a SPOILER alert: I won’t give the actual events and ending away, but in order to talk about why the film somewhat succeeds but ultimately disappoints requires some giveaway detail.
So—you’ve been warned! *SPOILERS*
I was thrilled and delighted when Sultanat’s wedding to the Nawab does take place. The Nawab makes no demands on her (which is difficult for him since he still loves her) and is a good father to her Munna. And if the story had allowed them to eventually find their way to each other, how much I would have loved this movie. Sultanat does come to love the Nawab—but they are never allowed to be happy. This seems so unfair to me, and undoes the good that the rest of the events playing out have done. The husband who strayed is punished—check; the man who is good and honorable gets his heart’s desire—almost—check; and the woman…well, there’s the rub. She is not allowed to have a new relationship with the good man. She did nothing wrong herself, but new happiness is still denied her. She is forced to remain chaste and “faithful” to the man who betrayed her. This, needless to say, pisses me off, and it seems like total cowardice on the part of the filmmakers. It completely negates the power that the movie could have had, and should have had. Huge FAIL. Sigh.
*END SPOILERS* (Although beware if there are comments because they might contain them.)
Still, there is a lot to love in this. The story is interesting and doesn’t track predictably even with its major let-down at the end. I love the songs, the poetry (Johnny Walker is hilarious), the outfits, the candelabras, the hookahs…and Raaj Kumar. He is just totally compelling. And he gets a Laxmi Chhaya dance (with Madhumati):
Mere huzoor, indeed.