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!