A wonderful Bengali novel that inspired a Bollywood classic : read the book, then watch the movie!
Literature translated into cinema has a special appeal. It is always fascinating to see how an author’s imagination gets re-created on screen; it’s even more fun to match one’s visualization of the book as a reader with the cinematic version.
One book-to-movie rendition from Indian cinema that I have enjoyed immensely is the 1962 Guru Dutt classic, Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, which is based upon the 1953 Bengali novel, Saheb Bibi Golam by Bimal Mitra. So when the temptation to re-watch the film came over me recently, I decided to read the English translation of Mitra’s work instead.
This cover is from the English translation by Subhash Chandra Sarkar and Sucharita Sarkar published by National Book Trust in 2004
The novel first appeared in serialized installments in the Bengali newspaper, Desh. The story depicts late 19th century/ early 20th century Calcutta – a time where the rise of British colonialism was accompanied by a slow dismantling of the caste and class barriers that were thus far deeply entrenched into Bengali society.
The year is 1914 and an old feudal mansion is being demolished in Calcutta’s Banamali Sarkar Lane. Bhutnath Chakraborty, its overseer, is haunted by memories of the great Chowdhury clan and the people who served the family for generations.
Flashback to 1897, when Bhutnath first came to Calcutta in search of work, awestruck by the “buildings.. (that) rise much higher, thousand times the height of that (Chalita) tree”. Somehow, he makes his way to Banamali Sarkar Lane, where he hopes to get a job with the help of Brajarakhal, his brother-in-law, who is in the service of the Chowdhurys.
Brajarakhal gets Bhutnath employed in a sindoor factory run by Subinoy Babu, a staunch Brahmo Samaji, for the princely sum of seven rupees a month. It is Bhutnath’s first encounter with the real world, a world in which the magical powers of Mohini Sindoor and Jaba, Subinoy Babu’s beautiful and sharp-tongued daughter, hold equal sway over Bhutnath. Most of Bhutnath’s co-workers are non-Bengalis from the north, and it is Banshi, valet to Chhoto-Babu ( the youngest Chowdhury brother), who brings him gossip from the Haveli : of his master’s nocturnal excursions while his wife (Chhoto-Bou) awaits his return; of Mejo-Karta and Mejo-Ginni (middle brother and his wife) and of Bara-Ma, the deeply orthodox widow of the eldest Chowdhury brother.
One day, Banshi informs a surprised Bhutnath that Chhoto-Bou wants to meet him that evening. The vacuous lives of the Haveli’s owners is unveiled to Bhutnath – the degenerate Chowdhury brothers who spend the day conducting pigeon fights and the night visiting dancers; the wealthy Mejo-Ginni who appears indifferent to her husband’s profligacy and the Macbethian Bara-Ma who can’t stop washing her hands. The sole bright spot in this lifeless mansion is the mysterious Chhoto-Bou, an educated girl from a poor household who had been handpicked by the eldest Chowdhury brother for Chhoto-Babu. When he first meets her in the zenana, Bhutnath is rendered speechless:
Bhutnath had never seen so much of beauty concentrated in one human being. There was a type of beauty that soothed, which pleased the eye, which did not sting the viewer- her beauty was like that.
The simple but lonely Bhutnath starts telling her about his life : his work at Mohini-Sindoor office, Jaba and her confrontations, the kind Subinoy Babu, his pay, the food and Jaba’s insane mother. Chhoto-Bou asks him what a box of Mohini sindoor costs and gives him five rupees for o box. To his shock, she then starts telling him about the strange house and how she, a simple girl, has landed here due to sins committed in her past lives. She has fine clothes, dazzling jewels and servants for every need, but she misses the love and attention of her husband. Maybe the magical Mohini Sindoor can help? After all, she just wants to serve her husband. Bhutnath is in a trance when he returns to his quarters at the factory, but when he confided in Brajarakhal, he is served a warning:
Barakutum, they are our masters… we are after all their servants – it is better not to get too friendly with them.
Days pass. Bhutnath gives the coveted Mohini Sindoor to Chhoto-Bou and carries on with his life, but he cannot deny that he is torn between his emotions for the two enigmatic women he has encountered – the Goddess like Chhoto-bou and the infuriating but pretty Jaba.
The arrival of the twentieth century brings the reign of Lord Curzon to India. Swami Vivekananda is dead, so is Jaba’s mother. The world outside Banamali Sarkar Lane witnesses clashes between freedom fighters and British soldiers. Bhutnath is caught in the crossfire and takes refuge in the home of Subinoy Babu when, learning about his injuries, he is summoned to the Haveli by Chhoto-Bou. Still pining for her debauched husband, she asks Bhutnath to get her some liqour. He refuses initially, but finally gives in. As Chhoto-Bou descends into gradual alcoholism, Bhutnath is summoned to Subinoy babu’s death bed. There he learns that Mohini Sindoor has downed its shutters and that Jaba is betrothed to Supabitra.
It is now that the story picks up pace. The rest of the novel covers the events following Subinoy Babu’s death– both the larger ones affecting Calcutta society and those that chart the lives of these two women. What happens to Chhotu-Bou and Jaba? Do they find happiness in their respective lives? Bhutnath’s flashback comes to an end – it is 1914 and Calcutta today is far removed from the world of wealthy zamindars and their dissolute lives.
As it traces the paths of the various characters, the book provides a peek into the changes and turmoil that Calcutta witnessed between the years of 1895- 1914. It is vivid in its description of the common people and how their lives were affected by key events and famous personalities, offering the modern reader a distinct feel of the time and place. What I liked very much was the attention to detail – be it characters, places or events – that makes this a very enjoyable read.
Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam : The Movie
The novel has been adapted on the silver screen in both Hindi and Bengali. The Hindi version was produced by Guru Dutt and the screenplay was written by Abrar Alvi, who learnt Bengali so he could read the original. Alvi is also credited with the movie’s direction, but it is widely believed that Guru Dutt was the real director (he was so scarred by the debacle of Kaagaz Ke Phool that he refused to put his name to the film!). Released in 1962, it was a resounding critical and commercial success, winning four Filmfare awards and a nomination for the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
The movie is a faithful and first-rate adaptation of the novel but departs from the original in the end when Bhutnath is shown as getting married to Jaba. Cinematographer V.K. Murthy makes excellent use of light and décor to capture the contrast between the two households : the decadent Chowdhury household is dark and gloomy while the Brahmo household of Subinoy Babu is bright and cheery.
Shashi Kapoor was believed to be Guru Dutt’s first choice for playing Bhutnath. After reading the book, I feel that he would have been perfect for the role. While Guru Dutt rendered the character with much love, he was too old by the time the movie was made.
Meena Kumari was Chhoto-Bou. In what was to be the defining role of her career, she appeared to pour the anguish of her real life into this masterful portrayal.
Waheeda Rehman did a very good job as Jaba, and while I personally feel that a younger actress would have been better suited to the role, I cannot name a single actress of that time who could have done greater justice to Jaba!
The music by Hemant Kumar is exceptional. Geeta Dutt pours her heart into the three amazing songs – the haunting Koi Door Se Aawaz De Chale Aao, the beautiful Piya Aiso Jiya Mein and the tragic Na Jao Saiyaan. Asha Bhosle is the voice of Jaba and sings two equally amazing songs : Bhanwara Bada Nadaan Hai is full of joi-de-vivre while Meri Baat Rahi Mere Mann Mein aptly conveys Jaba’s unstated desires. And then there is the classic mujra picturised on Meenu Mumtaz, Saqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi.
I thought I would watch the movie again after reading the book, but the experience of reading this rich cultural masterpiece was so fulfilling that I would rather live with my own interpretation of that time, than impose Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi’s masterful version upon it. But yes, I will surely revisit the classic movie some other day.
The English translation of this great literary work is available for a mere sum of Rs 170. Do read it!
Harini Srinivasan is an entrepreneur, aspiring writer and ex-bureaucrat. A voracious reader with a penchant to buy books every time she enters a book store (which is often!) she has lost count of the weeks spent packing and carting them all over the world. Her first book for children,The Wizard Tales – Adventures of Bun-Bun And His Friends, was out on Amazon Kindle last year. This is an edited version of a post that was first published on her blog, where she writes about her twin passions – old Hindi music and literature.
Know of a great book that inspired a Bollywood classic? Tell us on Facebook & Twitter, or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep returning to MBRB as we delve into the world of women through the lens of books, travel, pop culture and more!
Cover Collage Image Courtesy: Rediff