Revisiting the Classic: Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam

Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam- the classic based on a novel by acclaimed Bengali writer Bimal Mitra- must be finest Hindi cinema of the century that highlights the decline of wealthy aristocracy and the rise of working class in colonial Bengal. Released in 1962, the movie shows the contrast in two social classes through the character of Bhootnath- a young lower middle class  servant in the Haveli (mansion) who ends up becoming a successful architect later in life.

The movie primarily revolves around Choti Bahu, played by Meena Kumari. Choti Bahu is a beautiful bride in the aristocratic family. She has everything except the love of her husband. While other Bahus of the huge manor have ungrudgingly accepted their husband’s debauchery and infidelity (after all that is what rich landlords are supposed to do), there is Choti Bahu who bewails her solitude and refuses to accept her life as an abandoned wife whose husband prefers spending his nights in the brothel with the courtesan (Tawaif). Choti Bahu is condemned for her desire by other women in the household. After all, as a woman, she has to think about family’s honor and she cannot demand anything from her man.


But for Choti Bahu, it is all about her obsessive desire for her man. So much so that she can go to any extent to seduce her man. And she does so. She befriends Bhootnath, the servant in the Haveli, asks him to get some vermillion (Mohini Sindoor) that is said to make husbands faithful. Of course, the vermilion supplied by her newly-found Ghulam does not work. A woman with such an ethereal beauty not able to get the attention from the man she desires – her misery only escalates. With intensified despair, increases her readiness  to cross any line to be on her husband’s side. When she realizes that her husband cannot be roused without alcohol, she starts making her Ghulam supply alcohol so she can become his drinking companion and keep him by her side. This works for some nights. Sadly, her husband’s sexual interest in her does not last for long  and he goes back to the brothel. By this time, Choti Bahu has already become a raging alcoholic. Watch out the most powerful scene:


I must mention that no other movie has offered a mystical experience as this movie when it comes to the gradual introduction of Choti Bahu. As we are told the story through Bhootnath’s eyes, we too see the shadow of lonely Choti Bahu in the beginning. One night, Bhootnath is ushered quietly into the Haveli. We too enter the Haveli with him. Both Bhoothnath and we first see the dainty, jewelry adorned feet and her silk saree. Gradually Bhoothnath raises his eyes, and so does the camera. When their eyes meet, Bhoothnath as well as we are smitten by her ethereal beauty. A close-up scene of Choti Bahu’s lips followed by a shot of her suggestive eyes indicate Bhoothnath’s attraction to her physical attributes, and how he becomes her “Ghulam”.

As the movie progresses, the relationship becomes far more complex than just Bhoothnath’s infatuation. Choti Bahu knows that she does not need to seduce him as she is well aware that the young servant is besotted. She has now found a confidante. There are scenes when she gives him the cognitive gaze which she would like to give to her husband. Then there is another scene, when Ghulam tries to grab her hand to stop her from drinking more, she shouts accusing him of trying to touch her inappropriately and sends him away (the most heart breaking scene as he walks away).

The movie has the sad ending though. Her husband is paralyzed, and Choti Bahu hears that some Baba can cure him. She reaches out to Bhootnath again and asks him to take her to the Baba. Without any question, the faithful Ghulam agrees once again. As per the Haveli tradition, a virtuous lady cannot leave the Haveli – and that too with another man. She has disobeyed the tradition, so much so that she becomes a woman so far beyond redemption that her fate is to be murdered and buried without honor in a secret grave. The last scene links Choti Bahu’s skeletal remains with the ruins of the Haveli.

The highlight of the movie is the ambiguity of the relationship between Choti Bahu and Ghulam. As much as we want to perceive it as a platonic relationship between two people who belong not just to different classes but to different dimensions, we are left wondering if despite being in love with another girl, Bhoothnath ever desired Choti Bahu. Or does a man-woman relationship always need an explicit definition? Perhaps, sometimes, it can just be left without being explained. That is the beauty of this movie.

In all fairness, Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam is not only about the relationship between Choti Bahu and Ghulam. There is a definitive emphasis on the Haveli lifestyle, their mulish extravagance (there is a scene of opulent wedding for a Haveli cat/ dog), the caste system, and how deranged Haveli inhabitants are despite having wealth and power. Then there is a sub-plot- a sweet love story of Bhootnath and Jaba- a young, vibrant and independent girl, played by Waheeda Rehman.


Do not miss the movie. You can find the paid link here

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