M Sadiq’s Bahu Begum opens with a happy song, featuring prettily dressed girls playing on swings in a rain drenched courtyard. But it stars Meena Kumari so you know things won’t stay on the bright side for long.
Melodramas are not always my cup of tea, but I like Ashok Kumar a lot and the lovely soundtrack has enduring appeal. And Bahu Begum places a heroine who lives a secluded and blameless life in a moral dilemma, and then pushes her out the door to see what might be. It’s not an uplifting girl power story at all, but there is a charm in the tone and the respect between key characters.
Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar) visits his friend Achchan (Johnny Walker) but his ulterior motive is to see the lovely Zeenat (Meena Kumari). Her family is not as wealthy as they once were and her father Nawab Mirza Sultan (D.K.Sapru) has rented half the house to Achchan. Achchan and Zeenat’s friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman) help young love as much as they can. Bilqis is less theatrical than Achchan, but they both get results. Yusuf and Zeenat are flowery and poetic, and have more of an idealised love rather than a passionate attraction.
One fateful day Nawab Sikander Mirza (Ashok Kumar) accidentally sees Zeenat’s face and cannot help but look his fill. Sikander Mirza sends his man to present a proposal and at the same time Achchan asks Yusuf’s uncle to send a proposal. The uncle says yes but has no intention of surrendering his control over the estate or of marrying Yusuf off without a big dowry. He sends Yusuf away on a bogus business trip, timing his return for after Zeenat’s wedding. Zeenat only finds out about her wedding when her trousseau arrives, and no one thinks to mention the groom. All overheard conversations point to Yusuf so she assumes it has been fixed, and he himself is sure he is the one.
Bilqis breaks the news to Zeenat on her wedding day. Zeenat gets Bilqis to cover for her and slips away to where Yusuf should be waiting for her. The qawali sung in the dargah seems to be a direct challenge to her to face the tribulations but she cannot comprehend that her true love is not there. Zeenat passes out, regaining consciousness well after the wedding formalities have taken place. An empty palanquin was sent to the Nawab, and there is no bridge left unburned. Some time later Zeenat is found unconscious (again), this time by Naziranbai (Lalita Pawar) and one of her girls (Helen). They take her to the brothel (or whore house as my subtitles have it) as they would not abandon a stranger in need.
Zeenat hears Helen singing about straying from her intended path (the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi seem to be very well linked in with the drama) and is drawn to the sadness in the song. It is not until a male guest sees her and waves a fan of banknotes that the penny drops about her current abode. Naziranbai throws the vulgar fellow out and the ladies bond over their miserable histories and a good cry. Zeenat asks for shelter in the brothel and Naziranbai promises to protect her so at worst I guess she would be a virgin prostitute (you know, the ones who only ever dance).
Sikander Mirza asks Naziranbai to send him a plausible fake wife so he can get his little sister Suraiya (Naaz) engaged. Of course, Zeenat is the only girl who can pass for decent. She and her ‘husband’ finally talk about what happened and it is a genuine conversation. I liked that when he asked her why she went to the brothel, meaning why did she throw her honour away, she was firm but polite saying she didn’t take herself there but the brothel that offered her refuge when no one else would. Suraiya guilt trips her fake sister-in-law into staying longer but once she is married, there is no reason for Zeenat to stay. Except that the Nawab loves her, and asks her to remain in his house for their shared honour if not for mutual affection. So of course Yusuf turns up because it is very important that he tell her all about his feelings. What will she do?
Meena Kumari is the tragedy queen, and Zeenat is like the Typhoid Mary of Tears. The longer people are around her, the more they cry. Everyone, at some stage, turns into a soggy mess. Well, except Helen.
Zeenat’s father loses the plot after one of her teary fits, Suraiya goes from manic pixie to weeping wreck. Even pragmatic businesswoman Naziranbai has a sob when proximity to Zeenat finally wears her down. I admired Meena’s ability to cry prettily without getting blotchy or running at the nose, and her makeup artist must have been on call around the clock. She does have some chemistry with Ashok Kumar but I think he could portray rapport with a cabbage so I am not sure who deserves the credit.
Ashok Kumar plays Sikander Mirza with regal poise and excellent eyeliner. While the character is obsessed with honour, it is mostly in relation to ensuring his little sister has the opportunity for a good marriage and a happy life. He is not so blinded by his own prestige that he fails to consider Zeenat’s position and desires. There is a bit going on under the surface and Kumar shows the inner turmoil through beautifully judged facial expressions and the pauses and beats in his dialogue delivery.
I liked that the film showed a small space between being married and not, between doing what was right and maybe doing what you wanted. Even though Zeenat was unlikely to deviate from the norms, she could have. And to see her and Nawab Sikander Mirza thoughtfully considering that she had options was quite lovely, especially in the midst of so much heightened emotion and melodrama.
Pradeep Kumar has the charisma of a limp lettuce leaf but since Yusuf, like Zeenat, is more likely to recite a couplet than actually do anything I suppose that is a good fit. Once he learns of Zeenat’s betrayal he goes a bit Devdas, wallowing in self-pity and dramatic eye shadow. Zeb Rehman is delightful as Bilqis, Zeenat’s mildly rebellious friend. Naaz is afflicted with a character that is either giggling or sobbing so she must have been exhausted at the end of every days shooting. And any film that gives Helen some lovely songs and pretty costumes is doing something right. Johnny Walker has a significant role in the drama but still manages to drag in the comedy sideplot complete with cock jokes and pratfalls.
The opulent sets and costumes give Bahu Begum a timeless quality as does the beautiful soundtrack by Roshan. I have no idea when the story is supposed to have taken place. I think Johnny Walker did slip into some Hinglish in one of his rants but other than that the dialogue is in Hindi and Urdu. I loved the house furnishings, the soft light streaming through draperies and screens and the measured way of life.
I have my issues with the way women are segregated and dismissed, but since this is a vintage film and possibly set in ye olden days I could step back from that a little. But if someone had just asked Zeenat if she wanted to get married and to who, the movie could have been over in one tear sodden hour and had room for a couple more songs. 3 stars!