साहिब बीबी और गुलाम
Dir. Abrar Alvi
When I visited Calcutta late last year, I enjoyed a historical walking tour through the northern neighborhood that was once the center of the city's great Babu culture. Calcutta's Babus amassed great wealth while serving the colonial government through the 19th century. They also established some of the defining literary and artistic traditions of Calcutta. And in the sunset of their era, the early 20th century, some of them quite famously squandered their wealth, taking their pursuits to hedonistic extremes.
My tour took me into a crumbling, collonaded courtyard that had once been the grand cloister of a Babu's mansion. Sahib bibi aur ghulam ("master, wife, and servant") opens in the ruins of just such a space. The backdrop of this lovely film is, indeed, the decline of the great Calcutta culture of the Babu. The household of the Chaudhary brothers, Majhle Sarkar (D.K Sapru) and Chhote Sarkar (Rehman) evokes the stories I heard on my tour about Chhatu Babu and Lalu Babu; like these real-life emblems of Babu excess, the Chaudhary brothers host pigeon races and stage elaborate wedding celebrations for their cats. By the film's end, though, the Chaudharys have squandered it all. Yet they cling to their rituals of hedonism; in one scene one of the brothers sits in a grand parlor empty of all rugs, art, and furnishings - except for his hookah.
All of this gaudy grandeur is shown through the everyman perspective of a young bumpkin called Bhootnath (Guru Dutt). Bhootnath arrives fresh from the countryside, gawping in disbelief at the vastness of the Chaudhary household, at the ceaseless bustle its comings and goings, at the very idea of women not hidden in purdah. Guru Dutt plays Bhootnath broadly, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but also very winningly. The film hints at some of the major social changes of the time, such as the growing nationalist movement or influential new religious philosophies. But these notions are kept fairly vague, just out of sharp focus, as they would be to the childlike Bhootnath even as he moves in their swirling midst. There is a sweetness to Bhootnath that stops just short of being cloying.