Warning: the following post contains partial spoliers.
One of the unqualified highlights of this year's New York Film Festival, Abrar Alvi's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress, Servant, 1962), the longtime scenarist and dialogue writer's lone directorial credit, might as well bear the authorial stamp of its male lead, legendary actor-director Guru Dutt: after all, there are exceedingly few films in the history of world cinema that so fully register a personal directorial style without actually being signed by that filmmaker. Indeed, whether Alvi, Dutt himself or their shared cinematographer V. K. Murthy were ultimately responsible for the film's systematic use of push-ins and close-up framings of characters looking into or through the lens of the camera, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam embodies the singular visual style of Dutt's supreme directorial masterpieces, Pyaasa (1957) and Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959), while also utilizing acousmatic sound in the same poetical-spiritual manner as these career peaks. It is in this confluence of visual form and metaphysically-inflected audio-visual juxtaposition that Dutt's cinema resides; and it is here, likewise, that we might speculate either of Dutt's direct authorship or at least of Alvi's exceptional assimilation of the actor-director's idiom. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is fully a Dutt film, while also being, perhaps more accurately, a work of his atelier.
Following a crane shot into a book during the opening credit sequence, Alvi slowly dissolves into the ruins of once stately manor, before pushing into Dutt as an off-screen woman's voice echoes: "my restless soul tormented..." Alvi thereafter dissolves to a naive Dutt's first arrival as a young servant at the mansion; indeed, our epistemological positions as spectators will be moored to that of Dutt's as he slowly discovers the personal politics of the compound. Dutt's "Bhootnath" soon comes in contact with his very attractive fellow servant Jaba (Waheeda Rehman), whom he shortly spies on while she sings a poem. In fact, as with Pyaasa, Rehman sings poetry while directly facing the apparatus, nodding at the camera lens. However, unlike as in the former picture, it is not to Dutt that she is singing, essentially through the camera, thereby eliminating this technique's earlier narrative justification and its implied grounding in Dutt's psychology; additionally, it is not Dutt's poem that she sings, but her own composition.
Bhootnath's desire, nonetheless, is soon redirected towards Chhoti Batu (Meena Kumari, pictured), the lady of the house and the very loyal, long-suffering wife of Chhote Sarkar (Rehman, pictured). Chhote, however, prefers the night time company of courtesans to that of his exotically beautiful bride; in fact, Chhote is introduced in the company of a dancer, with her dress glancing against his face, while Kumari, first depicted after the aforesaid musical interlude, is at first restricted from our view as Alvi maintains Dutt's point-of-view - immediately locked to the ground and to the woman's decorated feet, before cuts to a tight extreme close-up of Kumari's large, doe-like eyes and to her supple lips. Interestingly, Kumari's eyes are shot in precisely the same fashion in her then husband Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah (1972), which was in production concurrently with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, even though it would take another decade for Amrohi's film to be completed and released. In both cases, Kumari is very much a standard of alien beauty.
Kumari is likewise, again as she will be once more in Pakeezah, fated for destruction. Here, her destiny is wrought once she submits to her husband's wish that she consume alcohol with him at night (very much opposing what was socially acceptable for an Indian woman both in the colonial era of the film and at its time of release). She does this after pleading with him, vermillion between her eyes, in a scene that opens on a close-up of her long, jet black hair; here, she puts her forehead on Chhote's shoulder, and he pushes her off, thus smudging this symbol of their nuptials, and in the process, providing a poetic, visual encapsulation of their marital disjunction.
Kumari, in informing Dutt of her intention to drink with her husband, is warned that she could become addicted to alcohol. This in fact does occur, leading to her ultimate demise, which further parallels that of the manor that they inhabit. Autobiographically, Kumari's own struggle with alcoholism, leading to her death one month after the release of Pakeezah in 1972, provides an additional, retrospectively elegiac subtext to Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (not unlike that of Amrohi's film). In both instances, then, Kumari instantiates tragedy, whereas with Alvi's film at least, Waheeda Rehman represents a possible future happiness, just as she did similarly in Pyaasa. In this sense, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is nearly the Platonic ideal of a Kumari-Rehman twin vehicle, even as it remains quintessentially a work of Dutt's. In other words, this is a work of multiple star-auteurs.
Of course, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam further summarizes the end of colonial India, with the disintegrating manor (itself doubled by Kumari's personal decay) doubling the loss of imperial authority. Where first we see a 10,000 rupee ceremony on the occasion of a cat's wedding - truly the ultimate expression of opulence - Alvi finally depicts the estate liquidated of its many assets, its crooked mustached patriarch sitting alone in a volumetric room, all within a narrative frame that presents the manor's literal, physical collapse. (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam has been compared, rightly, to Satyajit Ray's own end of colonial India elegy, Jalsaghar; The Music Room, 1958.) In Alvi's film, the estates's financial resources have disappeared after its masters are dealt with crookedly, which provides a potential location for colonial critique. Then again, the loss of the aesthetic beauty depicted partially militates the force, and even the purity of any colonial critique, importing instead a certain melancholy at the colonial era's passing. (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam also speaks to the end of a cinematic era, retrospectively, to that of a Bollywood classicism and its full integration of art with entertainment that the losses of Dutt - in 1964, to an overdose - and Kumari would further, and more irrevocably portend.)
In the end, Kumari not only meets her tragic end, but she does so without receiving the proper burial, adorned in splendor, for which she begs Dutt. Finding her remains in the ruins that open and close the film, Alvi presents us with one final, literally fantastic image of Kumari, bejeweled, as she experiences her final rest. Thus, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam provides us with another definitively Dutt - and classical Bollywood - set-piece, of a conditional future that time's passage has rendered impossible. In this moment, we see the very best of not only Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, but also of Dutt's corpus, and even of the classical Indian cinema itself: a lyrical cinema and an art that pushes beyond the material limits of photographic reality into the register of interior expression.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is available in an All-Region format at Amazon.com.