Some films want to buy classic status with massive budgets and crumple under the pressure of their own spectacle. Pakeezah is lavish in its treatment of a courtesan’s turbulent story, but its splendour fills the eye, stirs the senses. The story begins with the elopement of a tawaif, Nargis (Meena Kumari) with her lover, the Nawab Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar). Shahabuddin takes Nargis to his household, where she is rejected by his honourable family. Nargis flees to a graveyard, where she spends the next 10 months of her life, giving birth to a daughter in the interim. Nargis dies in the graveyard, and her older sister Nawabjaan (Veena), on receiving this news, reaches there and takes the baby away. 17 years later Sahabuddin has received a letter written by Nargis on her deathbed. He comes to know about his daughter through this letter. Shahabuddin rushes to Nawabjaan’s kotha and asks for his daughter Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari). A furious Nawabjaan tells him to come tomorrow morning. Nawabjaan takes her to some other place. They travel overnight by train and while both of them are asleep in their compartment, a fellow passenger climbs into their compartment by mistake. He is Salim (Raj Kumar). Enchanted by her feet, he leaves a note “Aap ke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega — maile ho jayenge”.
There is grandeur in Amrohi’s filmmaking – an epic magnitude of treatment. The evocative songs and the background music create the right period mood and Amrohi’s eye for details brings great depth to the lavish sets. The film’s main merit in spite of its flaws, its at times disjointed flow, its stock situations and an over extended plot, lies in its euphoric romanticism. Pakeezah is filled with symbols. There is, for instance, the oft-used symbol of the bird in a cage. Trains themselves form an important motif throughout the film. A train is where Sahibjaan’s and Salim’s paths first cross, and ever after, trains continue to haunt Sahibjaan. Kamal Amrohi uses actions, expressions, little details to convey far more than dialogues do, and often in much less time. The script is memorable in the hands of Meena,Ashok,Raaj Kumar, Veena etc to name a few. Personally i was most impressed by the regal looking Kamal Kapoor. Meena Kumari lives the tragedy of Nargis and Sahib Jaan like her own. Coupled, with a captivating screenplay is a beautiful musical score, enhanced by the protagonist displaying notable command of classical Indian dance (kathak).