forbidden love and the sensorium
of desire in Bombay cinema

by Sangeeta Gupta

My ideas here evolved when I revisited a lesser-known film of the famous Indian actress, Meena Kumari, feted as the tragedy queen of Bombay Cinema, especially during the 50s to the early 70s. The film, titled Daaera,[1] [open endnotes in new window] released in 1953, belongs to the black and white Social films of Bombay cinema. These films were broadly speaking, family melodramas with social themes. I remember my mother watching the replays of these films on television with great interest and emotional engagement. Watching Daaera so long after its release, during my research, was for me a rediscovery and a connection with the past. This intellectual reflection thus emerges from my personal as well as academic engagement with a film that remerged for me as a powerful expression of complex issues around conjugality, desire and sexuality.[2]

A cinematic framing of forbidden love

Daaera, directed by Kamal Amrohi, tells the story of a beautiful young woman, Sheetal (played by Meena Kumari),[3] who is married to a consumptive old man—old enough to be her father. The film is about a dark romance between her and the rich young man, Sharan, (Nasir Khan) who is their widowed landlady’s son living in the aristocratic household across from her terrace. Since Sheetal is a married woman, this romance cannot have social sanction. However the visual and aural language of the film destabilizes neat patriarchal orthodoxies and articulates an erotic charge that draws the spectators into this sensorium of unfulfilled desires.

In the 19th century, the Indian public sphere was engaged in crucial debates around social reform and women, pertaining to issues like women’s education, age of sexual consent, prohibition of child marriage, and prohibition of the practice of sati,[4] advocating widow remarriage among other solutions.[5] Daaera engages with some of these crucial debates in a direct as well as symbolic way and foregrounds the subjectivity of a young couple—of the woman who is trapped in a mismatched marriage and a young man who falls in love with her. The film brings to life the current social debates mentioned above, so that spectatorial engagement is not just at an intellectual level but at an affective, emotional level.

Sharan, the male protagonist, initially has the misunderstanding that Sheetal is the daughter of the sick old man whom his mother has recently accepted as a tenant. He is captivated by her beauty as she lies under a flowering tree on the terrace across from his own room, not realizing that she is actually the wife of the old man. We understand his attraction for her chiefly through his transfixed gaze and the poems he composes and sings for her. 

Interestingly Sheetal and Sharan do not ever meet each other nor exchange any dialogue. No shot-reverse-shot sequences signify their relationship with each other. Despite this, right from the start a connection between the two is established by the filmmaker, not through verbal exchange but through the affective charge of the audio-visual landscape.  For example, very early in the film, the two of them are captured in the same frame, lying down on their respective beds on two separate terraces. With deep focus framing, Sharan is positioned closer to the camera and Sheetal is far into the background. She would have been missed by the spectators had it not been for the particular movement of the camera which initially focuses on her (but not in a close up) and gradually zooms out till both the protagonists are in the same frame.

The camera zooms out till Sheetal and Sharan are captured in the same frame. Sharan wakes up in the morning and looks in the direction of the terrace opposite his own. He is surprised to see someone sleeping on the terrace opposite.

Another scene which brings this unspoken love into focus starts with the young man lighting a cigarette, blowing the smoke, casually looking in the direction of the terrace across, and becoming intrigued by the presence of a stranger lying there. He gets up, looks closely in her direction and is attracted by her presence. His transfixed expression, in close up, and a soft musical score in the background indicate the impact this woman has on him at first sight.

In the next scene Sharan is shown sitting inside a college examination center, with a blank paper in front of him, unable to write anything as his thoughts are fixed on the image of the woman on the terrace. This is shown by a superimposed image projected on the paper in front of him, again accompanied by the soft music. It is music which indicates the first stirrings of desire within Sharan—Sheetal remaining as much a mystery to us as she is to him at this moment. Sharan is unable to write anything on the answer sheet and finally the blank paper is taken away by the proctor.

Sharan leaving the house to appear for an examination. Sharan seated in the horse cart.
Sharan lost in his thoughts in the exam. Image of Sheetal lying under the flowering tree superimposed on the blank exam answer sheet.

Melodrama and evocation of the ineffable

The music transforms into a song in the next sequence, as Sharan is shown on the terrace listening to a song in a female voice. It is disjointed and asynchronous—we cannot trace it to any particular woman. Following the generic expectations accompanying Bombay cinema melodrama, we likely presume that the song is being sung by Sheetal; however, such expectations are belied as we realize that it is a devotional song being sung at a temple nearby. Although Sheetal does not do the singing, the camera draws us visually closer to her and her image becomes more discernable. As she lies under the tree, in a simple black sari with a faint light falling on her pillow, her image seems to elicit a strange mingling of pathos and lyricism.

Sharan looking in Sheetal’s direction while a devotional song plays in the background. A closer view of Sheetal—connoting pathos and lyricism.
Statues of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha. Sharan listening to the song while looking at Sheetal.
The interior of the temple. A huge plank being sawn by two carpenters in the space between the two terraces, accompanied by a harsh grating sound.

Instead of a further close up of Sheetal, we are taken inside the temple where the devotees are singing the devotional song dedicated to Lord Krishna while gazing at the idol of Krishna and his consort Radha. The song is sung from Radha’s point of view, as she is imploring her beloved to protect her and hold her hand.[6] While the song plays in the background, for Sharan, who is incessantly gazing in the direction of Sheetal, the lyrics seem to hold an additional emotional charge. Sung in the hauntingly melodious voice of Mubarak Begum, accompanied by Mohammed Rafi and a chorus, the song creates a sensory impression which does not just connect Sheetal and Sharan but also pulls in the spectators into its emotional charge. This song then plays throughout the film as a refrain and becomes a narrative trope of desire.

“Thaam lo apni Radha ko Bhagwan
Ruk na jaaye kahin dil ki dadhkan
Ye na kehne lage koi birhan
Moonh chhupaake saanwaria ne maara
Devta tum ho mera sahara
Maine thaama hai daaman tumhara”

“Take Radha in your shelter Lord
Lest her heart stops beating
And you be blamed for turning away
As a lover forsakes his beloved
Lord you are my anchor
And I beseech you for your support.”

Strangely intruding into the sequence, this melodious song and the beauty of the young enigmatic woman are emotionally undercut by a dissonant and incongruous image of a massive wooden plank being sawn by two carpenters in the space between the terraces. The juxtaposition of the song against the harsh disturbing sound of the sawing carries a disruptive foreboding.[7]

The film works at the level of such symbolism which also occurs in the verbal exchanges between the characters. The plank being sawed-off is one of the many symbols deployed in the film to articulate the underlying impact of occurrences in the lives of the main characters. This is because ‘Love’ is not a word spoken by any of the characters. As a result, most of the dialogue uses metaphorical language to convey emotional meanings, as will be shown in the analyses that follows.

A devotional song plays in the background as Sharan looks in Sheetal’s direction. The mother follows his look.
She too notices Sheetal. Understanding dawns on her.
She quietly walks away while Sharan continues to look in Sheetal’s direction. The mother asks the trusted family help to convey to Sharan how disturbed she is.

In once incident, Sharan’s mother comes to visit him at his room on the terrace, and tells him that he is looking sick. She inquires why has he shut himself up in his room the whole day and why is he looking so listless. At that moment the devotional song plays again and Sharan looks in the direction of Sheetal, with the mother too following his gaze. As she slowly looks back at her son still gazing in the same direction, she understands what has happened to him and she walks away without saying a word, while her son is oblivious to her departure. There is no verbal exchange between the two but the song has also conveyed to the mother its erotic charge. She later sends her trusted servant to tell Sharan that she is deeply disturbed as well as ashamed. It is significant that the mother speaks these words while working on the spinning wheel or charkha.[8]

The messenger returns to tell the mother that Sharan replied, “Do not worry…even if all is consumed, the smoke from this fire will not be visible beyond the walls”—implying that his actions will not be the cause of any disrepute to the family. However, Sharan falls down from his terrace, later in the film, as he loses his balance while deeply lost in Sheetal’s thoughts. At that point, we are shown a huge cloud of smoke going beyond the high walls of his aristocratic mansion, belying the metaphorical promise he had made to his mother.

Throughout the film, we encounter this kind of symbolic verbal as well as visual vocabulary—whether it is the lyrics and melody of the songs, the instrumental background score, the lonely woman beneath the flowering tree, the plank been sawed-off into half, or the exchanges between various characters. This kind of multifaceted cinematic expression indicates a relationship that is dark and doomed and cannot even be articulated except in a cryptic form, if at all.

Coming back to Sharan, as he persistently looks in Sheetal’s direction, he composes and sings songs of pain and anguish crying out to the beloved. Sheetal, however, seems to be unresponsive and indifferent; but we realize how deeply moved she had been when she tries to dissuade Sharan from pursuing her. At that point, she has her wedding photograph delivered to him. While Sharan pens down poems for her—the only words Sheetal is able to write for him are, “I am married.”

The photograph is an evidential reminder of Sheetal’s marital status; however, Sharan’s fascination for her remains undeterred. He keeps her photograph under his pillow looking at it while covering the face of the groom in an attempt to obliterate the husband’s existence. I wish to emphasize the difference in the way the two protagonists look at the same photograph—Sheetal look at it as if she’s reliving the memory of a painful event in her life, one refuting any individual desire.

Sharan, on the other hand, in a mode of denial treats the photograph as almost the corporeal presence of the woman he has fallen in love with. Instead seeing it with a sense of shock and disappointment, as he obliterates the male with his palm, he gazes affectionately at the visible half of the photograph—happy in the thought of her proximity.

The chasm between the two terraces also has a deep symbolic significance for the two protagonists and the camera repeatedly emphasizes this distance by circular pans. At the same time, the camera also visually bridges the spatial distance.

Sharan composing a poem for Sheetal. The paper crosses over to Sheeta’s terrace as Sharan starts singing.
The shrill alarm clock disrupts the singing. Sheetal unknowingly steps on the paper.
The paper refuses to leave her proximity. The paper gets reaches the flowering tree.
The paper touches her feet. Sheetal reading the poem and then letting it slip away from her hands.

For example, consider the movement of a fly-away paper on which Sharan is writing a poem. Seemingly animated by into corporeal life, this paper flies out in the direction of the opposite terrace, forging an aural and visual connection with the beloved. The paper follows Sheetal around till she reads it and recognizes the song that she has heard Sharan sing.

“Aa bhi ja meri dunia me koi nahi
Bin tere kab talak yu hi ghabraye dil
Aa mile teri najro se aisi najar
Kuch na apni khabar ho na teri khabar
Laakh dhundhu magar phir na paoon kahin
Yoon mohhobat ke toofan me bah jaye dil”

“Come to me as my world is barren
And  my heart knows no solace without you
Since my eyes have met yours
I am lost to the world
My heart cannot be saved 
From drowning in the storm of love.”

While the paper is following Sheetal around, Sharan is simultaneously singing the song —a desperate appeal to the beloved and an imploring to come to him and fill the void in his life. As Sheetal reads the poem she stoically disregards it; she realizes that the emotion it expresses has no role to play in her life. The paper, however, refuses to leave her proximity even when she tramples upon it; it defiantly flies upwards and gets stuck in the flowering tree under which Sheetal lies. The symbolic significance and affective charge of this song once again connects Sharan and Sheetal in probably the only way the two can be connected: “with a hyperbolization of desire via mise-en-scene.”[9] The framing also makes the connection between the lead pair as the camera zooms in to a close up of Sheetal at the start and end of the song.

As Peter Brooks has argued in The Melodramatic Imagination that in “the speaking film,” music “determines mode and meaning.”[10]

“The emotional drama needs the desemanticised language of music, its evocation of the 'ineffable,' its tones and registers. Style, thematic structuring, modulations of tone and rhythm and voice—musical patterning in a metaphorical sense—are called upon to invest plot with some of the inexorability and necessity that in pre-modern literature derived from the substratum of myth.”[11]

In Daaera, this expressivity is simultaneously offset: by the grating sound of the plank been sawed,[12] or the sound of Sheetal’s coughing, or the harsh ring of the alarm clock kept near Sheetal’s bed. These create a soundscape that works as a counterforce, disrupting the melodious songs and their soulful lyrics.