Ismat Chughtai, whose birth centenary is being celebrated on August 21 through a Google doodle, is one of Urdu’s literature’s most celebrated figures. Chughtai also had a short-lived but interesting film career, which involved writing for Bombay Talkies productions that were directed by her husband, Shahid Latif. These include the films Ziddi (1948), which put lead actor Dev Anand on the road to stardom, the Kamini Kaushal-Dilip Kumar starrer Arzoo (1950) and Sone Ki Chidiya (1958), starring Nutan and Balraj Sahni.
In the festschrift Ismat Chughtai Her Life, Her Times (edited by Sukriti Paul Kumar and Sadique, Katha, 2000), Chughtai writes about her earliest movie memories (a kissing scene in a production featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford), her impression of Dev Anand when she met him at Bombay Talkies sometime in the 1940s (“He was such a young boy, his eyes would fill up if anyone chided him”) and her experience with the making of Arzoo.
Ashok Kumar, who was running the Bombay Talkies studio at the time, paid Chughtai Rs 20,000 for the story of Arzoo – “a neat fortune in those days”, Chughtai notes in her essay. Arzoo was a “big hit and it ran for several ‘khidki tod hafte’”, she recalls.
Although Chughtai wrote only five screenplays, her works continued to inspire films. MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974) was written by Shama Zaidi after conversations with Chughtai, the director recalled in a previous interview. Chughtai wrote the dialogue for Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978), and had a bit role as the mother of Jennifer Kendal’s character.
“The film viewed now, despite the excellence of its making, appears like an acting contest and the only one who emerges with any laurels at all is a non-actor in a tiny part, Ismat Chughtai the celebrated writer, and that’s because she’s the only one of us not trying to ACT everyone else under the table,” Naseeruddin Shah remarked in his memoir And Then One Day (Penguin Books, 2014).
Lihaaf cast long shadows over two important films about queer love. Deepa Mehta’s pathbreaking lesbian romance Fire (1996) is loosely based on Lihaaf. Radha (Shabana Azmi) is trapped in a sexless marriage. The arrival of her young sister-in-law Sita (Nandita Das) sets off fires that neither can put out.
A more recent tribute to Lihaaf is Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014). Set against a backdrop of a decaying feudal culture that still insists on standing on ceremony, Dedh Ishqiya is based on a story by Darab Farooqui and has been written by Chaubey, Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar. Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) seems to welcome the affections of the career charlatan Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah), posing here as a nawab, while her maid Muniya (Huma Qureshi) snuggles up to Khalujaan’s nephew Babban (Arshad Warsi). However, the black comedy suggests that the relationship between Begum Para and Muniya is not what it seems.
Who’s having whom on? When released from the clutches of the villainous Jaan Mohammed (Vijay Raaz), Muniya runs straight into Begum Para’s arms, leaving Babban perplexed. As the two women tease and tickle each other, they cast shadows on a wall, dwarfing Khalujaan. He sardonically remarks, it looks like they need a quilt.
Begum Para’s back story is directly based on Lihaaf: she too was married to a closeted man. Muniya is my friend, my sister, my life, she tells Khalujaan. The meaning of the movie’s title becomes clear: the hidden love between the two women is the half bit, destined to play peekaboo with a society that is not yet ready for them.