At a rally at the LB Stadium in April 2019, prime minister Narendra Modi had said that he had been working on liberating the Muslim women from the triple talaq custom and that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would stand up for justice to Muslim women. Here is a look at a Bollywood film that broached this controversial topic way back in the 80s.
Even before its release, Nikaah, directed by BR Chopra had its fair share of controversies. Chopra had initially decided to cast Zeenat Aman in the title role but Aman had acted in Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), a gripping tale based on the travails of a rape victim (the film was inspired by the American film “Lipstick”). His associates advised him that Aman was not the right choice as her personality was incongruous with that of a traditional Muslim woman. As soon as Chopra set his sights on Salma Agha he decided that she would play the leading lady in his Muslim social.
Muslim socials were slowly decreasing in their importance in the 80s and by the 90s the number of such films reduced to a trickle. The film Nikaah was applauded for the performances of its leading cast, the milieu and the timeless compositions.
Salma Agha won a filmfare award for best playback singing. Deepak Parashar delivered one of his career best performances and Raj Babbar, despite his hamming, was appreciated for a sensitive portrayal.
When you watch Nikaah, three things strike you. The first is the directorial excellence of the late BR Chopra who is known for hits like Gumrah, Kanoon, Humraaz, Waqt, Dhund etc. Salma Agha’s beauteous charm is simply mind blowing. The way she walks, emotes and carries herself in the film leaves you tongue tied considering that this was her debut movie.
Agha was 26 years old when the film released in 1982. It is perplexing why Agha did so few movies (10-12 movies) in her career despite having a marvellous screen presence and reasonable acting potential. Additionally she sang in her own voice and that appeared like a crowning glory to her sensitive portrayal of a harangued Muslim woman torn between the demands made by the sharia law and the whims and fancies of the two men she was married to.
Nikaah was originally titled Talaq Talaq Talaq but after some Muslim clerics objected to the title, it had to be changed. Both Babbar and Parashar had played crucial roles in Chopra’s earlier Insaf Ka Tarazu and they seem to have been the apt choices for the roles of male actors in this movie. Parashar didn’t have much of a career though Babbar managed a long innings in Bollywood before he switched loyalties to politics.
The film begins with a young woman Niloufer (Agha) who writes poems under the pseudonym Adiba Shabnam Rahmani. She visits the magazine’s office to collect her payment and meets Hyder, the editor of the Urdu magazine. Hyder (Babbar) was her college mate and he had been madly in love with her. But Niloufer had got married to a wealthy businessman Nawab Wasim (Parashar). Wasim lives with his parents (Chandrasekar and Urmila Bhatt) and sister (Heena Kausar) who is in India on a vacation. She is married and settled in Karachi.
Hyder and Niloufer walk down memory lane and recall the wonderful days that they had spent in the serene university campus. Hyder tells her that the first time he set his eyes on her, he was so enchanted by her visage that he had fallen in love with her at the very instant. The film has been apparently shot in Hyderabad and the city looks beautiful. Then Niloufer takes leave of him and Hyder is shocked to see her waiting for a bus. He wonders why a nawab’s wife should wait at the bus stop. He makes enquiries and soon it is revealed that Niloufer had been divorced by her husband and that she lived in a working women’s hostel.
Soon enough a close bond develops between Hyder and Niloufer. Hyder requests Niloufer to unburden her past. What follows is a flash back that describes how Niloufer gets married to Wasim who has just returned to India after finishing his studies abroad. Wasim is madly in love with Niloufer; however he appears to be uncontrollable whenever he gets into a fit of rage for minor things. Their honeymoon in Bombay is vapid as Wasim immerses himself in his business, returning to the hotel room merely to satiate his lust.
Once they return from their honeymoon, Niloufer continues with her efforts to make her marriage work. But Wasim is not the one to keep promises. As he makes Niloufer wait endlessly, he doesn’t apologise to her but instead becomes confrontational. The couple has vituperative arguments. Wasim’s parents and sister depart for Haj and now Niloufer leads a life of solitude and monotony in the palatial mansion.
On one occasion, Wasim comes home fully drunk and tries to force himself on his wife. But Niloufer bristles at this behaviour. The couple reconciles their arguments the next day as it is their wedding anniversary. Waseem even arranges for a party in the evening but when he doesn’t turn up for the party in time and the guests feel offended, Niloufer leaves the party in a huff. Late in the night, the couple has an ugly spat and Waseem utters “Talaq” three times. Niloufer is completely heartbroken now and she walks out of the house without even claiming her meher amount.
Soon enough, Hyder and Niloufer decide to get married even as a repentant Wasim begs his former wife to return to him. Before her second marriage, Wasim invites Niloufer home and she reluctantly visits him and finds him in a state of despair and hopelessness. But now Niloufer has fallen in love with Hyder and there is no question of returning to Wasim.
Niloufer does not pull any punches when Wasim asks her to return to him. Now she knows her priorities well. Wasim even gives her a wedding gift and writes a letter to her saying that she should motivate her second husband to divorce him so that they can be reunited.
Hyder and Niloufer visit Bombay for their honeymoon in the same hotel and they end up staying in the same room where Niloufer and Wasim had stayed during Niloufer’s first marriage. Nevertheless, Hyder’s love for Niloufer makes her happy and forget all the bitter memories of the past.
On their return, Hyder resumes work and Niloufer is content being a housewife.
She is ecstatic enjoying her marital bliss until one day Hyder becomes iffy about their lives together in the future after he reads the note by Wasim. Meanwhile, the maulana (Yunus Parvez) tells Wasim that the only way he can be reunited with his first wife is by following the sharia rules.
Niloufer has to be divorced by Hyder so that Wasim can marry her again. The maulana also tells Wasim that “ The sytem of triple talaq was intended to make it difficult for a Muslim couple to get separated; it was to be used only under extreme circumstances; the rule should not be abused by a husband to drive away his wife from home.”
What happens next? Will Niloufer be forced to return back to Wasim who has now reformed and is looking forward to a happy married life with her? What about Hyder and his love for Niloufer?
The film works at many levels. Why should a woman be treated like an item of property and be shuffled from one man to another, pandering to their whims and fancies? Can’t a woman have a mind of her own and decide how se wishes to lead her life? The bias against divorced Muslim women is aptly reflected in a scene when a school board decides to reject Niloufer’s application for a school teacher’s post just because she has been divorced by her husband.
Nikaah is interesting to watch because it shows a Muslim woman managing to take a stand when faced with a challenging situation precipitated by the supercilious men in her life. There is not a moment of boredom in the two hours that the movie runs.
The lead actors have delivered decent performances.
Mention must be made of Agha’s beautiful dresses in the movie that are a visual treat. Music by the redoubtable Ravi has gems like “Dil Ke Arman”, “Dil Ki Yeh Arzoo”, “Chupke Chupke Raat Din”, “Sama Bi Hai Javan Javan” and “Abhi Alvida Mat Kaho Doston”. The lyrics by Haasan Kamal are soulful and hard hitting. Dialogues by Dr Rahi Masoom Reza add immense value to the plot and the film’s narrative.
Trivia about the movie:
1. Heena Kausar who played Parashar’s sister in the movie was the daughter of K Asif (Mughal E Azam fame) and actress Nigar Sultana. She was often typecast either as a sister or a courtesan despite being beautiful and talented.
2. In 1986, she married Iqbal Mirchi and settled in Dubai as his second wife. Mirchi was involved in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts.
3. Kausar was seen in Mumbai in 2012 when she visited the city to file an appeal when two of Mirchi’s flats were sealed by the government. Her appeal was rejected.
4. After Mirchi’s death due to cardiac arrest, Heena Kausar remains untraceable. It is believed that she lives in Dubai.
5. Iftekhar had a brief role as a servant in the movie. He happily accepted the role because of the immense respect he had for B R Chopra.
6. The song “Chupke Chupke” was sung by Ghulam Ali, the renowned Pakistani playback singer.
7. Salma Agha is now settled in Mumbai and a few years back the minister for home affairs Rajnath Singh allotted her an overseas citizen of Indian origin visa.
8. In real life, Agha was married thrice.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)