The film was a major critical and commercial success, with critics attributing it to Meena Kumari's performance as Chhoti Bahu, which is regarded as one of the best performances of Hindi cinema. It won four Filmfare Awards, including Best Movie award, was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival, and was chosen as India's official entry to the Oscars. However it was not accepted as a nominee. The academy wrote a letter to Guru Dutt saying a woman who drinks was not a permissible taboo in their culture. Indiatimes Movies ranks it amongst the Top 25 Must See Bollywood Films.
The film opens at the ruins of an old haveli in Calcutta, where a group of labourers are busy pulling down what remains. When the workers break off for lunch, the overseer (Guru Dutt) wanders through the haveli. As he sits at a place there begins a flashback to the end of the 19th century.
The lower-class and educated Bhoothnath arrives in colonial Calcutta looking for work. He lives in the grand haveli of the Choudhurys, a family of zamindars with his Brother-in-Law. He works at the Mohini Sindoor factory run by Subinay Babu (Nazir Hussain), a dedicated member of the Brahmo Samaj. Subinay Babu's daughter Jaba (Waheeda Rehman) is amused by Bhoothnath whom she considers an unsophisticated rustic. Bhoothnath becomes fascinated with the goings-on in the haveli and every night observes the decadent lifestyle of the Choudhury brothers.
One night the servant, Bansi (Dhumal), takes Bhoothnath to meet the younger zamindar's (Rehman) wife Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) who implores him to bring her Mohini Sindoor believing it will keep her unfaithful husband home. Bhoothnath is struck by her beauty and sadness and inadvertently becomes Chhoti Bahu's secret confidante. A bomb explodes in the marketplace and Bhoothnath is injured in the ensuing crossfire between freedom fighters and British soldiers. Jaba looks after him.
Chhoti Bahu's repeated attempts to appease her husband fail until she becomes his drinking companion to keep him by her side. Jaba's marriage is finalised with Supavitra (a member of Bramho Samaj) but after her father's death she declines the marriage. Bhoothnath becomes a trainee architect and goes away to work on a training project. After his return he finds the haveli in partial ruins. Chhoti Bahu is now a desperate alcoholic and her husband, paralysed. Meanwhile, he learns that he and Jaba were betrothed as children. One night Chhoti Bahu asks Bhoothnath to accompany her to a nearby shrine to pray for her ailing husband. Their conversation is overheard by the elder zamindar , Majhle Babu (Sapru), who suspects that Chhoti Bahu is having an affair with Bhootnath (though really it was not). He orders his henchmen to chase them. As Bhoothnath and Chhoti Bahu travel in the carriage, it is stopped by the henchmen. Bhoothnath is knocked unconscious and Chhoti Bahu is abducted. When he wakes up in hospital, Bhoothnath is told Chhoti Bahu has disappeared and the younger zamindar is dead. The flashback ends.
Bhoothnath's workers inform him a skeleton is found buried in the ruins of the haveli. From the jewellery on the corpse, Bhoothnath realises it is the remains of Chhoti Bahu.
The last scene shows a nostalgic Bhoothnath riding away on a carriage with Jaba, who is now his wife. In this, the filmed version departs significantly from the novel, where Jaba and Bhoothnath do not get a happy ending.
The film also depicts the decline of the old landed zamindari families of Bengal during the late 19th century.Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu
Guru Dutt as Atulya Chakraborty aka 'Bhootnath'
Rehman as Chhote Babu
Waheeda Rehman as Jaba
Nazir Hussain as Subinay Babu (Jaba's father)
Dhumal as Bansi (chief servant of Chhote Babu)
D.K. Sapru as Chaudhary (Majhle Babu)
Bimla Kumari as Chunnidasi
Harindranath Chattopadhyay as Ghari Babu
Pratima Devi as Badi Bahu
Minoo Mumtaz as Dancer in the song Sakiya aaj mujhe...
Director – Abrar Alvi
Producer – Guru Dutt
Story – Bimal Mitra
Screenplay – Abrar Alvi
Cinematography – V.K. Murthy
Music – Hemant Kumar
Lyrics – Shakeel Badayuni
Editing – Y.G. Chawhan
Art Direction – Biren Nag
Costumes – Bhanu Athaiya
Nargis Dutt and then photographer Jitendra Arya's wife Chhaya Arya were considered for the role of Chhoti Bahu but eventually the role went to Meena Kumari as to bring the necessary pathos for which she had been famous. Guru Dutt wanted S.D. Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi for the music and lyrics but SD Burman was unwell and Sahir declined the offer. Shashi Kapoor was the first choice for the role of Bhootnath, losing it when he showed up two-and-a-half hours late for a meeting with Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi. The next choice was Bengali actor Biswajeet, whose Hindi film debut it would have been. Biswajeet backed out because he didn't want to be tied into an exclusive contract with Guru Dutt. Finally, Guru Dutt cast himself as Bhootnath, the Ghulam.
Waheeda Rehman wanted to play the role of Chhoti Bahu. She even did a look test but the photographer V.K. Murthy realised that she was too young for the mature role. However, when Alvi offered her the role of Jaba, she accepted it despite the fact that it was a secondary role to Meena Kumari. Guru Dutt felt the role didn't go with her box office status and forewarned her that her name would come after Meena Kumari's in the credits but Waheeda wanted to be a part of the movie and she did the role.
The film was shot at Dhankuria Mansion near Calcutta but Meena Kumari didn't come to the haveli, its interiors were recreated on a set in Bombay.
The controversy about who directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam has increased over the years. Since the film is characteristic of Guru Dutt's feel and style, it is difficult to think that he did not direct the film. However, Dutt never denied Abrar Alvi's role in the film nor did he make any counter claims when Alvi won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for the film. Alvi has stated that Dutt did direct the songs but not the film in its entirety. The editor, Y.G. Chawan, says that it was Alvi who sat with him. "Abrar worked so hard on that film but he never got any credit. People say it was produced by Guru Dutt so it had to be Guru Dutt's film." Waheeda Rehman, one of the film's stars, also confirmed that it was Alvi, not Dutt, who directed it.
The music of the film was composed by Hemant Kumar. Shakeel Badayuni wrote the lyrics.
The song "Sahil Ki Taraf Kashti Le Chal" was edited out of the film. The song had a shot which showed Chhoti Bahu resting her head on Bhoothnath's lap in the carriage. Audiences reacted sharply to this so Guru Dutt removed the song and the 'offending shot' changing the carriage scene to a dialogue exchange between Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath. He also shot an additional scene with the paralysed husband repenting his sinful and debauched lifestyle. Hemant Kumar reused the tune for the song "Ya Dil ki Suno" from Anupama (1966).
Besides being a commercial success, the film was a huge critical success. To quote the review featured in The Times of India dated 24 June 1962:
The well-knit screenplay, achieving an effective balance between the various characters and emotional phases, provides a neat dramatic pattern. It appears to be a specially successful job considering the verbosity and digressiveness of the novel of Mr. Bimal Mitra who, though often brilliant, writes in a highly disorderly way.
Upperstall.com commented, "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is a romantic and somewhat nostalgic tale of a bygone era. The film is a magnificent and sombre work with heightened atmosphere, rich dialogues, haunting cinematography, extraordinary song picturizations and brilliant performances." It also praised Meena Kumari's performance: "While each of the performances are spot on, if there is one person who is the heart and soul of the film, it is Meena Kumari. Her portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is perhaps the greatest performance ever seen on the Indian Screen. The sequence where Chhoti Bahu dresses for her husband singing Piya Aiso Jiya Main is a poignant exploration of a woman's expectations and sexual desire. And later on when she has become a desperate alcoholic, you cannot help but cry with her in the sequence where she pleads with her husband to stay with her and then angrily turns on him to tell him how she has prostituted her basic values and morals to please him. However the common factors between the actress's life and Chhoti Bahu are too dramatic to be merely coincidental – The estranged marital relationship, the taking of alcohol, turning towards younger male company, the craving to be understood and loved – all elements evident in Meena Kumari's own life."
Indiatimes Movies, while listing it as one of the "25 Must See Bollywood Movies," wrote, "The film remains with you forever simply because of the splendid performance of Meena Kumari."National Film Awards
1962: President's Silver Medal for Best Feature Film in Hindi
International Film Awards
1963: Berlin Film Festival: Golden Bear (Best Motion Picture): nominated
1962: Indian submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
Filmfare Award for Best Movie – Guru Dutt
Filmfare Award for Best Director – Abrar Alvi
Filmfare Award for Best Cinematographer – V. K. Murthy
Filmfare Award for Best Actress – Meena Kumari
Filmfare Nomination for Best Actor – Guru Dutt
Filmfare Nomination for Best Supporting Actor – Rehman
Filmfare Nomination for Best Supporting Actress – Waheeda Rehman
Filmfare Nomination for Best Story -Bimal Mitra
Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards
Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards – Film of The Year
Best Director – Abrar Alvi
Best Actor – Guru Dutt
Best Actor in a Supporting role – Rehman
Best Choreography – V.K. Murthy
Best Dialogue – Abrar Alvi