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In this bimonthly series, Jai Arjun Singh recommends Hindi films from the fifties and sixties. In this instalment, he tells you why you should watch Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 (1955) starring Madhubala, Guru Dutt, Lalita Pawar, Johnny WalkerYou can watch the film on YouTube.

Because it’s Guru Dutt Lite (but points the way forward to his more personal work)

A confession: though I admire the major Guru Dutt films – the grandly dramatic ones, Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool – and especially the individual elements that make them great (camerawork, music, lyrics, Waheeda Rehman), I am sidestepping them in this column. Part of this has to do with my reservations about Guru Dutt the actor when he is playing an overtly serious, sympathy-seeking part.

At the same time, Dutt’s earliest ventures into directing – such as Baazi and Jaal – don’t have enough of his distinct authorial personality. A fine middle ground can be discovered in Mr and Mrs 55, which has a charming performance by Dutt the actor and solid contributions by some of his most important collaborators – notably writer Abrar Alvi and cinematographer VK Murthy – while being both a romantic comedy and a (mildly pedantic) social statement.

And it even has a key Guru Dutt motif, which would be seen in his two iconic tragedies later in the decade – the theme of the artist in the gutter, impoverished and trampled on – but treated with lightness in this film. Dutt plays an unemployed cartoonist named Preetam, dependent for money and accommodation on his reporter friend Johnny (the wonderful Johnny Walker, who, you may recall, was also the rescuer-in-chief in Pyaasa). Then he meets the heiress Anita (Madhubala) as well as her aunt Sita Devi – a man-hating firebrand feminist, played by the great Lalita Pawar – who wants Anita to get married so she can get her inheritance (followed quickly by a divorce). Preetam is hired to be the temporary husband, but meanwhile he and Anita are falling in and out of love with each other.

The wacky tone persists for much of the film. Alvi’s dialogues sparkle, especially in the more lighthearted first half where we see professionals like doctors and lawyers – such solemn characters in other films of the time – behaving somewhat like Groucho Marx.

For the sharp writing, the general air of zaniness… and RK Laxman

The film’s opening credits combine an image that could easily have come out of a Hollywood classic like The Philadelphia Story (a newspaper headline reads “Husband of Heiress Admits Infidelity”) with the work of a celebrated Indian cartoonist: RK Laxman, who did a very funny drawing specifically for the film (it shows the authoritarian Sita Devi riding a chariot pulled by Preetam and Anita). 

The wacky tone persists for much of the film. Alvi’s dialogues sparkle, especially in the more lighthearted first half where we see professionals like doctors and lawyers – such solemn characters in other films of the time – behaving somewhat like Groucho Marx. Take the hilarious scene where a sad-looking physician examines the unwell Preetam and then has a surreal conversation with Johnny, shaking his head at the plight of this BA Pass cartoonist who only has a single pair of trousers. Or the one where an impish lawyer annoys Sita Devi while she tries to discuss the terms of her brother’s will. 

Among the many other little moments, I love the scene where a no-nonsense nanny remarks “Hamaaray zamaanay mein prem karte thay khaana khaakay, bhookhe pet nahin” when a lovelorn Anita refuses to eat. Or the expression on Sita Devi’s face when she asks “Tum Communist ho?” after Preetam makes an observation about the plight of people who have to sleep on footpaths.

As Arun Khopkar notes in his book Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts, Dutt often did unusual things with song sequences to incorporate them into the narrative. There are some notable instances in Mr and Mrs 55. Preetam doesn’t speak at all in his first two scenes, and the first time we see his lips move is when he abruptly breaks into song in Mohammed Rafi’s voice (“Dil par hua aisa jadoo”). Later, the superb “Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji” begins with Johnny Walker briskly picking up the phone as if he is about to report a theft, and then singing into it. And near the film’s end, two versions of the same song are wonderfully integrated into two separate situations. 

For Madhubala

A critic once said of Marilyn Monroe that she was often livelier in still images than in moving ones – a glib remark that undermines what a fine comic performer Monroe was. I can imagine someone saying something similar for Madhubala, and again, it would be wrong. Madhubala isn’t as good in Mr and Mrs 55 as she was in, say, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (it’s so much more fun playing the foil with a Kishore Kumar!), but she’s still warm and fun. Divested of the terrible burden of being our Most Ethereal Actress, she shows many dimensions to her personality, including the ability to send herself up or look silly if required.

For the subtle movement between a happy-go-lucky tone and a more cautionary one

The narrative arc shifts from a breezy celebration of modernity – young people flirting and bantering at tennis clubs and swimming pools, Sita Devi celebrating the passing of the Divorce Bill, which will give Indian women more freedom – to a more conservative, tradition-based outlook that goes something like: Settle down into matrimony, young people! And oh, women, your greatest fulfilment will come from looking after your house.

This movement is reflected in the changing look and sound of the film. In the early scenes, there are many Hollywood influences: the genre itself (screwball comedy complete with a “meet cute” and many misunderstandings); the famous zither theme from The Third Man, which plays from a music box in Anita’s house; Anita reading a magazine with Gregory Peck on the cover. But in the final third, where things get more serious, not only does the tone become more recognisably overwrought, like a regular Hindi film of the period, but the use of music too – in songs such as “Preetam Aan Milo” – has a more classical, rooted feel than the early numbers like “Thandi Hawa Kaali Ghata”.

Progressive viewers of today will cringe a little at some of the later scenes – or perhaps say, with a rueful shake of the head, “Well, that’s how people thought in those less enlightened times.” Personally, I would have preferred it if the film hadn’t turned Sita Devi into an out-and-out antagonist at the end.

Progressive viewers of today will cringe a little at some of the later scenes – or perhaps say, with a rueful shake of the head, “Well, that’s how people thought in those less enlightened times.” Personally, I would have preferred it if the film hadn’t turned Sita Devi into an out-and-out antagonist at the end. As Pawar plays her, she certainly has many likable qualities in the early scenes, but the film eventually gives her short shrift by unfavourably placing her in opposition to Preetam’s heavily domesticated and self-sacrificing bhabhi.

Even so, it would be reductive to say that the film is making a plea for women to be doormats. Both the carefree view and the home-bound one are accommodated in the narrative, and what one mostly remembers when all is done are the lighter moments. (Even the last shot has four young people skipping away from the camera!) The love between Anita and Preetam is organic and believable, as are the little displays of petulance or silliness that both engage in at different times – the impression one is left with is that of a relationship between equals. Which, again, is more than can be said about Guru Dutt’s martyred romances in his more “serious” films.

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