“Mr. & Mrs. ‘55” - Guru Dutt (1955)

Guru Dutt’s meteoric career as a celebrated actor and director in Indian cinema was tragically cut short by his untimely death at the age of thirty-nine in 1964.  Even so, over his relatively brief productive life, Dutt was a principal ingredient of a number of cinematic masterpieces, including Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).  Less well-known, though, than those acclaimed dramatic works, but one that is still very much deserving of your consideration, is Dutt’s earlier Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 (1955), a romantic comedy directed by and starring Dutt [1,2]. 

Since Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 is a comedy, you might be tempted at first to dismiss the film as some sort of lightweight fluff and assume it was made in accordance with the typical cliched production values of that genre.  After all, this film was made well before the advent of television in India, and typical films at that time were expected to appeal to a very broad spectrum of the Indian public.  But Dutt was not typical.  He had already assembled for this film most of his top-grade production team that would feature in his subsequent masterpieces, with scriptwriting by Abrar Alvi, cinematography by V. K. Murthy, and film editing by Y. G. Chawhan.  So it is not surprising that Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 featured some of the characteristic high-grade cinematic stylistics that made all of Dutt’s films unique and so memorable:
  • moody, shadow-laden set lighting
  • multi-plane image compositions with fluid camera movements
  • emotive closeups – often as unspoken reaction shots of the principal characters
  • narratively embedded songs that directly contribute to the unfolding of the story
And in addition, although we might expect a romantic comedy like this to just focus on personal relationships, Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 also features interesting reflections on larger social issues that prevail in India and other parts of the world.  Many of these issues were brought to the fore and/or accentuated in India by values from Western civilization that were introduced mostly via British colonialism [3].  When Westerners, fueled by ideas from the Enlightenment (17th to19th centuries), arrived in India, they emphasized objectively obtained scientific truths and the idea of universal human rights.  These notions sometimes conflicted with India’s rich, but tradition-oriented, culture.

Some of the particular issues that were at least implicitly referred to in this film are:
  • Social Status (i.e. class and wealth distinctions)
    Distinctions in class, caste, and wealth have always been significant in India.  And the upper-classes usually maintain that only they adhere to the proper moral values.
  • Aping the British 
    When the British increasingly imposed their rule over India in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Indians over this time, seeking to curry favour from their British overlords, attempted to imitate their masters in all respects and mannerisms.  And naturally, this led to a large backlash against all the bootlickers who would choose to “ape the British”.  This contempt for those who would ape the British continues in India to this day.
  • “Objective” Truth (and lies) 
    There are always concerns everywhere about truth – both literal truth and underlying truth.  And modernists place a particular emphasis on objective truth, which they feel underpins modern scientific societies.
  • Women’s Rights 
    It is only relatively recently that women have been accorded to have rights equal to those of men.  The idea of fundamental human rights, irrespective of race, color, creed, or gender, is a modernist notion that has taken some time to receive acceptance in traditional societies like India.  In particular, there are clear-cut distinctions between men and women; so some people question whether they should have identical legal rights.
  • Spousehood
    Apart from basic issues of gender equality before the law, there are still acknowledged distinctions concerning spousal obligations and expectations.  And these distinctions vary greatly across all manner of gender and social groupings.  The questions asked under this category are: just what, precisely, is expected, demanded, or permitted of a spouse?
These various issues had complicated interpretations and ramifications during the earlier part of the 20th century when Indians seeking sovereignty were looking for ways to unify their forces.  This was complicated, given the varying communities within India – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis, etc.  The practical approach adopted seems to have been to seek agreement among the various constituents concerning secular laws and to allow the individual communities to manage their own personal laws, among which were varying standards on spousehood.  In fact, even within Hinduism, given its complex nature and evolution, there is considerable variation around India concerning the understanding and application of personal laws.  So this general approach towards a common legal framework (i.e. that of distinguishing secular laws from personal laws) was deemed more likely to achieve a common buy-in across all sectors.  Thus the general movement towards modernism and universal rights seems to have been reflected more in the secular laws, while the personal laws were left to the traditional social managers and showed less progress towards modern, universal rights. 

As film scholar Jyotika Virdi has commented [3]:
“The Indian Republic inaugurated secular principles in criminal and commercial laws and all aspects of property — except inheritance. Inviolate personal laws would govern the private sphere, varying according to each community's dictates. However, these laws, requiring contemporary interpretations of medieval and ancient scriptures, fail the acid test of delivering gender justice.”
However, a major progressive breakthrough in the area of personal laws concerning gender equality was achieved in 1955 with the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act [4] that was to apply to all Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs.  This law applied more modern standards to the act of marriage, and, in particular it gave these women, for the first time, the right to sue for divorce.  For this reason it was popularly known as the “Divorce Bill”.  (As a point of comparison, we note that the right for a woman to get a divorce in Iran was not established until 1967 [5], and this law stimulated an enormous conservative backlash that helped fuel the later revolution there.)  Of course, more conservative elements of Indian society opposed the new divorce bill, so the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act was a major topic of discussion at the time.

In fact this law still represents a major milestone in Indian legal history, as noted by Jyotika Virdi [3]:
“. . .  the momentous passing of this Act [The Hindu Marriage Act] in the middle of this century still resonates powerfully with the current stalemate in Indian politics over the issue of replacing community-based, religious, personal laws with a secular, uniform civil code.  Briefly, personal laws enshrine Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious laws governing "family" matters (marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc.) in the Indian Constitution. The Uniform Civil Code, though ill-defined, is the unrealized ideal of secular laws meant to displace personal laws and transect all communities.”
. . .
“The struggle for a secular uniform civil code cutting across all religious communities to ensure gender justice remains an unrealized ideal.“
The romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. ‘55 is set with these women’s lib issues clearly as a backdrop, and that is what helps make the film special.  Interestingly, though, the film doesn’t adopt a staunchly pro-women’s lib stance; nevertheless, the film has its charm.

There are four principal characters in the story:
  • Anita Verma (played by Madhubala, the stage name for Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi) is a beautiful young woman from a well-to-do family.  She has just reached her 21st birthday, and it is now time for her to choose a husband.
  • Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar) is Anita's middle-aged aunt and the girl’s guardian  (Anita lives in Sita’s home).  Sita is a committed advocate of women’s rights and a strong supporter of the Hindu Marriage Act.
  • Preetam Kumar (Guru Dutt, the stage name for Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone) is an unemployed and virtually homeless cartoonist who falls in love with Anita.
  • Johnny (Johnny Walker, the stage name for Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi) is a photojournalist and Preetam’s close friend.  He is present here mostly for lightweight comic relief, but his acquaintanceships provide important connecting linkages in the story.
These characters all have their own principles that guide their actions in the story, which proceeds through four stages.

1.  Anita’s Situation 
The opening sequences show Anita’s aunt, Sita Devi, to be an energetic feminist activist and a strong opponent of the traditional way of treating women in Indian society.  In contrast, Anita’s nanny, representing a more traditional view, is seen mumbling under her breath that Sita is just aping the British.  Meanwhile Sita’s frivolous niece, Anita, is shown having a crush on a well-known tennis player, Ramesh.  One day while sneaking out of her house to watch one of Ramesh’s tennis matches, Anita stumbles into Preetam, who has been sleeping under the grandstand.  Although their encounter is only very brief, Preetam falls in love with Anita and later sings about her beauty to his friend Johnny.

Later Anita is shown attending her 21st birthday party, where her late father’s will is read to her.  She is informed that she will inherit all of her father’s vast fortune, but only if she is married within one month of her 21st birthday.  Now, Anita dreamily wants to quickly marry the indifferent-to-her Ramesh,  but her aunt Sita concocts a different plan.  Sita’s idea is to find some man who can be hired to agree to a sham marriage with Anita, which, by a prearranged contract, will be terminated by a quick divorce, thereby leaving the full inheritance to Anita (and Sita).

2.  Arranging a Marriage
Pursuing her own goal, Anita sends one of two reserved seats she had purchased at a cinema to Ramesh, at which event she hopes to meet Ramesh and cement a marriage agreement.  But Ramesh isn’t interested and gives the ticket to his friend Johnny, who in turn passes it on to Preetam.  This sets up a humorous surprise at the cinema when Anita is shocked to discover herself sitting next to the fellow she had briefly seen under the tennis grandstand.

Meanwhile, Sita pursues her own plan.  She calls up a newspaper editor she knows and asks him if he could recommend a young man who would agree to the sham marriage deal she wants to arrange.  The newspaper editor does know a good candidate who could use the extra money, Preetam, who has previously drawn cartoons for the newspaper but who is now out of work.  So Sita arranges to meet Preetam and proposes the deal.  Preetam initially rejects such a scam, but when he discovers that his attended bride will be the girl he loves, Anita, he accepts and signs the contract.

At the registrar, Preetam signs the marriage document and sees Anita there.  Although Anita seems to be attracted to Preetam, she rejects any man who would marry for money.  In any case, their contract stipulates that they are now not to have any contact.

3.  Married, But Apart
After some weeks, the newspaper editor offers Preetam a job as the paper’s cartoonist, and now Preetam has full-time employment.  But in this third act, although Preetam and Anita have some occasional accidental and pleasantly sociable encounters, they are still apart, much to Preetam’s dissatisfaction.  At one point Preetam draws a political cartoon that condemns Sita Devi’s dictatorial attitudes towards her underlings.  In response, the angered Sita comes over to Preetam and demands that the divorce that they had contracted be carried out immediately.  But Preetam refuses; he still wants a chance with Anita.

Eventually, Preetam masquerades as a taxi driver and kidnaps Anita, driving her out into the countryside.  It is Preetam’s hope that along the way the two of them can have the chance to get to know each other better and that he can warm up their relationship.  And this is what happens.  He drives her out to his brother’s traditional home, where his bhabhi (sister-in-law) greets them because her husband is away at the time.  This occasion gives Anita the chance to converse with  and see up close the life of a traditional Indian housewife.  As they talk, Preetam’s bhabhi, who after four years of marriage already has four children, sings the praises of the wife’s role to Anita.  And, for example, she even passionately tells Anita that “a housewife finds peace in housework”.

Anita seems moved by the bhabhi’s words, but at this point Sita Devi arrives on the scene, having tracked Anita and Preetam down.  Sita offers Preetam a cheque of 10,000 rupees to buy him off, and she shows him a telegram that Anita had sent to her asking her aunt to come rescue her and to proceed with the divorce.  Crestfallen, Preetam now finally gives up on his quest for Anita’s heart and orders Anita to return to her home with Sita.  Before she departs, though, Anita gets one last piece of advice from Preetam’s bhabhi – listen to your heart.

4.  Departure?
Anita is now confused and seems to have developed some feelings for Preetam.  But Preetam is now convinced from having read Anita’s telegram that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  So he decides that the best thing he can do for her is to facilitate a speedy divorce.  He arranges for Johnny to take some phony photos of him carousing with several flirtatious young women.  Then he goes to Sita Devi and returns the money she had given him and gives her the damning photo of him, which are soon published in the newspaper.  When Anita sees the disturbing photo of Preetam and the girls, she is shocked. 

So now Preetam has produced false, incriminating evidence which will not only expedite his upcoming device, but will also further alienate Anita from caring about him.  At this point there are now so many things separating Preetam and Anita – class, social expectations, conflicting perceptions of their true feelings for each other, and Sita’s enmity towards Preetam – that the chances of their getting together seem hopeless.  And Preetam, on his part, has given up all hope – he has booked an air ticket to permanently leave Bombay as soon as the divorce case is finished.  It seems that the only person who can save the day is the hitherto unsteady Anita.

You can watch the film, yourself, to see how things turn out in the dramatic finish.

Overall, there are many things to like about Mr. & Mrs. '55.  The production values, as are characteristic of mature Guru Dutt films, are excellent throughout.  I particularly liked the songs of OP Nayyar, which are pleasing on their own but are also very well integrated into the narrative.  Also, Madhubala has an appealing allure that seems to hearken back to an earlier era.  

And as I mentioned, the narrative itself is not just a frivolous pastry, but has some meaningful connections to a contemporary domestic issue.  In this connection, though, some critics have condemned what they see as the film’s ultimate support of a reactionary, antifeminist stance [1].  They seem to think that because of Sita Devi’s stubbornness, the film must have only accepted traditional, backward roles for women.  I don’t agree.  The film actually presents multiple perspectives on womanhood, and its ultimate endorsement is for that which can make one happy no matter what the circumstances – true love.

  1. Karan Bali, “Mr and Mrs 55", Upperstall, (2004).   
  2. Jai Arjun Singh, “FC Flashback: Why You Should Watch Guru Dutt’s Mr And Mrs 55", Film Companion, (27 March 2019).  
  3. Jyotika Virdi, “Mr. and Mrs. 55, Comedy of gender, law, and nation”, Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 75-85.   
  4. “The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955", Wikipedia, (30 June 2020).  
  5. “Iran's Family Protection Law”, Wikipedia, (25 January 2020).   

No comments: