(First published in SOCIALIST FACTOR, August 2015, India. All rights reserved. To quote, share or otherwise publish, please contact me via this blog).
Everyone remembers the great socialist directors of Hindi cinema as the maestros of the golden age: Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Satayajit Ray, among others, live on as heroes and idols throughout cinematic generations. They were geniuses with a social conscience, whose great nationalist films told the story of India’s rise from poverty and the shadow of colonialism by dint of the struggle of labourers and farmhands, grafters, drifters and artists, and honest ordinary folk from the lower middle classes. But what of women? What was the legacy for women and for women’s struggle for liberation of these great (male) auteurs of the golden age?
Mehboob Khan’s Mother India stands for all time as the archetypal image not only of the nation and its suffering and its honour but also of the womanhood of its female citizens. Nargis’s portrayal of Radha set the standard for all depictions of women in film for a generation and longer: women were the bearers of the nation’s integrity, honour and fortitude; they were the foundation stone of the family and therefore of the nation itself, they were the lynchpin around which all ideas of truth and right and love and worship and duty revolved. They were the moral guarantors of the nation’s heart and soul and the endurance of its culture. Whenever women characters appeared on screen elsewhere, this was the touchstone by which they were measured and from which they should not deviate.
Were other ideas and ideals of womanhood possible then – and are they possible now, or does the Mother India archetype still dominate? Raj Kapoor was famous for pushing the boundaries of the sexual portrayal of women and love relationships in his films, challenging the conventional mores of how women should look on screen and be seen by the camera, as well as for his off-screen illicit romance with his star, Nargis. And in the decade before the golden era reached its peak, studio stars like Fearless Nadia portrayed women as action heroines, riding to the rescue in imitation of Hollywood’s ‘Perils of Pauline’ movies.
We remember Guru Dutt for his portrayals of lost and melancholic artists, for the poetic vision he brought to cinema and for Johnny Walker’s comedy tracks. And of course for his own personal tragedy and early death. But few consider the interesting – and groundbreaking – women characters in his films, or what perspective they brought to bear on the lives of women in India. Yet in fact Guru Dutt was one of the directors in India cinema – with the extraordinary exception of Canada-based Deepa Mehta in contemporary times – who had most to say from a socialist and nationalist perspective about women, about love and marriage, about ‘feminism’ (1950s-style), and about the conventions of women’s portrayal on film. In doing so he set a precedent for women’s roles that few in popular cinema have followed and none have matched since.
No one could argue that Guru Dutt’s films are feminist. His movies are not ‘women’s films’ but chart the realities of urban society in a rapidly modernising state, for the most part through the eyes of male protagonists. However, they are also critiques of that society and of both the legacy of colonialism and the feudal traditions of the past, including of the family. His themes encompass poverty and unemployment, isolation and loneliness, ambition, success and failure, artistic creativity, sexuality and desire, alienation, identity, death and despair. His films are explorations of social mobility, of the relationship of citizens to the new state, and of modern romance. As with most Indian films, then and now, women generally appear within the context of the family, so Guru Dutt was working firmly within existing traditions of the typical melodramatic ‘realism’ of the ‘social’ film in mainstream Bollywood – albeit middle class in concept.
Yet this is why his women characters are so interesting: because although they are situated within traditional contexts, they also challenge those frameworks and conventions from within. From the start, with Geeta Bali in Baaz, Guru Dutt shows us a society in which women’s roles are used to define new ways of acting in a nationalist context: should women be as the Queen Regent is – passive accepters of the colonial and patriarchal legacy of oppression, and unable to act for themselves? Or should they be like Nisha, who takes over a Portuguese slave ship, dons the mantle of pirate queen and leads a mutiny, by which she eventually restores the kingdom to Ravi, its rightful ruler, becoming his equal partner in a new national destiny? The film may be an adventurous romp, but the socialist and utopian subtext of equal partnership between men and women as citizens of new India is already established. This is an idea Guru Dutt goes on to refine throughout his films, in progressively more complex, individualistic and tragic ways.
Guru Dutt’s films are also unusual in that women are rarely presented as mothers. When they are, these mothers are often weak or feckless. Ravi’s mother the Queen Regent in Baaz is a feeble character who cannot save her son or her country; in Pyaasa, the only other significant mother in Guru Dutt’s films is kept in an oppressed state by her boorish sons while her artistic son Vijay is an outcast from their lives. She cannot save him, nor he her. Meanwhile, Lady B B Varma in Kaagaz Ke Phool is a colonial snob, and Suresh’s wife is decadent and neglectful. There is no central heroic mother figure here. What is more, the traditional marriage ceremony so common in modern Bollywood films is also absent. Preetam and Anita’s wedding in Mr & Mrs 55 – the only one shown on screen – is a sham, a mockery of an arranged marriage cooked up by a ‘feminist’ for financial gain, and not an authentic or equal relationship based in love. This does not mean that there is no suggestion of a ‘happy ever after’ in his films, only that it does not appear on screen. And what is projected as the future of a couple – such as the relationship between Vijay and Gulab the prostitute in Pyaasa – may suggest a very untraditional arrangement in both social and cinematic terms.
Equally unusual is the fact that almost all the women in Guru Dutt’s films work for a living. Guru Dutt himself wrote in a letter to his sons: “a person who does not work is a fool”, and it is clear from the content of his films that he included women in that statement. Famously, of course, he was married to a working woman: Geeta Roy the playback singer, whose career was as illustrious as his own. In Guru Dutt films, even women with bit parts and in song picturisations are shown at work. Women are depicted as vets, office typists, actors, shopkeepers, mechanics, entertainers, landladies, doctors, teachers, students, maids, construction workers, fisherwomen, land workers, nurses, ship’s captains and prostitutes. Those few who are not economically productive in some form are presented critically – either it is a character fault or the legacy of colonialism or feudal decadence. And while women’s employment status is sometimes amusing or cause for sexist comment, these views are eventually overcome and the woman’s job is accepted through appreciation of her skill. Women’s work is seen not as an impediment to marriage – as can still be the case in contemporary cinema – but as an asset and attraction: Juliet the horse vet in Kaagaz Ke Phool or Rajani the doctor who treats Madan’s sister for TB in Baazi are examples. It is also suggested that their work continues to be important even after marriage – these are not women who give up work in exchange for husbands and children. Even Vijay’s mother in Pyaasa complains that she wants to work but her sons will not let her.
In Guru Dutt’s films women’s professional status is seen as a marker of the modern nation’s progressive new image, reflecting Nehruvian optimism regarding the ‘productive citizen’ in national socialist planning. Women’s work is essential for forging ideal citizens and the citizenship contract in post-Independence India. Even prostitutes are economically active and this is understood not as an individual moral failure but an economic necessity. It is also a necessity that is condemned as part of an abusive and unequal social system that exploits women in a manner unfit for a progressive nation. In this, as in other aspects, Guru Dutt’s films do not enforce state social-patriarchal authoritarian moral codes. Can this still be said for the majority of Bollywood films now?
Guru Dutt’s most interesting and complex film – nominally directed by Abrar Alvi – is Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, the story of the young Bhootnath’s employment in the haveli of an old feudal family and of his illicit relationship with the tragically unfulfilled wife of the younger son – Chhoti Bahu. It is a coming of age story in a time of the disintegration of the old feudal way of life in which Bhootnath’s innocence and his horror at the decadence and depravity of the old ways is revisited in flashback, from a modern age where – it is suggested – such cruelty and neglect in marriage is no longer the norm. Meena Kumari’s portrayal of Chhoti Bahu’s descent into alcoholism and breaking of social taboos dominates both story and screen throughout.
We have become familiar with the notion that desire in cinema is constructed through the ‘gaze’ of the camera, usually a male voyeuristic gaze. Women are the objects of desire – both fetishized on screen and excluded as spectators off it – while men are its subjects and controllers of visual power. Yet in Guru Dutt films, men are also objects to be gazed at – particularly Guru Dutt himself – while few of his women characters are fetishized except Chhoti Bahu, who partly fetishizes herself. What is more, the ‘gaze’ of the camera – in V.K. Murthy’s wonderful, socially aware cinematography – is never unconscious of its power to frame relationships. Whether this is a subaltern view or a transgressive sexual view, the spectator’s position is always undermined, layered or questioned by the mise-en-scene of the film.
Cinemagoers are also familiar with the conventional notion of the ‘bad’ female character, the ‘vamp’: a seductive ‘other woman’ who is always punished by coming to a nasty end. Yet in Guru Dutt’s earlier films Aar Paar and Baazi the vamp characters, Nina and Rita the nightclub singers, are still sympathetic. We understand that this is just a job and they need to live. Although Nina dies, the audience is invited to forgive her. By Pyaasa, Gulab the prostitute is, in effect, the heroine, and is no more vampish than Meena, who sells herself into a high-class marriage – just another form of prostitution. In Kaagaz ke Phool, Shanti, also the notional vamp, has greater moral integrity, and is more loving and nurturing than Suresh’s on-screen wife, despite her socially illegitimate status as an actress.
Once Guru Dutt reaches Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, his films have progressively transformed vamps from shallow ciphers of the seductive ‘other woman’ into the cloistered, complex, self-destructive and tragically unfulfilled wife, Chhoti Bahu, tormented by her own desires. The stereotypical division between ‘madonna’ and ‘whore’ no longer exists. Instead, the kotha has entered the marital bedroom (as has the camera and spectator) and the line between honourable married woman, prostitute, performer or ‘tawaif’ has become inextricably blurred. What are such marriages if not materialist transactions or sexual slavery, Guru Dutt’s films ask? Why should a woman not express desire and seek personal fulfillment, just as men do? What respect should we give a society that perpetuates such double standards, and what damage does this do to women’s lives? Are not the women in kothas our mothers, sisters, daughters, even our wives? – And yet society rejects and stigmatises them, while confining, neglecting and repressing those women who legitimately should be loved and desired.
Guru Dutt’s films are more modern than most current mainstream Hindi cinema productions in the roles they give to women. The questions they raise about the values and strictures conventional Indian society places on femininity and motherhood and how this limits women’s lives, are questions that still apply today. These films offer fully rounded, self-determining female characters and articulate women’s increasing moral, social and economic power in a society in flux. They open potentially radical avenues in cinema that could have been pursued in the decades since but, on the whole, have not.
Over and over again contemporary Bollywood reinforces the status quo for women: acceptance of marriages as directed by the family, ambition or career as an impediment to family or threat to the social order, romance as the central preoccupation of life, and motherhood as the archetypal ideal of femininity. They are narrow traditional roles even when disguised in revealing glitzy clothing. Where are the women in movies now whose economic participation is central to their identity and essential to their lives? Where are the films in which motherhood and marriage are not the only or pre-eminent objectives for women characters? Where are the films that show women’s desire as legitimate and endorse their resistance to the repressive sexual conventions of society? Where are the female action heroines, or the cinematography that allows women to be more than just fetishes for the camera to ogle?
Guru Dutt asked, from the lane of the kothawalis, in Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal lyrics: “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain?” (Those who are proud of India, where are they now?). Today we might ask, in parallel: where are those who are proud of Hindi cinema now, when it comes to women and women’s lives?
This article is based on research conducted by the author for her MA dissertation on Guru Dutt, at SOAS, University of London.