Women in the films of Guru Dutt


(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. Continue reading