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


Professional reading agencies


I have been offered the opportunity to have part of my novel read by one of the professional reading consultancies that advise on manuscripts and scout for agents. This was unexpected and very welcome. I am applying with butterflies doing little jitterbugs in my belly.

Although Black Tongue of Fire is nowhere near ready to submit to an agent, it might just about scrape over the threshold of acceptable enough to bear a first reading by someone critical. It has been to an Arvon course, after all, and got a tiny bit of it’s groove back. By deadline date in early December it will have to be newly suited and booted – and there’s just time for me to get my act together for NaNo in November in between. I guess it will mean feedback sometime in the new year.

Here are a few extracts from the form I had to fill in, asking for a bio and information or questions for the prospective reader, to be submitted alongside a synopsis and the typescript itself:

I’m a former journalist/editor with degrees in English (Oxford), Women’s Studies (TCD – Ireland) and South Asian Studies (SOAS) – all relevant to the subjects of my novel. I travelled to India in the 1990s where I spent a crazy 6 months living with an Indian family who ran a hotel in Rajasthan in the city in which my novel is set, at a time when its ancient monuments were being restored. I previously lived in Egypt, where I worked as a teacher, and subsequently in Kathmandu, Nepal, working for a year for UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) where I met and married my Nepalese husband.

I started writing (again) in around 2002 (having been badly put off by stuffy schoolteachers) after I returned from India. I went to a great beginner’s writing class at Mary Ward Centre in London, where I accidentally started writing what went on to become Black Tongue of Fire. Then I attended an Arvon course in 2007, and finally picked up the threads of my novel again in 2012 when I embarked on NaNoWriMo for the first time.

As well as writing my novel Black Tongue of Fire, I won the Words With Jam First Page Competition (2012) (and have been longlisted twice since) and had a short story shortlisted for the 2013 Asham Award. I am applying now because I *know* it needs a lot of rewriting and I’m hoping for confirmation that there is the germ of something there to make it worth the next year’s work – and some ideas of how to go about that to give it the best chance of finding an agent and publisher. I think this is in some ways a mould-breaker. I think it might make a great film, too.

Audience: Pitched somewhere in the ballpark of a post-colonial MM Kaye. Readers of Kate Mosse’s historical sagas, with an added Asian twist? Indophiles.

Questions: Lots! This is a first draft so it is still very raw and underprepared. Some is barely more than outline – in fact I think of it as a very detailed set of notes for the book I would eventually like to write. At present it has a lot of what Zadie Smith calls ‘scaffolding’ that will need to come out but is there to help me build the plot and find out where I’m going. I also had hoped to add in many more cultural details and it needs revising for style as it was written very quickly. Suggestions for where to prune would be helpful.

I should explain a bit about the structure: the two main modern-day characters are women, the secondary lead characters are the men they love. Each of these four has their own strand of the story, narrated in 3rd person, interwoven with each other. In between, the historical (12th century) sections are narrated in diary form by a young boy (a princeling) in 1st person. Finally, the overarching structure – the prologues and section headings and epilogue – are narrated by Kali, the goddess, who of course knows everything and is enormously cynical, to an unknown/unnamed listener/reader: ‘you’. To underline the themes of time/history as eternal/circular and repeating itself in variations, and the power of memory/longing, the historical action and the modern-day backstory are all narrated in the *present* tense, while the immediate contemporary action is narrated in the *past* tense. This schema will be clearer in the final draft.

The ‘genre’ is not entirely realist – it lies somewhere along the magic realism/fantasy border, without (excepting Kali as a character) actually being ‘magical’ anywhere. It is epic, often comic (though also tragic), and very much not in the bracket of ‘true gritty experience’ contemporary novelistic realism. For me, it is also about experimenting with melodrama, in traditional Bollywood movie style: I studied Indian cinema, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s but also 1990s, and want to bring back some of that sweep of melodrama, emotion and romance into the reading experience (and into my writing).

However, the novel does very much encompass real-life – live – issues, fictionalised and displaced to an alternative setting. It covers big themes including grief and loss; violence and rape; communal conflict and rioting (its pivot is the Ayodhya Babri mosque demolition and riots in 1992); religion and religious fundamentalism; multi-racial inter-faith relationships; the importance and subversiveness of love; and the clash of western and sub-continental values. Is there a space for this in contemporary literature (if not, there should be!)?

In part the larger than life-ness is how India is, in part it is a romance/fantasy, and in part it is a way of tackling certain political issues (in UK multiculturalism as well as India’s own politics) without confronting them too baldly. Were I to write it as realism, I suspect it might be almost unpublishable and, even as it is, I expect it to be a little controversial.

I have more aims and undercurrents for this than I’ve been able to explain here – ideas I want the novel to embody that are culturally topical and timely in many ways. If it works, it would be a big statement couched in quite a deceptively accessible framework of adventure and romance. A punch in a velvet glove.

Ambitious, I know, but I’d like to think I might somehow be able to pull it off, having got this far!

Now I need to polish, submit….and wait.     INDIA_-_Demolizione_(F)