One particularly gloomy morning this week, I decided to wake myself up with songs from Mr. & Mrs. ’55. They prompted me to watch this Guru Dutt-Madhubala classic again after all these years. I remember watching it for the first time with my parents when I was just beginning to make sense of the world. The family used to watch movies together most nights, but this one stuck in my head because my mother used to refer to herself and my father as the titular “Mr. & Mrs. ’55”, courtesy the address we lived at those days.
At the outset, I must warn that most people in today’s day and age will find the anti-feministic and traditionalist view of women portrayed in this film quite unpalatable. But it is important to view this film more as an artifact of the era in which it was made. Barely eight years after India became an independent nation, a need was felt by the creative community to help uphold Indian values and ensure that society found a structure. In their minds, issues like the Communist movement, a deplorable job market and the “liberal” upper class trying to reform the entire society at large without any consideration for the cultural backgrounds that support/oppose these reforms in the West/Indian subcontinent were more important to address (most of the feminism shown in this film is clearly about aping the West) . I am not in full support of the views portrayed in this film, but I like it tremendously it for its technical brilliance, the witty dialogue, the performances of the lead and the supporting cast, the camerawork, the songs and for the simple fact that it is a story told well for the milieu it is set in.
The story is of a rich heiress, Anita (Madhubala) in love with the idea of romance. But her life is fiercely controlled by her feminist aunt, Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar), who considers her learnings from life in the US and Europe the ultimate life mantra, naturally, without any reference to any context whatsoever. To inherit her wealth, Anita must be married within a month of her 20th birthday. Her aunt organises a sham marriage with a brilliant out-of-a-job cartoonist, Preetam (Guru Dutt) so that an easy divorce can be filed within a few months. Unknown to Sita Devi, Preetam and Anita have met several times before and feel some chemistry with each other. Friends and relatives of Preetam (Johnny Walker, Yasmin, Kumkum and Tuntun) help him woo his miffed lady love. The obligatory confusion ensues, conflicts happen, the lovers have a spat, and are reunited at the airport (I am assuming this was the first of many times in Bollywood that the airport was used for a reunion of the “hero-heroine” jodi).
This is one of Guru Dutt’s comedies as director and lead actor. While he is more popular for his tragedies like Pyaasa and Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, few know that he wove satire and social commentary very well into his comedies. The legendary V.K. Murthy was the cinematographer, and even now you will love the way the actors, the director and the cinematographer come together to create the most expressive and luminous close-up shots throughout the film. It’s not just the dialogue and the screenplay by the final of the trio, Abrar Alvi, or the lyrics of the songs, but the slight arching of an eyebrow and the mischief in the eye that do most of the talking. It is no wonder that the Dutt-Murthy-Alvi team is still talked about as among the most creative trio that made Bollywood of the 50’s light up the way it did.
The songs written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, composed by O.P. Nayyar, with most of them sung by Geeta Dutt and Mohd. Rafi are a class apart. They are hummable, have charming lyrics and are beautifully picturised. The variety, starting from “Ae ji dil par hua aisa jadoo” and “Thandi hawa kaali ghata” to “Neele aasmani” and “Udhar tum haseen ho” with a “Ab to ji hone laga” and “Chal diye banda nawaaz” thrown in, is quite nice. The actors are all brilliant. Even the supporting cast comprising of Lalita Pawar, Johnny Walker, Yasmin, Kumkum, Tuntun and a very young Jagdeep in a cameo execute their lines with panache and apt humour. What do I say about Guru Dutt and Madhubala? They are effortless and immensely likeable. It is a pity neither lived beyond 40 and it is sad we could not see them more than we would have liked to.
If you’re lover of old Bollywood classics, I am sure you have watched this movie. If you’re someone waiting to be inducted into Guru Dutt’s work, this may be the film to start with before you move on to his more sombre work.Even if you’re not much of an film aficionado, you will enjoy Mr. & Mrs. ’55 because it is a simple story and will appeal to everyone.