An unusual twist on ‘boy meets girl’, Mr & Mrs ’55 is more ‘boy meets girl, boy paid to marry girl, boy loses girl, girl loses boy, boy and girl reconciled’.
The film is directed by Guru Dutt, who cast himself to star as the unemployed cartoonist Preetam Kumar alongside Madhubala’s young heiress Anita.
The plot sees Preetam contracted by Anita’s feminist aunt Sita Devi to marry Anita, thus saving her inheritance, but only on the understanding he will divorce Anita when asked to.
Anita’s early friendship with Preetam evaporates when she learns of the deal and there follows an engaging to and fro, as Preetam attempts to win over Anita, eventually throws in the towel and she, learning she has been deceived by her aunt, stages a last-minute dash to stop him leaving.
The film is the first in this run of classic Bollywood films that has had the sort of ensemble cast you’d expect to see in modern Hindi films. In addition to Preetam, Anita and Sita Devi, Mr & Mrs ’55 introduces viewers to Preetam’s long-suffering best friend Johnny (and his own romantic subplot), his editor, his landlord and her husband, his sister-in-law and extended family. On Anita’s side there’s the tennis player she is infatuated with at the start of the film, her nanny (ayar?), her aunt Sita Devi of course and Devi’s secretary.
The variety of characters, not to mention locations, opens up the film compared to, say, Andaaz, really allowing the story to breathe.
One thing it does have in common with Andaaz is the explicit contrast it makes between Indian and western values. The latter are represented by the divorce bill Sita Devi is campaigning in support of and her overly-rigid feminist principles, which the film satirises. Thus she and her shrill colleagues are one moment strident activists, the next easily distracted but thoughts of sari cloth.
But to over analyse this aspect of a 54-year old film is not fair, particularly as that sort of characterisation was very much of its time. See, for example, the slightly ridiculous characters that feature in western films – the proto-suffragette of Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins imediately springs to mind. (There are undoubtably films, and people’s attitudes of course, that continue to be of that time, but that’s another matter,)
If I have a complaint about the film, it’s that it was over too soon and didn’t have a big courtroom showdown I’d been expected, but it’s a minor issue with a lovely film.
Reading around for this post I delved into the background of the stars of Mr & Mrs ’55 and Mahal (see below), and in particular Madhubala.
The screen name of Mumtaz Jehan Begum, Madhubala’s life story seems to be crying out for a biopic, if there’s not one already.
She suffered from an overbearing father, a doomed love affair with Dilip Kumar and many poor film choices that saw her labelled ‘box office poison’. Finally there was her tragic early death aged 36 from heart disease, a condition that kept her bed-ridden for the last nine year of her life.
I’ve been keeping half an eye out for a decent book on the history of Indian cinema (please leave a comment or contact me if you can recommend one) as I really enjoy investigating this area of cinema, which I’ve only relatively recently discovered.
Madhubala also stared in Mahal (palace). The story of a palace seemingly haunted by the spirit of a doomed lover and the property’s new owner, who finds himself consumer with longing for her.
I’m not really in a position to write about the film, because I couldn’t manage to watch it it all the way through. Added to that I’m not much of a fan of ghost stories, but my problems with the film ran far deeper than that.
For a start it so boring I could only force myself to watch the first hour before turning it off and deleting it from the hard-drive recorder.
The problem was the pacing, which rendered everything Ashok Kumar’s character Hari Shankar did pensive. So we had pensive pacing, pensive smoking and pensive stares. None of which contributed much to our understanding of the character’s mindset, other than to suggest that he’d always been mildly disturbed. Everything, in the portion of the film I did watch, seemed so slow that often Kumar seemed out-acted by his cigarette.
It ended up being an under-cooked, narrow film, in fact the very opposite of Mr & Mrs ’55. Mahal‘s story, lack of characters and the absence of anything much happening, all suggested a theatre play dragged kicking and screaming onto celluloid.
Ultimately my favourite thing about Mahal was that it was produced by the Bombay Talkies company, which I’d assumed what merely a euphemism for Hindi cinema.