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Women, the forgotten symbol of Guru Dutt's progressive ideas

The independent woman formed the crux of Guru Dutt's cinematic ideology. His heroines were independent of thought and action, and were often the rudder that directed the hero's character. On the auteur's birth anniversary, Shriram Iyengar looks at the role of women in Guru Dutt's films.

Shriram Iyengar

In his inaugural speech for the newly founded Progressive Writers Association in 1936, the leading writer of the age, Munshi Premchand, said, "It [our literary taste] is not satisfied now with the singing of frustrated love, or with writing to satisfy only our sense of wonder; it concerns itself with the problems of our life and such themes as have a social value."

The statement marked the beginning of a golden age in cinema as well. In the 1940s and 1950s, filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, and KA Abbas came together to script one of the most exciting periods in Hindi cinema, with Khan's Mother India (1957) becoming the iconic touchstone of the feminist ideal of India's progressive age.

However, among these, Guru Dutt's reputation as a filmmaker with a larger feminist vision is often reduced. A filmmaker of great artistic sensitivity and passion, Guru Dutt is known for his depiction of the artist's struggle with the world, love, and philosophy. Yet, his films carried within them independent, courageous heroines who were feminists by just being themselves. Working within the framework of commercial Hindi cinema, Guru Dutt created heroines who stood out for their realistic and practical outlook on life. 

The first sign of this was the director's eschewing of that pivotal female character that many other filmmakers swore by – the mother. Even in his only attempt at a full-fledged fantasy, Baaz (1953), Guru Dutt portrayed the Queen Regent as a passive accepter of her legacy as opposed to Geeta Bali's feisty princess Nisha who takes on a Portuguese slave ship to become a pirate queen and rebel. Beneath the rich fantasy adventure of the film lay social subtext that required little explanation. The idea of women as equal partners in social revolution was one of the pillars of Guru Dutt's idea of a progressive country. 

Geeta Bali in Baaz (1953)

A sign of Guru Dutt's intelligence was his ability to craft modern female characters within the framework of a traditional set-up. In Mr & Mrs 55 (1955), a film about arranged marriage, it is Anita (played by Madhubala) who chooses to enter into a fake marriage. In fact, it is the only marriage that actually takes place in the film.

In Pyaasa (1957), the character of Vijay is more dependent on the prostitute Gulaabo. It is Gulaabo who is the earner, has an independent life, and can do as she wills. Even his first love, played by Mala Sinha, is depicted as the practical woman who chooses to marry rich instead of risking her lot with the idealist poet.

In Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), the depressed film director, played by Guru Dutt himself, is hesitant of his love. It is Waheeda Rehman's Shanti who decides to chase him and make him confess. Neither is there any indication of a 'happy marriage' in any of his films, bar Mr & Mrs 55.

Guru Dutt and Madhubala in Mr & Mrs 55 (1955)

Another fascinating aspect is that most of Guru Dutt's heroines were working women. A man who fell in love with and married the singer Geeta Roy for her sense of independence, Guru Dutt was clear in his ideal of the modern woman. These women work, not for the sake of their heroes, but for their own betterment. Gulaabo, the prostitute in Pyaasa, is unafraid of declaring who she is. It offers her the independence no man can. In Kaagaz Ke Phool, the heroine's disagreement with her beau does not prevent her from working in other films. Nor does she give up on her career.

Supporting characters like Rajani, the veterinarian, in Kaagaz Ke Phool act as emotional support to the hero, but remain more devoted to their work. This was the Nehruvian ideal of women in a progressive society that Guru Dutt portrayed. 

Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Abrar Alvi in his biography Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey often quotes Guru Dutt's mother as having been the biggest influence on him. As such, it is natural that the director sought to portray the women in his films as neither saviours nor moral guides, but as real women who were guilty of sins and capable of great sacrifices, constantly questioning society's tendency to straitjacket women into roles.

By shooting Sahir Ludhianvi's lament, 'Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hain', the director raised the banner for women. In an age in which films continue to stereotype and portray women as upholders of social morality, the great Indian family, and social order, it might be right to raise that lament again.