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An unconventional heroine: Meena Kumari in Miss Mary

In a month-long celebration of Meena Kumari's films, we take a look at the 1957 film Miss Mary in which the actress played the vivacious character.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The year 1957 was a remarkable one in Hindi cinema. Mehboob Khan’s iconic Mother India released that year and became the highest grossing film of the decade. Other landmark films that released that year include BR Chopra’s Naya Daur, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Nasir Hussain’s Tumsa Nahin Dekha, amongst several others. But it was also the year when the superstar of the South and the King of romance, Gemini Ganesan made his Hindi film debut opposite Meena Kumari in Miss Mary.

Directed by LV Prasad, the film was a remake of the Telugu film Missamma (1955), which was simultaneously shot in Tamil as Missiamma as well. Ganesan and actress Jamuna reprised their roles in all three languages.

Based on Rabindranath Maitra’s play Manmoyee Girls School, the story of Miss Mary has been adapted several times for the screen. The first adaptation was in Bengali in 1935, directed by Jyotish Bannerjee and starred Kanan Devi in her first hit film.

The Hindi adaptation was also a big success and Ganesan was introduced to the Hindi film industry. But over time Miss Mary was largely forgotten, in part due to the light-hearted comedy being overshadowed by the successes of more intense themes and perhaps as Meena Kumari’s oeuvre became defined by the tragic roles that she later essayed, her cheery roles faded from public memory.

Meena Kumari was born on 1 August 1932. As part of our month long celebration of Meena Kumari’s films we remember the vivacious character of Miss Mary in the eponymous romance comedy.

The story

Miss Mary (Meena Kumari) and Arun (Gemini Ganesan) are teachers who suddenly find themselves without a job. Initially, they compete with each other as they are vying for the same job but when Arun finds an advertisement for a teaching position, he needs Mary’s help as the job is for a married couple to teach at a school. Despite her immense reluctance, he convinces her to pose as his wife for a few months as jobs are hard to come by. She agrees but only because she desperately needs the money to get rid of an unwanted suitor, who is willing to write off her family’s debt if she marries him.

The film also incorporates the lost-and-found theme as the school that they join is named after the founder Rai Saheb’s (Jagdish Sethi) lost daughter Lakshmi, whom they’ve been trying to find for the past 16 years. They’ve even enlisted the help of a self-styled detective Raju (Kishore Kumar) to help them find their child. The only clue he has is that the child was wearing a particular locket and has a black mole on her right foot.

Rai Saheb and his wife (Achala Sachdev) welcome the couple with open arms and treat Mary as their own daughter, even admonishing her for not wearing sindoor and offering advice of the sadhu to approach in order to be blessed with children! They also start showering her with gifts and insist on dressing her up. All this is a tad too intrusive for Mary, who in any case is at odds with pretending to be married. She feels overwhelmed and does not appreciate the overly enthusiastic reception. Arun is more understanding of the old couple and accepts their invitations for dinners etc., which upsets Mary, who wants to get away from them.

To add fuel to fire, the younger daughter of Rai Saheb, Sitara (Jamuna), takes a liking to Arun, infuriating Mary even more! The unusual storyline and the crisp editing ensure that the constant bickering between the romantic pair is seldom tiresome.

Miss Mary also has a stellar supporting cast who add to the humour in the film. Chief amongst them is Om Prakash who plays a money grubbing conman Nakdau, and suitably sings the song, 'Pehle Paisa Phir Bhagwaan'. He even advises Arun that one of the best methods to make money is to impersonate a priest looking to get funds for building a temple!

An unlikely heroine

One of the most unique features of the film is its characterisation of the heroine. In her mannerisms and behaviour, Mary is a most unconventional heroine — she doesn’t like being fawned over by strangers, likes to maintain her space, wants to be consulted for all decisions, and detests being told what to do. In fact, I cannot recall another heroine showing her displeasure as much as Kumari does in this role!

Meena Kumari dazzles as the feisty woman who refuses to be bullied by anyone, be it the doting old couple, her make-believe husband or the pest of a landlord! She is a Christian pretending to be married to a Hindu and needs to figure out the various traditions and formalities that she is expected to observe as a married woman, remarking at one point, “Yeh reet kis chidiya ka naam hai?” There is a lovely scene where she is awkwardly trying to apply sindoor and expresses a gamut of emotions in just a short scene!ll

A far cry from being a tragedienne, a label that seems to have subsumed all her other wonderful facets as an actress, Meena Kumari is spontaneous and immensely expressive in every scene in the film. With incredible innocence and charm, she keeps the poise and bearing of a school teacher throughout, even when she is stomping off in anger! There is also a beautiful dream sequence in pantomime where Mary imagines she is a princess and Arun, her prince, and dances delicately like a ballerina.

The melodies

The other notable feature of Miss Mary is its music. With music direction by Hemant Kumar, every song in Miss Mary is memorable. Aside from the popular melody 'O Raat Ke Musafir', the film also features a duet by the Mangeshkar sisters, Lata and Asha, 'Sakhi Ri Sun Bole Papiha Uss Paar' and the song that aptly captures the war of the sexes, “Yeh mard bade dil sard bade bedard”.

Although Kishore Kumar isn’t the hero of this film, he displays his immense musical talent in the song 'Gaana Na Aaya'. With crazy lyrics like 'O my sita/ bablu papita', the song is a nutty medley of various music forms and styles, which includes the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. It exemplifies Kumar’s incredible vocal range and ends hilariously with a “cock-a-doodle-doo”! 

Watch the song here:  

 

 

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