Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mr & Mrs '55 - should have come with a warning..

Apparently tons of people were perfectly aware that Mr & Mrs '55, the Guru Dutt-directed romantic comedy that is neither very romantic nor all that comedic, had a plot more or less composed of aggravating anti-feminist/misogynist ideology drivel. Well, I sadly wasn't, so I actually bought the DVD and was fully anticipating a good time.

The plot should have been a warning sign, but I knew nothing of it, going in. Madhubala plays Anita, a rich girl who will inherit her father's riches after marriage. Her aunt, Sitadevi, is the film's unfortunate "Straw Feminist" (this link is to a great video that explains the term and the use of the stereotype in Hollywood films), who is partly responsible for the new divorce law, which makes divorcing easier. She hatches a plan to get Anita married to poor cartoonist Preetam (Guru Dutt), but he only agrees to this plan because he's met and fallen in love with Anita.

There's a way to be not all that feminist a film, but still not annoying. Where this story falls down is the fact that not only is Sitadevi a gross, exaggerated stereotype of a manhating feminist (and it is annoyingly underlined that she has "learned" feminism from her Western counterparts, because naturally there are no Indian feminists whatsoever!), she's also the sole villain. While in Hollywood, the "Straw Feminist" may be used to discredit feminism to say "everybody's already equal", in here her ridiculous, self-serving ideology is labelled feminist to prop up conservative ideology of women's natural place being in the home, doing chores and looking after children. Unlike most real life feminists, who advocate women having the choice to marry and work, or marry and work inside the home, or not marry at all, for that matter, Sitadevi naturally wants to dictate this choice herself.

I'll be honest: this film nearly ruined Guru Dutt for me.

The sad thing, this is not a terrible film. It would have been fine without the blatant ideology - they could have portrayed Sitadevi as a terrible woman (still not a feminist thing!) but that her feminism and her awful behaviour are not necessarily directly related. But because the film wants to push the idea that feminists are evil beasts who describe being a housewife as slavery and are against women making any choices that aren't "for the cause", it casts a real shadow over everything I enjoyed about the film - the Madhubala-Guru Dutt chemistry, the nicely frequent OP Nayar songs, the Johnny Walker comedy bits. There are numerous cute moments that could make up a good film, if I could ignore the ideological dialogues that pop up every now and then.

There was one particular terrible bit of dialogue, where Preetam's sister-in-law tells Anita, after she asks about the woman's husband and whether he beats her, "You sometimes get rocks in the rice, but you don't stop eating the rice." While I fully recognise that a lot may have been lost in the translation of this particular bit of dialogue, this bit was just downright offensive to me.

I should also point out, there are a great number of highly credible critiques of Western mainstream feminism from the Indian perspective - but this film and the ideas it presents are not some of them. There have been discussions of how the feminism of English women propped up colonialist and orientalist ideas that further subjugated Indian women, as well as how more modern white women "spoke for" women in poorer countries, rather than allowing them a voice of their own. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Chandra Talpade Mohanty are just some of the people presenting the critiques I'm talking about.) But that's my Gender Studies minor talking, so let's get back to the film..

Johnny Walker and this actress, Yasmeen, who bears a vague resemblance to Rani Mukherji were probably my favourite thing when it comes down to it. They also were in my favourite song from the film, "Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji".

If you're at all like me in this department, just skip this film. As you can see from the screencaps, my SKY label DVD was also terrible in terms of picture quality, so that's definitely, definitely not worth the purchase, either.


Stuart Martin said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm always interested to see what others think of this film, and you were much kinder to it than I was! I thought the first half was a sweet, unremarkable romance, probably because Johnny and Yasmeen seemed to be the focus (how could anyone not love Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji?).

The second half, though, I found to be actively repellent. I have raged against it every time I've mentioned it, and will continue to do so. The explicit endorsement of spousal abuse is just unforgiveable. Particularly odd given that the Johnny/Yasmeen storyline is relatively modern in outlook.

veracious said...

I pretty much agree with you. I think I was kinder to it because I wanted so much to see good in it, and because I liked the leads so much. And everything was so easily "fixable"! You can have a female villain that complicates romance without this propagandic ideology.

Meh. :|