by Jyotika Virdi
Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 75-85, 130
Guru Dutt's 1955 film Mr. and Mrs. 55 opens with a newspaper boy's full-throated sales pitch:
A crowd gathers clamoring for the paper and the camera follows a young bespectacled woman buying a copy. The reference is to the Hindu Code Bill, which became the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955, after fifteen long years of acrimonious debate. Apropos to the romantic comedy genre, Guru Dutt's film depicts a picaresque world of female anarchy and trouble which the new law would presumably engender.[open notes in new window] This essay will focus on how gender was historically inscribed in the Indian constitution — an inscription derived from prevalent discourses on woman, community, and nation — and also on how romantic comedy of the time effectively functions as a cinematic genre from which we can gain a feminist understanding of India's troubled gender politics.
Coming at a critical historical moment — the birth of the Indian nation fifty years ago — Mr. and Mrs. 55 — registers in an exemplary way contemporaneous discourses on gender, class, and nation. On another register, the film suggests answers to general questions about Indian cinema. For instance, post-independence Hindi cinema relentlessly glorifies women's subordination to men, when in all other matters of national reconstruction it is relatively forward looking. This is because romantic love is the device Hindi films repeatedly use to transcend all kinds of social schisms in India: between rich/ poor, rural/ urban, upper/ lower caste and recently, Hindu/ Muslim religio-ethnic communities. Yet in Mr. and Mrs. 55, heterosexual love itself or, more specifically, the modality regulating it, is thrown into crisis. Within public discourse, the film raises the question of how female agency is expected to negotiate the private (love/ marriage/ family) and the public (legal/ national/ political) spheres.
Those familiar with the teleology of gender and nationalism in India will recognize my cinematic analysis as redirecting Partha Chatteijee's original political question toward a different historical moment. Chatteijee, among other historians, asked why the 20th century nationalist movement abruptly closed off a passionate interrogation of gender politics, which had been first articulated by the 19th century social reform movement. Based on an exegesis of woman/ mother/ home/ nation, popular discursive hopes on Indian womanhood in the 19th century. Chatterjee convincingly concludes that by the turn of the century the "woman's question" was successfully sublimated within the nationalist one. Social-reform discourses framing women's issues receded as the Indian woman became the embodiment of tradition, home and nation, conflating gender with race, the struggle of brown against white, and the native against the colonial.
Speaking provisionally, I see Hindi cinema's casting of "the traditional Indian woman" during the post-independence period as symbolic of a wishful desire to unite the nation around the figure of the woman and to repress debates on identity and community searing the subcontinent at the tumultuous moment of India's independence. A generic pan-Indian identity, I argue, erases "difference" between communities, especially religious differences. What remains vital to this erasure however, is maintaining "difference" of another kind — gender difference. Mr. and Mrs. 55 opens onto reconfigurations of "Indian womanhood" that draw upon the anti-imperial renaissance movement and its legacy in debates over women's rights in the Indian Constitution's "personal laws" — currently resurfacing and holly contested with the Hindu Right's emergence in India. I examine the film through several discursive frames — most pertinently, the 19th century nationalist discourse, which Chatterjee delineates, and the mid-20th century constitutional debates, which, I argue, destabilize and reconstitute that discourse.
Mr. and Mrs. 55 enunciates normative and resistant discourses on heterosexual love, marriage, divorce, gender roles and the law regulating these in India. Through a close analysis of this nationally famous romantic comedy, I revisit the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act's reception in popular discourse. Mr. and Mrs. 55 marks the historic moment of a partial victory for women: the recalibration of Hindu women's rights in Hindu personal law, i.e., the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act. A feminist analysis of the legislative process meant to adjudicate between India's tangled web of discursive constructions on women, community, and nation reveals, in fact, that gender is not merely yoked with "nation" and/or "community." As Ann McClintock argues, they "come into existence in and through relation to each other."
Furthermore, the momentous passing of this Act in the middle of this century still resonates powerfully with the current stalemate in Indian politics over the issue of replacing community-based, religious, personal laws with a secular, uniform civil code. Briefly, personal laws enshrine Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious laws governing "family" matters (marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc.) in the Indian Constitution. The Uniform Civil Code, though ill-defined, is the unrealized ideal of secular laws meant to displace personal laws and transect all communities.
The Hindu Right's clamor for the Code oddly coincides with the feminist demand despite their divergent, even inimical, logic in pressing for it. Fundamentalist Hindus claim Muslim personal laws favor the Muslim community, while feminists insist all personal laws endorse gender injustice. At this moment, the ascending Hindu Right and feminists are locked in a fierce battle over legislating "women's" lives. Ironically, the demands of both groups coincide: to displace personal laws with a uniform civil code. I will explain more about the discursive connections between woman, (religious) community, and nation as I analyze Mr. and Mrs. 55.
I am both interested in the way that the film takes up historical issues and the way that Guru Dutt uses romantic comedy to carnivalize gender relations and dramatize this historic moment. In terms of film theory, the film is a good test case for evaluating the optimism in current film criticism about comedy's possibilities as an alternative to romantic melodrama. Clearly any generic evaluations, as Mr. and Mrs. 55 exemplifies, must be anchored in historical specificity. As Kristine Karnick and Henry Jenkins emphasize, some of comedy's most important implications lie not just in what pleases us in the present but in our learning to understand "what made people laugh in different time periods and why" as well as understanding what we might find "puzzling and unpleasurable." Shifts within romantic comedy mark shifting conceptions of romance. Socially, comedy
Critics appraise romantic comedy and melodrama as isomorphic in privileging women's resistance to and transgressions against male authority, and many critics indicate a preference for comedy as an alternative to the suffering of women affirmed by melodrama. According to Kathleen Rowe, "Comedy breaks taboos and expresses impulses which are always outside social norms."' However, Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik argue that in both melodrama and comedy, desire and love are pitched against marriage, but in comedy the rocky path of courtship inevitably leads to marriage. (Neale and Krutnik 138) They see romantic comedy as a "play between eccentricity and convention in the field of love and marriage," but they also caution against reading "female anarchy" or satire into these films because of women's unconventional behavior in love. The narrative process has important social implications — "how deviations are set up in order to be countered" (Neale and Krutnik 155-56).
In the genre of comedy in general, since jokes "assert social values…values in the process of transformation and redefinition," a joke can become an insult; it can be radical or conservative. (Karnick and Jenkins 220) For instance, 30s romantic comedy in Hollywood, though subject to contradictory readings, arguably asserts the victory of conservative counter-revolutionary values over more progressive ones of the preceding years; in particular, late 30s comedy lacks social commentary when compared to the biting social criticism of early 30s films. At another historical moment, post-WW2 Hollywood films may be viewed as expressing male anxieties about masculinity, as reflected both in popular cinema and in U.S. life.
In terms of its place in Hindi popular cinema, I evaluate Mr. and Mrs. 55 both in terms of the its context within the genre of romantic comedy and in terms of the historical context of legislating women's place in the Constitution. Despite comedy's general play with the flux in "normative parameters" within "shifting cultural standards," like all films this one endorses a specific normative structure in the snapshot it offers of the historical moment of its production. In a sense, the history of that moment structures the joke. To sum up, Mr. and Mrs. 55 was produced in a moment that was a product of a turbulent colonial history, and the success of conservative discourses on femininity at the time have remained in place for decades to come.
The genealogy of Indian family law dates back to the great ferment of ideas in the late 19th-early 20th century renaissance movement, which reconstituted "the women's question" within a hegemonic patriarchal nationalist discourse. The contradiction inherent in such a resolution became destabilized by the battle to reshape laws governing women at the beginning of the independent Indian Republic. This more recent legal battle kicked up a veritable storm over women's position in general, drawing into its vortex women's role as signifiers of community or national identity. The law then settled to anchor women firmly within the family, the private, rather than the public sphere. This means that ultimately laws governing women have been encoded as personal laws, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Currently, Indian women are governed by their communities' religious laws. The struggle for a secular uniform civil code cutting across all religious communities to ensure gender justice remains an unrealized ideal. However, this ideal still has an unsettling effect, which reverberate through Indian politics. In particular, the need for a secular and uniform civil code today exposes the ongoing concourse between gender, community, nation, and identity — and the stakes in maintaining a patriarchal hold over women.
There is a discursive contest in Mr. and Mrs. 55, and this contest, I argue, holds the key to understanding the dominant configuration of womanhood and femininity in popular Hindi cinema until recently. For women, the outcome of this discursive contest, as we shall see, has had limited success.
FIXING THE FIGURE OF THE WOMAN
A model of "Indian womanhood" was already sculpted in popular 19th century imagination and has been hard to dislodge. Creative cultural forms — art, literature, drama and poetry — amalgamated to mold a popular vision of "Indian womanhood," and a version of the new woman was only the modernists' reinvention of the traditional Indian woman. Rather than read popular screen characterizations of women as imprints of mythology's "timeless cultural resources," as some Indian critics do, I propose searching history for the way it structures our present culture and law in order to understand the historical continuities and shifts in women's idealized representation. As Kumkum Sangari urges, the goal of criticism is to comprehend
Chatterjee argues that in India the "women's question" receded from public discourse in the early 20th century because the ideology of nationalism offered a resolution through a material/ spiritual divide, transposed onto an inner/ outer social space, ghar/ bahir, the home and the world. (Chatterjee 238-240) Gender differences fitted into this division: men occupied the material world outside and women preserved the home and its essence, unaffected by the material world. "Modern" ideas recasting the "new woman" became acceptable as long as woman's role within the domestic sphere remained intact. For example, popular literature of the time ridiculed Bengali women who mimicked the European woman's manner; such literature expresses a common male anxiety about Indian women. The message was that imitating the West was necessary in the material sphere, but if it entered the home, it could threaten and destroy one's very identity. The new Indian woman was superior to her European counterpart precisely because she still maintained her spiritual essence. As Sumanta Bannerjee's essay shows, the new woman also maintained her distinction from women of lower caste and class.
Woman's deification as mother was another dimension of womanhood that came to occupy a powerful position in the national imaginary. By the end of the 19th century, popular literature, song, drama, painting — in fact, the entire gamut of art and culture concerned with the problem of expressing "national identity" — used the mother icon to personify the nation. Images of the mother as a victim, a figure inspiring a strong sense of duty, an intense, almost filial, relationship to the nation, abound in 19th century representations. Works that forcefully articulate the mother as nation include Kiran Chandra Bandhopadhyay's play, Bharat Mata (Mother India, 1873) in Calcutta, with its figurations of the nation as a "dispossessed woman, often a widow or a woman deranged by suffering"; the first anthology of patriotic songs Bharat Gan (India Songs, 1879); and then Bankim Chandra Chatteijee's novel, Anandmath (1882) where a mother is rescued by brave sons, "agents of deliverance." As Meenakhshi Mulkherjee puts it, in Anandmath Bankim fused concepts of shakti (power), the mother goddess, and motherland, forging a powerful emblem with far-reaching consequences.
We can only speculate about this excessive investment in the mother image. It may derive from 19th century popular religious practices and imagery servicing nationalism, as in Tanika Sarkar's and Jashodra Bagchi's view. Or, as in Indira Chowdhury-Sengupta's analysis, the reiterated mother image may be linked to a general anxiety about the effete Bengali male's "diminished capacity of physical courage' (Sengupta 20-22) and be used to elicit compensatory images of valor. The suffering woman, or rather the suffering mother, as a metonymy for the nation became a powerful and inspiring image evoking a sense of duty among the sons; they must protect the mother, the primordial nurturing force. Such a history of cultural imagery, I think, is central to understanding the construction of femininity and masculinity in Hindi cinema. In popular film, the young male continues to be anointed the agent, while the woman remains powerless, to be acted upon — the woman/ nation/ mother.
The female figure as mother, as nation, also embodies sacrifice and forbearance. Fixing the figure of the woman as nation within the national unconscious occurred culturally along with reclaiming a reinvented "Indian" past. As nationalist politics unified around the struggle for political autonomy, independence from colonial rule took center stage. The fierce debates surrounding the "women's question" became contained as race became the anti-colonial movement's organizing principle. With brown set against white, nationalist ideology elided issues that could drive a wedge between diverse communities and classes, or between men and women.
WOMAN, COMMUNITY, NATION
If the above elaboration explains how women's idealization and mythification crystallized in the 19th century, it does notexplain the need to sustain this image after independence. Even though tensions between several interest groups (class and caste) were contained in pre-independent India, the eruption of Hindu-Muslim strife, played up by the British, culminated in the worst holocaust on the subcontinent and India's Partition along with its independence in 1947. To stem fissiparous tendencies and resolve contradictions between different communities, the figure of the woman, already cast as a powerful trope for the nation, was once again deployed to shore up a sense of unity. Yet such a formulation is highly problematic. The problems become especially clear if we turn to the debate on the passage of personal laws versus a uniform civil code. Significantly this debate raged for fifteen years in the middle of this century at the moment of the nation's independence.
The furor surrounding rewriting the rule of law ends with fixing the woman as a signifier of the home, the private, the personal, in the sovereign Republic. It reinscribes iterations about women's place adapted under colonization. A century and a half earlier, in 1772, Lord Hastings designated Hindu texts as the source of Hindu law governing "personal" matters (marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and the like). Such an act by British authorities left it to Brahmin pundits to interpret the Hindu texts and impose an upper-caste Brahminic code on the lower castes, who were traditionally governed by customary practices. The Permanent Settlement of 1793, the originary moment in the Anglo-Indian legal system, set up a judiciary with laws facilitating market transactions and the accumulation of private property. Parallel to these public laws were private laws — personal law — functioning under the rubric of customary and religious norms proscribing individual freedoms.
Some aspects of Muslim personal law (the shariat) were modified in 1935 by the Muslim elite (landowners, middle class) and the ulema (the Muslim clergy). The ulema or clergy took the initiative to enact a central law applicable to the entire country's Muslim population and set itself up as the shariat's authoritative interpreters. According to the bill, the shariat or Muslim personal law applied to adoption, wills, women's legacies, inheritance, personal property maintenance, dower, guardianship, gifts, and wakfs, in which a Muslim was party to the case. The shariat as a unifying symbol for various Muslim subcommunities gained particular significance for Muslims as a minority entity in the post-partition period.
For Hindus, the dharmashasrtras (moral code) governed conduct; that code's source lay in religious Hindu texts — the Vedas and the Smritis. Rules governing Hindu life were meant to maintain "the cosmic and moral order": Marriage was considered sacred and indissoluble; succession of property was through male heirs; women had limited property rights; and polygamy was permitted. There were significant regional variations. For example, some women in south India exercised political power and could dispose property. Lower castes had less restrictive customs. In the patrilineal joint Hindu family, sons shared common property rights; their wives had a right to maintenance but not inheritance.
Between 1921 and 1936 the women's movement's campaign, led by the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), to codify Hindu Law, grant Hindu women property rights, and legislate the right to divorce were stymied by opposition from the Hindu orthodoxy. In 1944 the B.N. Rau Committee's draft of the Hindu Code focused on marriage and inheritance. A widow's share was to be equal to her son's; a daughter was to get half a son's share; polygamy was prohibited; inter-caste marriage legalized; and grounds for dissolution of marriage established.
The Hindu Code left the elite deeply divided. Etched in this debate were notions about the ideal Hindu woman. Opponents drew the ideal woman's image from the Manusmritis: she needed protection and "in this position of dependence she was worshipped as a goddess" (Everett 166-67). The Hindu joint family was regarded the appropriate property ownership unit, which would provide for women's needs "in a manner superior to the individualistic basis of Western society" (Everett 176). A member of the Assembly then, Bajoria, argued that the notion of gender equality was British: "Hindus would be better protected by a nationalist government" (Everett 166). With Pakistan awarded to the Muslim League, a compensatory demand for a "'Hindu raj' (rule) in which Hindu values would be central" (Everett 169) seemed legitimate.
As Congress Party leaders drafted the new Indian Constitution between 1945 and 1950 in the Constituent Assembly, the hypocrisy or their pledge to social equality was exposed by their opposition to the bill. Equality for all guaranteed as a Constitutional Fundamental Right precluded equal rights for women in marriage, the sphere of the domestic and the private. The secular spirit of the Uniform Civil Code with equal rights for men and women of all religious communities remained, unfortunately, only an ideal. Women settled for the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955, which although progressive, did not go far enough. Yet even for this, they bitterly fought the Hindu orthodoxy. Implicit in a woman's right to divorce her husband or inherit property was the threat of her freedom from men's dominion.
In 1945 a great deal of public interest was generated in the bill by the Rau Committee's tour around the country, the sale of translations of the Hindu Code into vernacular languages, and the appearance of 378 persons at the Committee's hearings. Despite opposition, the Rau Committee's Hindu Code Bill was submitted to the Legislative Assembly in 1947 and debated in the Central Legislative Assembly and the Constituent Assembly between 1943 and 1944, and again between 1949 and 1951. Publicity surrounding the bill grew because of the public hearings, while the controversy around it intensified because it was assigned to Dr. Ambedkar, the dalit Law Minister at the time. A dalit leader's support, combined with the bill's association with educated "westernized" women, provoked unmitigated hostility from the patriarchal Brahmin orthodoxy. (Everett 162) Notwithstanding the bill's publicity, the debate reached only the educated urban community, barely 5% of the population (Everett 156), leading detractors to question women Assembly members' ability to represent women at large.
The highest ranks of the Congress leadership were divided on the Hindu Code Bill. Ambedkar's announcement to secure the Bill's passage, his open criticism of Hinduism, and his resignation protesting Nehru's short-circuiting the legislative process by abandoning the Bill, deeply offended orthodox Hindu politicians. (Everett 170) Gandhi opposed a legalistic approach while Nehru, in spite of his vacillation, favored legal reform and the Hindu Code Bill. All other senior leaders opposed Nehru — including the then President, Rajendra Prasad and the Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. The President went so far as to threaten a constitutional crisis by refusing his assent to the bill even if the Parliament passed it.
Nehru treated his overwhelming victory in the 1951 general election as a mandate of support for the Hindu Code Bill, securing its passage in 1955. After a controversy that had raged for fifteen years, the Hindu Code Bill was divided into five separate acts and passed. These were: 1) the Special Marriage Act (1954); 2) The Hindu Marriage Act (1955); 3) Hindu Succession Act (1955); 4) Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956); 5) Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act (1956). (Everett 187-88) The Indian Republic inaugurated secular principles in criminal and commercial laws and all aspects of property — except inheritance. Inviolate personal laws would govern the private sphere, varying according to each community's dictates. However, these laws, requiring contemporary interpretations of medieval and ancient scriptures, fail the acid test of delivering gender justice.
Though the AIWC demanded reform in Hindu law, they proposed the idea of a uniform civil code as early as 1940 to displace religious personal laws and bring the entire domain of the private/ religious into the public/ secular sphere. Minoo Masani, Hansa Mehta, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, leaders of the AIWC and members of Advisory Committees to the Constituent Assembly, voted in favor of establishing the uniform civil code as a Fundamental Right arguing that it would break down barriers between different communities. (Parashar 230-31) Muslim leaders, however, made the community's identity contingent upon preserving the shariat, (Parashar 226) demanding Muslim personal laws be kept beyond the purview of the uniform civil code. (Parashar 159160) The Constituent Assembly debate posited preserving religious identity through personal laws vs. consolidating national unity — equating the latter with assimilating minority identity through a uniform civil code. The Uniform Civil Code was viewed as "assimilationist" and a threat to national identity. Sangari astutely points to the highly reductive nature of such religious/ community identity, constructed in response to an Orientalist colonial and bureaucratic regime. The discourse elides what lay at the heart of this debate — the control of women.
Protesting the failure to make the uniform civil code enforceable, Hansa Mehta in her speech in the Constituent Assembly insisted that such a code was far more important to national unity than creating a national language. (Parashar 233) Her words turned out to be prophetic in the light of what happened thirty years later, in the mid 80s, when a tenuous national unity was severely strained by a 65-year-old Muslim woman, Shah Bano. In 1985 Shah Bano's litigation demanding a paltry alimony maintenance of 125 rupees ($10) a month, rocked the nation, threatening its fragile unity. When Muslim orthodoxy threatened insurgency, the government capitulated.
The debacle began when Mohammad Ahmad Khan appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the High Court's decree directing him to pay a small maintenance to Shah Bano, his divorced wife. Invoking Muslim Personal Law he claimed he was not obliged to pay his divorced wife beyond the period of iddat (court proceeding). Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code of India enjoins the maintenance of divorced wives; under this clause Khan was obligated to pay. The Muslim Personal Law Board disputed the Supreme Court's right to interfere with Muslim personal law. (Parashar 173-174)
The Muslim fundamentalist leadership mobilized mass protest against the Supreme Court's ruling, demanding exemption for Muslims from section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code as that provision contravened the shariat, offended Muslim sentiment, and even endangered their minority status. Initially the government stood behind the Supreme Court, but later it relented, reversed its position, and succumbed to conservative Muslim leaders (Parashar 175176), effectively buying electoral support at the cost of women's rights. The 1986 Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill was passed ostensibly to preserve cultural diversity, the rights of minorities, and to protect their religious identity. To maintain the ideal of multicultural, multilingual identities, the prospect of an uniform civil code, it was argued, was anathema. (Parashar 182-183) Here the figure of the woman that had been deployed to consolidate national identity is used analogously in the name of the Muslim community's identity in a way that fragments Indian women's unity and diminishes Muslim women's rights.
On another register, Hindi cinema also uses a specific construction of "traditional," "Indian" womanhood to connote a unified nation. Mastery over women plays a central role in such a signifying practice. Patriarchal communities insist on making their identity contingent on control over "their" women. Men equate women's legal equality with losing community identity. Post-Partition tensions around Hindu-Muslim integration center around each community's right to retain control over "their women." The shariat and the Hindu Marriage Act ossified patriarchal law. At stake for feminists now is disrupting a patriarchal discursive and social regime in which the woman remains a signifier of the religio-ethnic community.
Chatterjee interprets woman as a symbol of home and nation. However, this symbol has turned out to be an unstable signifier, as I have shown in the context of the Constitutional debates. Varying political contingencies animate the woman as a sign: she is a stand-in for the nation at one historical moment and for the religious community in another. Consequently, launching the woman as a symbol of the nation is at once progressive and regressive. On the one hand, it works as a symbol of unity, a pan-Indian consciousness that Hindi cinema strives to project at a moment when political fragmentation is imminent. Yet such signification frequently fails, and women become sites of contest each time a community asserts its identity, threatening the collapse of the fragile amity among religio-ethnic communities. In recent history, Shah Bano's case, taken up by Muslims, and Roop Kanwar's immolation, a rallying point for several Hindus, testify to such lapses.
The symbolic image of "the traditional Indian woman" in Hindi film could well project a wishful desire to unite the nation around the figure of the woman, repressing debates on identity and community which have propagated patriarchal laws signifying "difference" in the name of cultural diversity. To use woman to represent the entire nation blurs the boundaries which different communities contest. The double bind, however, is that using woman as a stand-in for nation works in favor of secular consciousness, on the one hand, and egregious gender injustice on the other. Yet all communities and castes dally with this venerated image of womanhood; they all claim it as their badge of honor. Women's interests, however, have become sacrificed at the altar of national unity.
THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLY
The plot in Mr. and Mrs. 55 deals with the infamous Hindu Code Bill, notorious in the public's view because of a divorce clause granting women the right to annul a Hindu marriage and transforming marriage from a sacrosanct, lifelong act to a legal, terminable contract. As the film interrogates this bill, it subjects the bill to merciless derision. The film's narrative line manifests familiar symptoms of male anxiety about women (re)positioning themselves in society. These symptoms include publicly mocking women or trivializing and caricaturing their demands. Most insidious and effective of all, the film pits the misguided, "westernized," "individualist" woman against the model, self-effacing, traditional woman, making the modernized woman finally learn the virtues of an "Indian" sensibility. An unlikely storyline is plotted in Mr. and Mrs. 55 to indict women demanding legislative changes in the institution of marriage. Instead, the film affirms a deeply conservative version of marriage and man-woman relationships. In the process of this reaffirmation, the film mobilizes sentiments about both gender and class.
The women under siege in the film are at once upper class, westernized, man-hating and money-minded. The film turns the Hindu Code Bill on its head, here referring to it as the "divorce bill," which was a term assigned to the bill in popular parlance. Most interestingly, we do get a glimpse of women never before seen in popular Hindi cinema — the film depicts women getting organized, entering the public space, arid bringing to public discussion matters deemed personal and private. In the film Anita (Madhubala) is a rich young woman raised under the guardianship of her father's sister, Sita Devi (Lalita Pawaar). Sita Devi, an activist campaigning for the Hindu Code Bill, has become singularly devoted to the cause of women and their liberation. Her home provides a place for women's meetings. She is a public figure, organizes deputations to petition the government on behalf of women, and is recognized by members of the press. Anita finds herself impatient with her aunt and views the aunt as the mythical extreme of a male-hating women's liberationist.
On her twentieth birthday Anita leans the terms of her father's will. She will inherit a sizable amount of property if she marries within a month. As the will explains, the father was aware of his sister's aversion to men, and he feared his daughter would be forced to remain single. Sita Devi decides to deal with the will's technicality through a legal counter strategy. She finds a man, Pritam (played by the actor-director Guru Dutt himself) who is unemployed at the time, and she arranges a registered marriage — that is, one which remains on paper alone. On the condition that the marriage remain a secret, that Pritam does not seek to have intercourse with Anita, and that he be willing to divorce Anita on request, the aunt offers Pritam a monthly salary.
Pritam was already in love with Anita, although she was unaware of this, so he agrees to the marriage. To Anita, it appears he is in it for the money; initially she despises him for his act. But Pritam refuses to cash his monthly check; he attempts instead to win Anita's love until he gets the first indication of her own lack of interest. With the malevolence of one spurned in love, Pritam lets Anita go by conjuring false evidence against himself so that Sita Devi can procure the divorce she desires in the court of law. The case proceeds under a floodlight of publicity with the best lawyers and all the false evidence money can buy. Sita Devi expects to win the divorce case for her niece. Anita in turn wavers in her affection for Pritam. But when she finally learns the truth about her aunt's machinations to win the divorce case at all costs, Anita grows uncharacteristically defiant, challenges her aunt, and in the end successfully unites with Pritam, still rightfully her husband. The confrontation between the aunt and niece toward the film's end is unabashed in its misogynist raving. The lines of the script here render transparent the film's conservative ideological underpinning. I will address this later in greater detail.
In a broad sense, the film can be read as a clever, clairvoyant parable (keeping in mind the Shah Bano case thirty years later) anticipating men's worst fears — that the new legislation permitting divorce and its incumbent system of alimony ("maintenance") might open the floodgates to women's independence. Although the male protagonist receives "alimony," he remains innocent. His complicity in a marriage of convenience remains unrnterrogated because he refuses to accept financial support from his rich wife. In the first half of the film, Pritam also refuses to annul the marriage. For him marriage means a lifelong contract. By refusing to cash the checks, a stand-in for alimony (a financial transaction that occurs after the couple many but remain estranged), the hero has the moral high ground.
A significant aspect of the subtext is the patriarchal culture's dreadful fear of alimony — having to pay up for institutions men could enter and exit with complete immunity since at this time bigamy and polygamy were freely practiced by Indian men. Herein lies the culture's lesson to all women, which the film states openly and unabashedly: a woman's place is to find happiness and love in marriage, circumstances notwithstanding.
The film skirts the chasm between Pritam's and real women's circumstances in corresponding situations. While women's access to opportunities for employment and economic independence are acutely limited within Indian society, the film's narrative reshuffles these elements by making the male protagonist unemployed and therefore financially dependent. Pritam finds employment as a newspaper sub-editor. However, although his initial monetary lack gives way to financial power, there is a substantial class distance between him and Anita, which continues even as this financial development averts his acute dependence on her.
By inverting traditional gender positions — setting up the woman as the one with means and setting up the man in a state of penury, the converse of social reality — the film shifts attention onto a playful, imaginative scenario that although improbable is not altogether impossible. Such gender inversions in romantic comedy disrupt the "social hierarchy of male over female," placing the heroine as "what might be called…'the woman on top'" (Rowe 41). Here she is rich, the heir to wealth, and he is unemployed and destitute.
The film's superb cast, entertaining gags, and comic interludes add to the general mood of irreverence generated against women of leisure. In a masterful oscillation between solemn conviction and lighthearted, disarming humor, we are asked to stretch our imagination, to envision alarming scenarios that any readjustment in the time-honored arrangement of Hindu marriage might provoke. And the film counterbalances this comedy with numerous moments when the air of frivolity is abandoned — moments when "serious" interventions are made to bring order into heterosexual relations supposedly thrown into turmoil by the anticipated effect of the new legislation and its reconfiguration of the man-woman relationship.
Now for a closer look at how the film depicts women getting organized. Soon after the film's opening scene, the camera pans to a meeting of a women's organization. In a few deft cuts, it singles out Sita Devi as she addresses a group of women, telling them of recent developments: in the past month the Women's Union sent a deputation to the government to lobby on behalf of the "divorce bill." She declaims,
As she rails against women's oppression at the hands of men, the camera cuts to two women who sit inattentively and discuss various beauty treatments for the skin: orange peels versus milk cream. A third woman joins in after initially hushing them: "Try a mud-pack…," she suggests. This satirical introduction to political issues is a quick summation and promise of what will follow in the film: Hindi cinema's heavy-handed caricature of upper-class Indian women, their
The film creates a scenario which mocks marriage as a contract — good today, void tomorrow; it valorizes eternal commitment and women's pleasure in subservience to men and marriage. Such issues were also phrased in this way in the political discourse of the time. In the widely publicized debates that occurred in the Legislative Assembly around the bill, Pandit L.K. Maitra from West Bengal contrasted his "humble wife married according to shastric rites…nurtured in the ideals of our Hindu homes" with the women who supported the Hindu Code Bill. The latter he characterized as "the lavender lipstick and vanity bag variety" (Everett 165). Bajoria, another Assembly member, dismissed educated Hindu women as "butterflies with social affectations" (Everett 159). Even the then President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, turned away a women's delegation lobbying for the bill on the grounds that he could not imagine his own wife supporting the divorce clause in the Hindu Code Bill.
Everett has argued about this moment,
The local media reacted against AIWC's "Indian Women's Charter of Rights," declaring it "represented the demands of a few overeducated women." Roshni, the AIWC newsletter, in June 1949, "complained bitterly" of being characterized as a "few educated women passing the same Hindu Code Bill resolution for thirteen years." It is striking how throughout this period the "educated Indian woman" provokes such strong hostility, suggesting a deeper sense of threat and fear. While the AIWC was faulted for being elitist, for failing to reach a wider base of lower-class women, the fact is that the men opposing the bill occupied the same elite strata (including the President of the country); their locus standi — questionable on grounds of class and gender — strategically is never mentioned.
In the film, before the first women's meeting, the young woman who buys a newspaper in the opening scene, Mona, the comic sidekick of the megalomaniac Sita Devi, informs the rustic, middle-aged house cleaner, "Nanny," that the "divorce bill" is going to pass. The house cleaner responds with sarcasm:
Mona hushes her, reminding her of the imminent meeting. The maid responds in her brusque and nonchalant way:
Nanny reiterates this every time she makes her brief appearance, leaving no doubt about her disdain for westernized, upper-class Indian women and their mimicry of the ex-colonizer. In doing so, she invokes a common insult, which oddly finds its most common usage among the already westernized. And such statements are often used to bludgeon the very idea of women's autonomously organizing to fight politically for equal rights.
The press was divided on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. The opposition staged demonstrations against the government each time it was debated during a parliamentary session. (Everett 185) smear campaign against the Bill maintained that the bill promoted incest. Although female inheritance was the issue dealt with in the central clause, public attention and propaganda focused mainly on the bill's permitting divorce. This public furor does not appear in Mr. and Mrs. 55, but the film joins the bill's opponents in mocking any contractual/ legalistic approach to marriage. In the film plot, the series of events that build toward the initial climax clearly enunciate the film's perspective on the institutions of love, marriage, money, and class.
After the marriage is registered in court, Pritam defies the terms agreed to with Sita Devi. Disguised as the aunt's chauffeur, Pritam waylays Anita and takes her to his brother's house. Here they are greeted by his bhabhi (sister-in-law), a rustic village woman presented as the model woman/wife. The woman inquires if Anita is married yet. Pritam responds on Anita's behalf:
Unwittingly the film script acknowledges the connection between marriage, money and gender. Wealthy women don't really need to marry — not for financial security. The implicit threat that women with money pose is their lack of dependence on men; in a conservative way, the film subjects that threat to an open challenge. The film naturalizes the normative by postulating that the greatest pleasure for women lies in conjugal bliss. And in romantic comedy's inimitable style, heterosexual love in this film ultimately negotiates the difficult terrain of obstacles that are barriers to the couple's union. The woman's desire is the "principal object of comic transformation" (Neale and Krutnik 142).
Anita's initial antagonism dissipates temporarily in the romantic interlude which follows when she responds to Pritam's overtures. In a convention that has become Hindi cinema's signature — the couple break into a song. Anita's uncertainty, wavering affection, and dilemmas of the heart get settled, at least temporarily, when Sita Devi arrives. Infuriated by Pritam's impertinence, Sita Devi offers him ten thousand rupees to release Anita. Pritam, still defiant, tears up the check and, assuming the role of Anita's protector, declares she will not leave against her wishes. But when Sita Devi pulls out a telegram Anita sent to summon her, a belittled and infuriated Pritam lashes out at Anita. He accuses her of conducting a charade. Then filled with regret and sorrow, he berates himself for not knowing women like her better: "The likes of you butterflies cannot be trusted." Anita protests and storms out with her aunt. Thus begin the series of complications which the remaining narrative has to resolve.
The "butterfly" as a recurrent metaphor for "women of leisure" in popular discourse (recall Assembly member Bajoria's dismissal of educated women as butterflies) distinguishes between normative and wanton womanhood. The butterfly metaphor evokes images of restless, flighty, colorful creatures difficult to pin down or control. Most important, the similitude admits compelling charm and captivating lure for the beholder. And herein lies the troubled relation Hindi cinema has with women, particularly the archetype of the westernized heroine. She entices with her alluring appearance but is hard to get. The challenge lies in conquering her, pinning her down, despite the hero's and the culture's disdain for her "inconstancy" and "capriciousness."
In Mr and Mrs. 55 this conquest occurs when the uptight woman is "brought to her senses." It happens in a last minute reversal when the multiple narrative complications and misunderstandings that have separated Anita from Pritam dissolve. Anita realizes that her malevolent aunt Sita Devi's machinations impeded her "true love" for Pritam. As Neale and Krutnik argue, the initial oppositional desire of men and women in romantic comedy marks the woman as the narrative problem, tracks her progress toward "correct values…articulated and represented by the hero," and culminates in their union at the price of the woman's conversion. (Neale and Krutnik 144, 147, 151) This conservative aspect of romantic comedy, they argue, challenges assumptions about screwball comedy's violating norms in the forwardness of its women and its non-sentimental, even combative courtships. If anything, the resolution in romantic comedy is remarkably conventional in that the ideology of love structures the woman's correct path. Heterosexual love, staunchly asserted as the "natural" channeling of female desire, is romantic comedy's deus ex machina, a "magic force" that defies rationality, like fate in 40s noir. (Neale and Krutnik 145) As Kathleen Rowe argues, woman's rebellion in romantic comedy remains tolerated because it is short-lived and ultimately serves the hero's interests. Romantic comedy disciplines the unruly bride. (Rowe 50-51) The "woman on top" in Mr. and Mrs. 55 loses her grip and falls uncontrollably in love with the hero, who then takes firm charge of her.
No longer the irresolute young girl, Anita comes into her own and challenges her authoritarian aunt's ideology, politics, and personal style with uncharacteristic courage. The narrative pits these two women against each other and imposes its own well-defined ideology of class and gender. When Anita defiantly informs her aunt of her intention to meet Pritam on the eve of their divorce settlement, Sita Devi responds with alarm about its impact on the litigation.
The confrontation ends with Sita Devi locking Anita in her room to physically debar Anita from leaving.
Constructed as a dialogic encounter between the voice of the elite vanguard of the women's movement and the subaltern, "true" Indian woman, the exchange in fact takes place between two equally privileged women between whom the subaltern is a mere chip in the argument and on whose behalf both claim the right to speak. The most damning evidence, however, comes when Sita Devi admits to the Indian women's movement's relation to western imperial powers.
This is the weapon which indigenous patriarchy wields against women's assertion for rights and liberty — their complicity with the west! That argument against women's rights and autonomy conveniently represses the fact that the two preceding centuries of Indian history, struggle for national liberation, and assertion of a modem nation were predicated on ideas that were equally "western" Such an argument against women's full rights brings us back full circle to the ideas of the nation, the Indian, and womanhood cast across the woman's body. In the years after national liberation, this argument prevailed legally not only because it positively defined the virtues of womanhood but also because it could clearly demarcate, distinguish, and mark the westernized Indian woman as horrific, malevolent, and capable of fomenting a fascist reign of terror — as in the caricatured representation of Sita Devi and her women's organization.
Though Rowe invokes descriptions of comedy in terms of Northop Frye's "liberating a wilting world," Bakhtin's "carnivalesque," Victor Turner's "liminal" world, and C. L. Barber's "'green world' of festivity and natural regeneration," Rowe concedes that comedy also expresses fears about what might happen if oppressed groups become liberated. Women in comedy can appear as "fearsome or silly, symbols of repression and obstacles to social transformation…" (Rowe 44, 46) Sita Devi is the "eccentric woman" comparable to those in Hollywood romantic comedy whose eccentricities relate to her high-class status. (Neale and Krutnik 152) In this, she joins the ranks of a long list Rowe enumerates — spinsters, dowagers, prohibitionists, mothers-in-law, suffragettes, "battle-axes," career women, "women's libbers," and lesbians. In a way that is similar to Hollywood romantic comedy, Hindi films combine the figure of the rich woman with the educated westernized Indian woman, the "social butterfly" as the target of the misogynist hero's comedic aggression. Class and gender conflicts are rolled together as the struggle for women's rights itself becomes a fanciful pursuit for the leisured rich woman, a sign of female anarchy that the hero effectively contains.
Women's class status, visibility and power that stem from material resources come under attack. Their organizing independently, free from male tutelage, becomes questionable, and with it comes the confounding question of "authenticity" — the impossibility for these women to represent or speak for all women. Such an interrogation of the Indian women's movement and its class domination points to a significant problem. Those who raise the question, the celebrated filmmaker Guru Dutt in this instance, however, remain hidden in the margin, obscured within the text of their critique. The effectiveness of the film's narration lies precisely in the fact that the narrators using the filmic apparatus in Mr. and Mrs. 55 can remain invisible, suppress their own class origins and their own stake in the viewpoint naturalized within a fictional narrative. As Krutnik says,
Clearly the opposite also occurs. As my exegesis of Mr. and Mrs. 55 shows, the romantic comedy can equally serve to preserve and affirm the status quo by caricaturing cultural change as an imminent threat.
I thank Antoinette Burton and Brian Greenberg for their comments. As always I am indebted to Julia Lesage for her generous input through the many transformations of this paper.
1. Actor-director Guru Dutt's contribution to Hindi cinema rank him among the leading auteurs in the 50s. PYAASA (THIRSTY. 1957) indicts the genteel literary elite and in KAAGZ KE PHOOL (PAPER FLOWERs, 1959) the death of the tragic romantic artist/ filmmaker anticipates his own suicide, establishing him as an iconoclast disillusioned with Nehruvian idealism. Dutt's films' rich imagery convey a dark mood through their distinctive noir-like appearance.
2. Hindi films have taken the high road in representing amity between different religious communities and a transgressive stance towards class and caste hierarchies. Beginning in 1980 the woman figure's idealized subservience has shifted to represent a dramatically different, angry, avenging woman. The dominant strain however, is of docility among female characters.
3. Partha Chatterjee, 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989) 233-253. Also see his Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1993) and Sumit Sarkar's "The Women's Question in Nineteenth Century Bengal," Women and Culture, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (Bombay: Sarojini Naidu Development Trust, 1895); Kamala Visveswaran's "Small Speeches. Subaltern Gender: Nationalist Ideology and Its Historiography," Subaltern Studies IX : Writings on South Asian History and Society, eds. Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakravarty (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996) 83-125.
4. Ann McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995) 5.
5. For more details see Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, eds. Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences (London: Zed Books, 1996); Ratna Kapur, ed., Feminist Terrains in Legal Domains: Interdisciplinary Essays on Women and Law in India (New Delhi: Kali, 1996).
6. Though a few Hollywood and British film and television critics point to romantic comedy's conservative underpinnings, most tend to argue in favor of its radical impulse, its ability to bend gender norms and expand the parameters of heterosexual relationships particularly at historic moments marked by readjustment in gender relations. As such they all view romantic comedy as an elevating counterpoint to melodrama weighed down by women's suffering. For more details see Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristrne Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995); Steve Neale and Frank Knitnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Wes D. Gehring, Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance (Westport, Connecticut: Greewood F, 1986).
7. Rowe, "Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter," Karnick and Jenkins, 41 and 43.
8. Wes D. Gehring reads the comedy, particularly screwball comedy, as oppositional, challenging conventional notions of heterosexuality.
9. Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre. Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 1991) 12-13.
10. Kumkum Sangari, "Figures of the Unconscious," Journal of Arts and Ideas 20-21(1991): 67
11. Sumanta Bannerjee, "Marginalization of Women's Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal," Sangari and Vaid, 127-179.
12. Indira Chowdhury-Sengupta, "Mother India and Mother Victoria: Motherhood and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century Bengal," South Asia Research 12.1 (1992): 25-26.
13. Kiran Chandra Bandhopadhyay, Bharat Mata (Calcutta, 1873) 6, qtd. in Sengupta 25-26.
14. Rajkrishna Ray's "Bharat Gan: Bharater Prachin O Bartaman Sambandhiya ebang Swadeshanuraguddipak ek sata Git" (One Hundred Inspirational Songs about the Past and Present State of India), Calcutta, 1879) 28, 7, qtd. in Sengupta 28.
15. Meenakshi Mukherjee, Realism and Reality, (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1985) 49.
16. Jashodra Bagchi, "Representing Nationalism: Ideology of Motherhood in Colonial Bengal," Economic and Political Weekly 20, Oct. 1990: WS 66-68; Tanika Sarkar, "Nationalist Iconography: Image of Women in 19th Century Literature," Economic and Political Weekly 21, Nov. 1987: 2011-2015.
17. Note, Nargis in MOTHER INDIA is first seen as a sexualized bride, a young woman. Only later does she become a mother capable of enormous sacrifices. Toward the end as an aging mother she is further strengthened by her capacity to bear hardship and suffering. The once sexualized woman grows into a stoic mother, or, conversely, the stoic mother was once a glorious sexual woman.
18. For an excellent discussion reassessing the terms of the contemporary debate pitting gender justice against cultural plurality — issues muddied by the rise of the Hindu Right, see Kumkum Sangari's two part essay, "Politics of Diversity: Religious Communities and Multiple Patriarchies," in Economic and Political Weekly, December 23 (1995): 3287-3310 & December 30 (1995): 3381-3389.
19. D.A. Washbrook, "Law, State and Agrarian Society in Colonial India," Modern Asian Studies 153 (1981): 652-653.
20. Jana Matson Everett, Women and Social Change in India (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979) 142-3.
21. Lotika Sarkar, "Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code Bill," Indian Women from Purdah to Modernity, ed. B.R. Nanda (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1976) 87, 92.
22. Dalit means oppressed. It is a self-assumed term adopted by the political movement of lower caste organizations otherwise designated as "untouchables" by the official discourse and harijans (God's people) in the sympathetic but patronizing neologism coined by Gandhi.
23. Sangari, Economic and Political Weekly, December 13 (1995): 3290.
24. In 1987 Roop Kanwar immolated herself on her husband's pyre in Deorala, a small town in northwest India The act polarized the nation. One segment hailed her as a goddess and the other decried the act as the resurrection of a vicious ritual outlawed in the nineteenth century. The protests by women's groups were drowned out by the religious fervor whipped up by fanatical Hindus and the weak-kneed charade put on by the government.
25. Ed Sikov, Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy (New York: Columbia UP 1994) 4.
26. The Constituent Assembly Debates 11, p. 996, qtd. in Everett 175.
27. Roshni, June 1949: 9-13, qtd. in Everett 183.
28. The lower class expresses its antagonism toward the upper class by referring to English-speaking people as angrez (British). It is a form of rebuke, representing animosity over differential privilege rather than a grievance against the desecration of indigenous culture.