26 March 2021

Mr & Mrs 55 (1955)

Directed by: Guru Dutt
Music: OP Nayyar
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Starring: Guru Dutt, Madhubala,
Johnny Walker, Lalita Pawar,
Yasmin, Kumkum
Mr & Mrs 55 is a film that I’m not sure whether I like or hate. I’ve watched it many times, quite enjoying the lightness of a marital comedy, and every single time, I’ve cringed at the regressive ideals propagated in the film regarding the role of women and deplored the misogynistic representation of feminism and feminists. But it stars the irrepressible Madhubala, one of my favourite heroines, and has a stellar music score courtesy the inimitable OP Nayyar.

Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar) is a militant ‘feminist’, the kind who hates men and wants to ‘free’ women from their clutches. She, and her cohort, have been litigating to get the ‘Divorce Bill’ passed (a.k.a the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955) and are as pleased as punch that they have succeeded.

Not quite Anita (Madhubala), Sita Devi’s (rather silly) orphaned niece who, every time her aunt is otherwise occupied, runs off to see Ramesh (Al Nasir), India’s tennis champion, on whom she has a crush. Much to her aunt’s dismay, Anita would like nothing more than to marry Ramesh. Unfortunately for Anita, Ramesh is focused on Wimbledon and finds her rather a nuisance.

On one such occasion, when Anita has, as usual, run off to watch Ramesh play, she is followed by Moni (Radhika), her aunt’s sycophantic secretary. 

Spotting her, Anita rushes away to hide when she bumps into Pritam Kumar (Guru Dutt), a down-on-his-luck cartoonist, who manages by sponging off his best friend, a photographer named Johnny (Johnny Walker).

For Pritam, it is love at first sight – she’s captivated him, he tells Johnny later. 

Meanwhile, Aunty is all set to celebrate Anita’s ‘freedom’- it’s her 20th birthday, and she will receive her inheritance. With her father’s immense wealth at her command, Anita need never be beholden to any man!  
Alas! The best laid plans.

Having anticipated his sister’s plans for his daughter, Anita’s late father has indeed left her his fortune, with one caveat: Anita should be married before her 21st birthday, or failing that, within a month of her 21st birthday. Or… his entire fortune will go to charity.

Anita is thrilled at the thought of getting married. Not quite Aunty, who feels betrayed by her own brother. 

Determined to ensure that Anita doesn’t squander her family’s wealth on a man, Aunty concocts a plan to circumvent her brother’s will – she will hire a ‘husband’ for her niece. The wedding will be in name only, and as soon as the trustees have handed over the inheritance to Anita, she will get a divorce.

Meanwhile, Pritam, who keeps hounding the newspaper editor for a job, has come to meet him again. The editor (Bir Saluja), a kindly man, has no job for him at the moment. 

Just then, however, he gets a phone call from Sita Devi asking him to recommend an honest young man for a job she wants doing. The editor recommends Pritam. 

Anita, meanwhile, has gone to meet Ramesh to give him the good news; she’s independently wealthy now and they can get married. She doesn’t seem to realise that her prospective groom doesn’t seem very interested in her news, but rushes off after insisting on meeting her swain at the cinema in the evening. 

Ramesh, still focused on Wimbledon, asks Johnny (who comes to photograph him for the newspaper) to give Anita a note from him, saying he’s leaving for England and will be away for many months. He even gives Johnny the cinema ticket that Anita had sent for him.

Meanwhile, Pritam has gone to meet Sita Devi, but when he discovers what she wants him for, refuses point blank. He’s not for sale. On his way out the door, he sees a photograph – that is his prospective bride? 

Head over heels in love with Anita, Pritam promptly agrees to Sita Devi’s conditions – she will pay him Rs250 a month for as long as he and Anita are married, but he will never try to meet Anita after the wedding, and he will divorce Anita when he’s asked to do so. 

Pritam then makes his way to the Irani cafe where he finds Johnny intent on furthering his office romance with Julie (Yasmin), the office typist. 

Wanting nothing more than to get rid of Pritam, Johnny passes Ramesh's note and the cinema tickets to Pritam and tells him to go away. A mistaken identity faux pas later, Pritam hands over the note to Anita, who reads it and bursts into tears. Pritam just stares at her, tongue tied, while Anita rushes off, still crying. 

Her entire future seemingly in ruins, Anita agrees to everything her aunt suggests.

The next morning finds Aunty and niece at the registrar’s office. While Aunty is busy talking to the registrar, Anita is pleasantly shocked to find Pritam outside. She seems to consider him a friend; after all, he had very sympathetically offered her a handkerchief when she was sobbing. So chummy are they, in fact, that she tells him all about the husband ‘for hire’, wondering what sort of a man would sell himself for money. But, she says, wait here; she will get married and be right back!

What a shock she gets when she realises that the man hired to be her faux husband is Pritam! Betrayed, she flounces off as soon as she has signed the necessary papers. In the evening, Pritam, accompanied by Johnny and Julie, meet her at the club, where Pritam tries to convince her that he only married her because he loved her. Anita is not very convinced.

Johnny decides there’s only one thing to do, and Pritam, convinced that if he could only get Anita away from Aunty, she would soon believe he loves her, follows through. He kidnaps Anita (with Johnny’s aid) and takes her to his brother’s house in the village.

Where they are met by his Bhabhi (Kumkum) and her three toddlers. Anita has never met anyone like Bhabhi before – a woman, married for four years with three children (who are all supposed to be going to school, which makes me think someone forgot this tiny detail); someone who tirelessly works from morning to night for hearth and home; who doesn’t mind that her husband beats her sometimes because he also loves her to bits… (This is where the cringe-worthy scenes and dialogues begin… so, gritting my teeth, I continue watching.)

The homilies about how to be a ‘good’ woman continue; the toddlers are fascinated by this beautiful creature (who wouldn’t be?) whom their uncle has introduced as a fairy… by the time Pritam shows up again, Anita is considerably less waspish.

They have barely time to admit they love each other (one of my favourite romantic songs), when alas, Aunty shows up, secretary in tow. And she has Anita’s telegram in hand too, the one she sent her aunt, asking to be rescued. (I seem to remember a scene where this occurs, but it wasn't there in the print I watched.) Pritam, stung, accuses Anita of being a cold and selfish spoilt brat. Anita, miffed at being misunderstood, and hurt that he wasn’t listening to her, goes off in a huff, Aunty in tow.

Soon, Aunty has put the law (which she fought so hard for) into motion – divorce papers are filed. And since it’s not even a year since they got married, Pritam even manufactures some evidence against himself so the courts will grant Anita the divorce. 

Oh, what tangled webs we weave…

Mr & Mrs 55 was based on a play called Modern Marriage written by Abrar Alvi, though the basic plot point of a woman marrying for convenience and wanting a divorce was inspired by an American movie. (Abrar Alvi thought it was a Bette Davis-Cary Grant film, but I can’t find any movie in which the two acted together.) I do wonder at Alvi’s one-dimensional portrayal of Sita Devi, however. He’s definitely not a misogynist (though my considered opinion is that Guru Dutt was one), but the homilies that were pounded down our throats were so regressive that they still make me cringe. I keep reminding myself that this movie was made over six decades ago, and that women like Kumkum would possibly find their metier in home and hearth even today.

The problem is that the counter-argument – from Anita, from Sita Devi – is so lacking in nuance or even logic that it comes off as a pitting ‘tradition’ against ‘modernity’ and ‘Hindustani’ values against ‘Western’ values. Sita Devi says she’s learnt about women’s freedom from the women in Europe and America; the response to that is ‘Perhaps you could have learnt how to marry three or four times from them too.’ Which is a ridiculous argument to make.

The script had the potential to be great – there was much that could have been done with the material at hand, without resorting to tired lines about how it’s a woman’s privilege to work from morning to night, and how having three children in four years is good fortune.


That the movie still holds my interest is due more to Madhubala’s scintillating performance and her chemistry with Guru Dutt. As Anita, she’s there from beginning to end, and traces the trajectory of growth with a discipline that endears her character to the audience. From a silly, spoilt girl who just wants to get married to a woman who begins to understand herself and stand up for her own happiness (however regressive that happiness may seem), Madhubala made the journey believable and empathetic.

Guru Dutt is not one of my favourites as a hero – I always found him too whiny – but he does well here as the romantic hero, bringing a sweet intensity to his Pritam (though I baulked when he spoke of having ‘rights’ over his wife). He is also less whiny here, underlining his hurt with a dry humour ‘Meri chahiiti biwi bhi yeh chaahti hai?’ he quips when Sita Devi brings him the divorce papers. But he lends a certain dignity to his character, and one roots for him despite qualms. 
Besides, the climax made it less about the woman realising the error of her ways and the man magnanimously forgiving her, and more about two people who have surmounted the pitfalls of a modern relationship and will, hopefully, continue to grow together.

Lalita Pawar had a thankless role; while the first half of the movie made her character’s misandry believable (she’s escaped an abusive marriage), the second half makes her an out-and-out villain (as opposed to SaintTM Bhabhi) bribing witnesses, and imprisoning Anita. The seasoned actress made her outlandish actions believable, and the verisimilitude of her character depends greatly on her restraint.

Johnny Walker and Yasmin add nothing to the plot, but are always fun when they do appear, lightening the mood by several degrees. As does Tun Tun as Pritam’s landlady, Lily D’Silva. Thankfully, there’s no ‘comic side plot’ and the humour is neither regressive nor slapstick.

The dialogues sparkle, especially in the first half, where the repartee comes quick and fast.

Tum Communist ho?” asks Aunty, seeing Pritam’s cartoons.
Nahiin. Cartoonist hoon,” is the laconic reply. (The cartoons in the film were drawn by celebrated cartoonist RK Laxman.) 
Or the scene where Pritam repeatedly answers ‘Ji haan’ in different tones to Sita Devi’s questions. 

Or the one where a sulky Anita excoriates her nanny (Anwari) as never having been in love or she wouldn’t be forcing Anita to eat. “Hamaare zamaane mein prem karte the khaana khaake, bhookhe pet nahin,” is the pithy reply from her no-nonsense nanny.

VK Murthy, Dutt’s usual cinematographer shot the film beautifully in chiaroscuro – light and shade battling beautifully to add depth to scenes, especially the dramatic ones. As always, you cannot review a Dutt film without mentioning the music – if Dutt was a master at filming song sequences, he also had a fine ear for music, and OP Nayyar's score ranges from the romantic to the ironic, the frothy to the playful, the ubiquitous club number to the folksy, from a nok-jhonk number to Geeta Dutt’s soulful rendition of Preetam aan milo.

Final verdict? A guilty pleasure. You can watch it here.

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