One of the most beautiful moments of B.R. Chopra’s 1963 movie Gumrah is actually one of its most heartbreaking. A man plays the piano and sings to his married lover in her own house, while her husband watches. The song he sings is about becoming strangers to each other again, about the resigned heartbreak of one who knows that what he has won’t last. And you feel for all three of them — the cheated husband, the cheating wife and the lover whose sadness we have all felt when relationships have ended.
That’s the beauty of this movie — that despite working within convention, it has a gentle, sympathetic gaze for each of its protagonists (none of the three is seen as a villain), which is helped along by some beautifully melancholic lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi, set to equally haunting tunes by Ravi and sung in the caramel voice of Mahendra Kapoor.
In the week of B.R. Chopra’s birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back at Gumrah.
A movie that breaks the mould while staying in it
When a movie opens with a monologue about the Lakshman rekha that a woman must not transgress, you sort of know what you’re about to watch. I say sort of because, despite the broad framework of a woman going ‘astray’ or gumrah, the movie is surprisingly refreshingly bold, especially for its time.
Meena (Mala Sinha) and Rajendra (Sunil Dutt) are a young, madly in love couple in Nainital who want to get married, but are a bit nervous about approaching her father, because Rajendra, a painter and singer, doesn’t have a steady income.
Meena’s older sister Kamla (Nirupa Roy) comes to visit her family from Bombay, where she lives with her barrister husband Ashok (Ashok Kumar) and two kids. She supports Meena, telling her she would speak to their father about it. Before she has a chance, though, she dies after a fall down a cliff, and a shattered Meena ends up marrying her brother-in-law out of a sense of duty to her niece and nephew.
But that’s just where the movie begins.
Rajendra returns to Meena’s life, now a reasonably successful singer and painter. How she navigates her desire for a former lover (one with whom she never even got a chance to break up) and what she sees as her duty to her family is what makes the movie a compelling watch, even today.
Gumrah is bold not only in its theme — of a woman who rekindles a relationship with an old lover after she is married — but also in its treatment of women in general. Meena and Kamla share an extremely close bond, with each other as well as with their father. They crack jokes, chat over cups of tea and treat each other as friends as well as family. It’s not often one comes across a movie, especially from a certain generation, that focuses so strongly on the woman and her familial ties, with not even a mention of the man’s family.
In fact, Meena and her father have a frank chat after her sister’s death about what to do now, and how the kids need looking after. It is refreshing to see a father ask his daughter what she would like and even preemptively apologise if what he suggests will offend her. And interestingly, initially, Meena says no to marrying her brother-in-law. She says it is unacceptable to her, and her father doesn’t try to force her into it. It is she who later changes her mind and decides to sacrifice her desires and go through with this marriage and move to Bombay.
Later, when Meena tells Rajendra that she cannot leave her loving husband, he is quick to point out that Ashok only wanted a housekeeper and governess for his children, but doesn’t love her.
He might be saying it out of pique, but somewhere, she knows, and we know, that it’s not entirely untrue. Because after his wife’s death, Ashok made it clear he was concerned about the caretaking of his children and his house, which he, as someone who worked long hours, would be unable to do.
Meanwhile, a parallel track featuring Ashok’s friends’ volatile marriage raises questions about women’s rights and freedoms, and the age-old “You loved this about me when we were dating, but now that we’re married, you want to change me”.
It’s a track that brings to light Ashok’s own flaws and the fact that he, too, needs to change a few things. Which is why, even though the movie ends, as expected, with Meena choosing duty over love, it doesn’t mark a return to status quo.
A story that still finds resonance in the new millennium
Many say that the story of Gumrah was inspired by a relationship between actors Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, the latter having married her widowed brother-in-law for the sake of his children. Whether or not that is true, it is a fact that the movie is widely considered a classic, and one that has inspired many remakes and adaptations.
While Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan may have ended up together, with the help of a dog, in 1994’s smash hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (itself adapted from 1982’s Nadiya Ke Paar, which, in turn was adapted from a Hindi novel, Kohbar Ki Shart), there’s no denying that the film had shades of Gumrah. And then there was the Akshay Kumar-Kareena Kapoor starrer Bewafaa (2005) and Telugu film Abhinandana (1988).
But none of these could really match the maturity, gravitas, heartbreak and nuance of Gumrah.
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