'Guddi': How Hrishikesh Mukherjee Captured Celeb Culture and Fandom in the 1970s
How Hrishikesh Mukherjee explored celebrity culture and fandom with 'Guddi' starring Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan.
Those who have grown up in the 90s and 2000s are well-acquainted with the genius of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the great filmmaker whose middle-of-the-road films thrived on satellite TV once. Largely known and admired for his humane, slice-of-life narratives built around middle-class values, Mukherjee often built protagonists who occasionally break out of their conservatism, flaunting their flair for the ruse, and the irreverent. Golmaal, Chupke Chupke, Khoobsurat, and Kissi Se Na Kehna are some of his more popular works in this league. However, one cannot deny the madness of a situation where a middle-aged professor convinces a famous film star to be his accomplice in an off-screen charade, for the sake of reunion of two people the latter has no acquaintance with - which is the plot of Guddi in a nutshell.
Guddi, which also marked the stellar debut of the legendary actor Jaya Bachchan, is frankly a very scandalous conceit on paper - that of a 17-year-old school student pining for a much older man. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, collaborating on the screenplay with his loyal team-members Gulzar and DN Mukherjee, manages to keep the audience comfortable even around such a risky subject, never coming off as too radical or alienating.
It’s established early on that Kusum (Jaya Bachchan) is not an ordinary Dharmendra fan; she seems to be in love with him. At one point, influenced by one of her class lectures, Kusum romantically compares himself with the ascetic Meera who had immersed herself in Krishna-devotion without any expectations. When Kusum’s friendly maternal uncle Prof Gupta (Utpal Dutt, looking more adorable than he ever has) learns of it, he devises a plan - with help from none other than Dharmendra himself, the object of Kusum’s affection.
Gupta explains to the film star the impressionability of adolescent minds with regards to the allure of films, elaborating how it’s very easy to be swept away by these glamorous, shining on-screen avatars who seem to be capable of anything and everything. This is exactly what makes Guddi a truly significant product of its times, capturing a rare sliver of fandom that could only exist in that era.
While the celebrity culture has only gained significance with passing years, and we continue to adore film stars, there has been a two-way process towards a decline in the obeisance that goes into it. The celebrities now live a parallel, a more visible life on social media where they joke about things, get offended, display an occasional lack of temper while replying to naysayers. In other words, they now look much more accessible - while the audience, the receivers, have become far too world-wisely about their surroundings, hence lacing their affection and obsession with a tinge of self-awareness and cynicism. We now love our film stars despite their visible frailties.
Guddi arrived at an interesting cusp in our contemporary history where none of this existed. The film-goers did not know too much about the real lives of stars (besides their favourite perfume or hobbies, maybe) - which helped retain the allure. Although enough time had passed to rob us of the euphoria of independence and its idealism, we had still not become disillusioned enough to seek an outlet for our collective angst (a sentiment that found resonance with the ‘Angry Young Man’ films led by Amitabh Bachchan, a few years later.)
That naivety reflected in how reverently the audience loved their matinee idols, represented by Kusum in the film. There are countless stories of young girls marrying the photographs of Rajesh Khanna among others, and men traveling from all over the country for a glimpse of their beloved actresses.
Kusum may know how to fake tears over a concocted sob-story to get out of a sticky situation, but she remains a young girl unaware of how real life works, as implied in one scene where Prof. Gupta literally explains to her the role of a stuntman on a film set. This scene may seem laughable today - but it only goes to show the oblivion of our film-going masses then, understandable for an era devoid of the internet or any real connect with the world outside their lives.
50 years later, it does discomfort a bit occasionally to see a female protagonist being schooled by two men in such a discreet manner - However, it also remains that Kusum is a minor who needs to come of age first before she gets the agency to make her life choices.
The film, however, also expects Kusum to behave more like an adult. Kusum’s sister-in-law (Sumita Sanyal) keeps on insisting that Kusum wear a sari to look more grown-up. More importantly, the central conflict arises because the stakes are those of Kusum’s alliance with Navin (Sumit Bhanja) - and hence, its pertinent that Kusum grows out of her adolescent infatuation and becomes ready for a more adult relationship like marriage, nearly implying that both things can’t co-exist peacefully.
But then, perhaps Guddi never intended to be anything more than a story of a young girl coming of age and willingly taking off the rose-tinted glasses.
Along with Kusum, it’s also the audience for whom Guddi demolishes the myths around the movie-making business. Initially, there are some tiny humorous touches around the showbiz artifice that give us an amusing entrance into that world - A deceptive-looking beggar who is actually an actor rehearsing his lines, a fake toilet door. Most of the in-film shoots are deliberately melodramatic - built around scenes of nationalism, dacoits avenging the rich, crimes of passion - setting themselves apart in a very humble but conscious manner.
Guddi makes very clever use of film personalities (who play themselves), in order to further demarcate the reel from the real, for Kusum’s sake. Ashok Kumar delivers a second-hand sermon about the invisible hard work behind the myth-creation and how despite all the well-lit pedestals, actors are not the real heroes of the industry. Pran, in complete contrast to his malicious screen image, is shown to be excessively benevolent to his co-stars and crew members alike.
Guddi eventually embraces the much-harsher realities behind the silver screen. Kundan (Asrani) is a dreamy small-towner who elopes, stealing all his family’s wealth, to pursue his lofty aspirations of becoming a star.
However, the next time we see Kundan, he is in a disheveled look on a film set, playing one of the countless, nameless extras. When confronted, he admits to having undermined the importance of hard work. A production person scams a village bumpkin, under false promises of making a film with him. A feverish lightman is forced to work nonetheless for daily wages and collapses on the sets one day.
And in a rather surprisingly existential touch, Dharmendra ponders over the impermanence of his stardom and the films he is a part of - It is a very honest look into the mind of a grounded, self-aware artist, and a much-needed one for a story like this. Although Dharmendra is still rather heroic in his demeanour, incredulously co-operating and spirited towards a common man’s request for a personal cause, it is moments like this that bring believability to him.
However, in a film about the deconstruction of hero-worshipping, the narrative also puts Navin, its male protagonist, on a somewhat heroic pedestal. Navin is the one who confronts Kundan, encouraging him to go back to his family.
He is also the detached bystander on the film shoots, choosing instead to pen his observations in solitude, on the grime behind the polished exterior. While Kusum gains most of the wisdom on her own, it is the moment of her reading Navin’s diary that helps her have her big epiphany - leading her to both reconsider her feelings about the film world, and see Navin in a more admiring light. Navin truly is the hero in that sense, and perhaps that is also the point of the film, that heroes do actually exist in this world - except they might be wearing far less flashy clothes than you would imagine.
Through his films, Hrishi Da, just like his mentor Bimal Roy, always found the extraordinary in the ordinary - Guddi is a shining testament to the same.
(BH Harsh has worked as an Executive Producer in the TV industry and is currently pursuing his dream of being a film journalist, writing about and archiving the growth of Indian Cinema.)
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