This film has been on my watchlist for a long time now. Earlier this year, when I reviewed the delightful Maya Bazaar, my attention was drawn to Miss Mary, because—like Maya Bazaar—this was a film that was originally made in Tamil and Telugu (as Missiamma/Missamma) and, in this case, then into Hindi too. I was already aware that the film had some lovely songs, and Meena Kumari in a light-hearted role is always a pleasure to watch.
Plus, it stars Gemini Ganesan, whose birth centenary it is today. He was born on November 16, 1919, into a distinguished family that included his aunt Muthulakshmi Reddi, a much-respected social reformer who was instrumental in passing the Devadasi Abolition Act. Thanks to Muthulakshmi, Ganesan was enrolled at Ramakrishna Mission Home, and acquired a fairly strong ‘classical’ education here, including Sanskrit, the Vedas and Upanishads, and yoga. As an adult, though, Ganesan’s career graph was rather more eccentric: he harboured dreams of becoming a doctor, attempted to join the Indian Air Force, and ended up teaching chemistry at Madras Christian College. In 1947, a job at Gemini Studios (from which Ganesan drew his screen name) led him to receive a casting offer from the studio—and Gemini Ganesan’s acting career was launched.
Gemini Ganesan was to go on to act in more than 200 films, most of them Tamil. I wanted to mark his birth centenary by reviewing one of his films, and decided to kill two birds with one stone by choosing Miss Mary. This was Gemini Ganesan’s first Hindi film (he acted in several others, nearly all of them remakes of his own Tamil films).
Miss Mary begins at a school function at the Lakshmi School. The school’s founder (?) announces that on the sixteenth anniversary of the school’s foundation—the school having been established when his daughter, Lakshmi, vanished—he has decided to appoint a couple as Headmaster and Headmasterni. [This gives the impression that the school does not lack for teachers, only heads, which, as we later discover, is not quite accurate].
At the home of this gentleman, we get to meet the rest of his household. His wife (Achla Sachdev) and his daughter Sita (Jamuna) are there, looking adoringly up at the portrait of the long-lost Lakshmi. We are not told how she was lost, but her doting mother still remembers that little Lakshmi was truly the embodiment of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (and virtue, it seems, in this case).
Also part of the household, though not a family member, is Raju (Kishore Kumar), who besides being the secretary of the school, is also an amateur detective. Raju, helped by a sidekick named Chandragupta (?), has been searching diligently for Lakshmi all these years, putting out advertisements in the newspapers, and vetting young women who are brought forward as Lakshmi.
It’s easy to sift the wheat from the chaff: little Lakshmi had a distinctive mole on her right foot, and around her neck hung an equally distinctive locket engraved with images of Hindu deities. So, when a young woman turns up with her adoptive father, claiming to be Lakshmi, it takes only moments for the family to reject her claim because she’s so obviously not Lakshmi.
The scene now shifts to introduce us to the real Lakshmi, who is completely unaware that she is Lakshmi. Mary (Meena Kumari) has been brought up by a Christian priest (Shivraj) and his wife, and firmly believes herself to be their daughter. She is a BA, and teaches music to the daughter of a government official—who shatters poor Mary’s dreams of being able to pay off her parents’ Rs 400 debt, by announcing that he’s been transferred and that Mary’s services will not be required from the following day onward.
However, the man is a kind and considerate one, so he gives Mary a letter of recommendation as well as a reference: he knows someone who needs clerks, and if Mary is willing to work as clerk (she is), she can apply there.
Mary isn’t the only one; Arun (Gemini Ganesan), who was tutor to the officer’s son, has also received a letter of recommendation and a referral to the same potential-employer-of-clerks. Arun and Mary, who are at daggers drawn, run into each other at the bus stop but, in an attempt to hide the advantage (or so they feel) they’ve got, don’t tell each other where they’re going or why.
Not that it matters, because the employer (Maruti), it turns out, isn’t going to be employing any clerks right now. He tells Arun to come back after a year. Shortly after, when Arun has gone and Mary arrives, the man gives her a long discourse on his solution to the problem of unemployment, and gives her some unsolicited advice: that she should cheerfully accept her current state of unemployment and try to snag an employed man whom she can marry.
A furious Mary snaps back at him: Is he married? No? Then how about her marrying him? Before he—already cowed by her retort—can even think of taking her seriously, Mary has stormed out of his office.
Mary does need the job, and badly. Not only is that debt to be paid off, the man to whom her family is in debt is a pest of the first order. John (Randhir) is besotted by Mary (whom he calls “My lovey-dovey”) and wants to marry her. But because Mary despises him, he’s settled on a sneaky, underhand way to get her to be his wife: when Mary tells him to give them two months to repay the debt, he agrees—on the condition that if that doesn’t happen, Mary will marry him when the two months are up.
In the meantime, Arun has made friends with a fraudulent beggar named Nakdau (Om Prakash; that odd name is a variant on ‘naqad’, ‘cash’, since that’s what Nakdau goes about asking for). Nakdau, posing as a blind beggar and then as a mendicant, bumps into Arun so often that a camaraderie develops between them.
Arun confides in Nakdau, and Nakdau is also the first to be told of a possible job opportunity Arun sees in a newspaper: an opening for the post of Headmaster and Headmasterni at a school, 200 miles away… the only problem is that the people who apply must not only be BAs but also a married couple. (Yes, this is the Lakshmi School).
Soon enough, Arun bumps into Mary again, and realizes that like him, she too is still looking around for a job (‘a road inspector’, as Arun describes the situation to Nakdau—searching the roads, looking for employment). Somewhat reluctantly, Arun tells Mary about this job and makes a tentative suggestion that the two of them take it up, posing as husband and wife.
An appalled Mary refuses point-blank, but this seems to be destined: John arrives, making himself obnoxious. Between them, Arun and Nakdau (more Nakdau than Arun, actually, since Nakdau is singularly good at being really pesky) are able to shoo John away. In the course of the conversation, Arun has discovered Mary’s predicament and suggests a solution: since Mary has only two months in which to pay the debt, and the salary promised to her as Headmasterni is Rs 250 per month, all she needs do is work as Headmasterni for two months. At the end of that, she can leave and come back to her parents.
Arun’s reassurances that the ‘marriage’ will be completely fake and that he will be the picture of decorum finally sways Mary, who realizes, too, that she doesn’t have an option.
So the two of them, along with Nakdau (whom Arun has taken on as a servant, an unpaid companion-cum-Man Friday), go off to the school. With Mary’s consent, Arun has already sent in an application to the school, as a result of which the founder of the school—Lakshmi’s father—comes to the railway station to receive the couple.
From there, they are taken home, and Lakshmi’s mother is immediately drawn to Mary: what a beautiful young woman! How talented and demure and gentle and good! Not that Mary goes out of her way to be charming: in fact, she is so put off by this overly enthusiastic fawning over her way, that she looks definitely annoyed at times.
They settle in soon enough, in the quarters that have been allotted to them. Since there are two rooms, sleeping and living isn’t a problem, so that old trope of just one bed (or just one bedroom) doesn’t come into play here. However, other problems soon crop up, the prime one being that Lakshmi’s parents become besotted by Mary (whose name is never disclosed to them, and who they do not realize is Christian).
They are so fond of her that they insist on having her over for all sorts of occasions, including Lakshmi’s birthday, when Lakshmi’s mother insists on decorating poor Mary with sindoor, haldi, aalta, and lots of other things Mary is clueless about. All these unwitting assaults on her religious beliefs are driving Mary up the wall, and Arun has a hard time soothing her.
Meanwhile, Raju, the detective (he’s a son of an old friend of Lakshmi’s father, and has been brought up in this house) has been introduced to Mary. For no good reason (except possibly that he’s so desperate to find Lakshmi?) Raju begins to wonder if Mary is Lakshmi. He tries to see if there’s a mole on Mary’s foot, and asks Nakdau lots of probing questions about the master and his wife—how long have they been married, how did they get married, and so on. Nakdau, master at the art of rigmarole, manages to get Raju and his assistant Chandragupta frustrated and furious in no time at all.
At the school (which is only cursorily touched upon), Arun and Mary discover on the very first day that there are no teachers, and the students are woefully ignorant. It’s an uphill task, but before we know it, the two of them have accomplished it, and Lakshmi’s father is thrilled. He pays them their salary for the first month, and when they’re alone together, Arun insists that Mary send it all off—Arun’s share included—to her father, so that he can pay off the dastardly John.
But while that’s getting sorted out, there’s another little complication. A naïve and rather silly Sita has been mooning about Arun and insisting that he, and only he, can teach her music. This leaves an already jealous Mary even more incensed, though she doesn’t let on to Arun about how she feels.
And all the while, there’s Raju, still looking for Lakshmi…
If I’d ignored all the many people who’d recommended Miss Mary to me, and had only gone by previous experience of AVM Productions, who seemed to produce some of the most melodramatic family dramas of the 1950s, I’d have missed out on a film that was a lot of fun. It’s not outright hilarious—the plot, for example, is a simple one, and there are no sudden twists and turns. You can pretty much see all of it coming. But what makes this film worth watching is the overall package: the very pretty Meena Kumari; the music; the general sweetness of everybody (except that nasty John) concerned—and John, too, is actually as comical as he is nasty, because he’s so very inept a criminal.
What I liked about this film:
All that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but some elements need special mention. Gemini Ganesan is funny, and very watchable. There’s no pronounced accent to his Hindi, which makes his performance even more laudable.
And Meena Kumari is wonderful as Mary. Peppy, feisty, and just so gorgeous.
Plus, I love the realistic way Mary’s character is represented when it comes to her being a Christian: the stereotyping isn’t there at all. Yes, she wears a crucifix around her neck (which she hides or takes off when Arun gently reminds her that she’s masquerading as a Hindu), but she habitually wears a sari rather than a dress, and her Hindi is perfect, not the Bambaiyya Hindi that is so common among Christian characters in Hindi cinema, even leads (Madhubala’s Edna from Howrah Bridge is the polar opposite of Mary).
And, I liked the way Mary’s upbringing is built into her character: as a Christian myself, who married into a Hindu family, I know how uncomfortable and alien a lot of Hindu rituals can feel to someone who has never grown up with them: Mary’s dilemma offers a sensitive insight into something a lot of Hindus wouldn’t even realize can be a problem for someone who isn’t a Hindu, and isn’t polytheistic. Plus, the calm and non-melodramatic way in which Mary’s religion is accepted was refreshing.
I also liked the music (by Hemant; the lyrics are by Rajendra Krishan). My favourite songs from the film include Yeh mard bade dil sard, Vrindavan ka Krishna Kanhaiya, and O raat ke musaafir chanda zara bataa de.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really. I do wish that there had been more of the Raju-Sita romance: Raju’s pining for Sita is in evidence (even in a song, Gaana na aaya, bajaana na aaya), but Sita’s feelings towards Raju are completely glossed over.
Overall, though, a very enjoyable film and one I’m glad I watched. Happy 100th, Mr Ganesan!