1963 is a year regarded as a significant one for the Hindi screen woman. There were at least three major films - Bandini, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke and Gumrah that saw filmmakers making women-centric films with the central character going off the beaten (read traditional) path. If in Bandini, Kalyani follows her heart and goes to her lover Bikash instead of the good doctor Deven that society expects her to marry, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke was 'inspired' from the Nanavati murder case and though diluted in that the wife was seduced by her husband's friend rather than mutually entering into the affair, it was still a case of her commiting adultery. Gumrah, said to be inspired by Kamini Kaushal's life when she had to marry her sister's husband for the sake of the children when the sister died suddenly even though she was involved with Dilip Kumar, is a tale of marital infidelity, showing a woman resuming her romance with her lover after marriage, as did Kaushal till her brother, a military man, threatened Dilip Kumar with a pistol and put an end to the affair.
Gumrah is one of BR Chopra's finest films, Naya Daur (1957) withstanding. Chopra always endeavoured to make socially relevant films, yet taking care that his films always catered to popular sentiment. And to be fair to him, he has also done several films that were regarded as bold and ahead of their time. He dared to try a songless film with a hard-hitting suspense courtroom drama, Kanoon (1960), produced Ittefaq (1969), in which the heroine is an adulteress and murders her husband with the help of her lover and in Dhund (1973) showed a woman married to a paralytic take on a lover. Similarly Gumrah too is a daring and unconventional film for its times as the married heroine is unable to come to terms with her past when her lover shows up in her life again and begins to see him again behind her husband's back.
The film equates the 'Lakshmanrekha' with the sacred threshold of the home inside which lies the safety of a happily married woman, the true homemaker and the consequences of what happens if she crosses the line and goes astray or 'gumrah.' Sita suffered when she crossed the line and so must Meena, even if she was forced to marry a man she did not love at the cost of her love. After all for an Indian woman, marriage was regarded as the pinnacle of achievement with perhaps only procreation being higher on the social scale and here was Meena jeopardizing both her marriage and her motherhood.
Gumrah does sympathise with Meena and shows how tough it is for a woman to give up her first love especially as our films have always propogated that an Indian woman loves but once. Hence the film really comes into its own once the triangle is set up as Meena is made to marry Ashok and Rajinder re-enters her life. Thereafter the film is gripping and engrossing with the suspense well-maintained as you wonder if and when she would get caught especially once she starts getting blackmailed by Leela even if the denouement is a bit pat. The film captures Meena's helplessness extremely well as she finds the situation getting messier and more out of hand, leading her to even attempt killing herself.
Looking at the times, though the premise was bold, the ending had to be 'acceptable' and of course, the sanctity and purity of marriage had to be preserved. Duty and sacrifice had to take preference to matters of the heart. So Meena finally realizes her mistake of going 'astray' and breaks it off permanently with Rajinder and conventionally settles into the life of a dutiful housewife even though Ashok has left her free to go to Rajinder if she so wants. The end dialogue when Meena tells Rajinder "Yahan Koi Meena Nahin Rehti. Yeh Mrs Ashok ka Ghar Hai." (No Meena stays here. This is Mrs Ashok's house) and shuts the door on his face was met with solid clapping and approval from the audiences and was considered as the highlight of the film, even if appears ever so corny and 'filmi' today.
Central to the film are the three extremly competent lead perfomences. As the woman caught between her husband and lover, Mala Sinha, otherwise having a tendency to work herself into hysterical, melodramatic histrionics of the highest order, responds with perhaps her career’s most effective and reined-in performance. Though not the original choice (BR Chopra's first choice was Meena Kumari), Mala makes the grey-shaded role her own and by and large it is one of her most controlled and memorable performances. Both the men, Ashok Kumar and Sunil Dutt lend able support though Sunil Dutt walks on thin ice trying hard and not totally succeeding in making his character not appear cad-like as he re-enters Mala's life after her marriage and encourages her to resume her affair with him. Shashikala vamps it up deliciously as the blackmailer. She gives the standout performance of the film, coming in the last part of the film and practically walking off with it. She deservedly won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The film is a musical triumph for Ravi, perhaps his finest score ever and for singer Mahendra Kapoor who has sung some of his most popular songs in the film. Each of the songs, brilliantly written by Sahir Ludhianvi, be it In Hawaon Mein In Fizaon Mein, Yeh Hawa Yeh Fiza, Aap Aaye to Khayal-e-Dil-e-Nashad Aaya or Chalo Ek Baar Phir se Ajnabee Ban Jaayen Hum Dono among others, was a smash hit, in particular the last named which got Mahendra Kapoor the Filmfare Award for Best Playback singer. It is said that the song was born when Ludhianvi came across his estranged lover, singer Sudha Malhotra, at a party and told her "Chalo Ek Baar..." Mention must also be made of Pran Mehra's deft editing.
Gumrah was a huge critical and commercial success and went on to win a Regional Certificate of Merit at the National Awards. The Chopras themselves reworked the film as Dehleez (1986) and recently Dharmesh Darshan too was 'inspired' to make Bewafaa (2005) with Anil Kapoor, Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor, which was nothing short of a disaster. Our suggestion? Stick to the original any day.