Happy Friday! And Happy Dharmendra’s Birthday! I considered changing my plans in honor of Shashi, but I decided no, Shashi would want life to go on. And anyway, we should let Shashi serve as a reminder to cherish our legends while we have them (Dilip Sahib’s birthday is in 3 days, get ready for a blow out!)
Because I am a shallow person, I initially watched this film because I was told “Dharmendra takes his shirt off”. And it’s true, he does. And it’s wonderful. But it’s wonderful not just because of the Garam-Dharam, but because of how the film builds around that moment. Dharmendra is playing his character as a man that is slowly exposing himself, not just physically, but in every way. Someone who is stripping away his protections to show the fragile parts inside.
The title of the movie is “Phool Aur Patthar”, meaning “Flower and Stone”. Obviously, fragile beautiful Meena Kumari is meant to be the flower, while strong immovable Dharmendra is the “stone”. But in a larger sense, it means that everyone has within them both a flower and a stone. Meena has strength she never dreamed of, and Dharmendra is much more fragile than he realizes.
You could also say that it was a statement about society. Our hero and heroine were these fragile flowers, and society and the world tried to crush them, was unmovable in the face of their distress. Or maybe, more general, it is a statement about humanity, people are either flowers or stones, and the stones always try to crush the flowers.
This is one of those rare movies that wraps some pretty deep thoughts about humanity and injustice in a very very emotionally involving story. And a transgressive story, not just “transgressive” like the characters agonize over something that we the audience knows isn’t actually wrong, but actually transgressive, making arguments that are radical in the bare bones of them. But which work somehow through how they are presented onscreen.
A large part of that is the casting of our transgressive love story. Meena Kumari was on her way down and Dharmendra was on his way up and somehow they met in the middle and made something magical. She was so damaged, so fragile. And he was so untouched by anything, so protective without realizing that he himself needed protection. I’m talking half about their characters and half about their real life affair, because the two sort of blended in to one another, especially with this, their first film together, made while they were in the throws of new love.
It’s an unusual love story, the older woman and the younger man, both onscreen and off. But, both onscreen and off, their love was so strong that eventually it was able to overcome any hesitancy, any embarrassment, and just shine forth. It didn’t last long in real life, not the passionate love, but the caring and protection, that lasted until the day Meena died.
It’s Dharmendra’s birthday, and this story is relevant for the deeper meaning behind this film, so indulge me while I tell it again (fuller version here). Meena Kumari was a major star with a string of affairs behind her. Her marriage had just ended after dying a slow death for years and years. Meena tended to fall passionately totally in love, give everything to her chosen man, and then the relationship would burn out and he would leave her, having taken everything he could. But Dharmendra was different. It was never going to be a “real” relationship, he was married and clear from the start that he was not interested in leaving his wife. But it was wonderful while it lasted, and he made her happy. That was the same as all the others. What was different was what happened after it was over. Dharmendra was a star (partly thanks to his movies with Meena), he was still married, he had no need of her anymore. But unlike the rest, he kept coming around. While she slowly died of alcohol poisoning, ignored by her family and friends, Dharmendra would come to her house and visit and make her happy for a while, and then leave and sob in the backyard because he was so sad to see her that way. He tried to take care of her as much as she would let him right up to the end. And in the end, he avoided all the public mourning indulged in by her family and other co-stars, and simply slipped in to the cemetery to give a private farewell and prayer for her soul.
It’s not an exact match with the story of their relationship in this film, but it is the same feel of it. A heartbroken woman who has already had that one socially acceptable chance at love in Indian society, who finds a surprising new love to comfort her. And a man who seems so much less worthy, so far below her (Dharmendra was a new actor in the industry, Meena Kumari was one of the top female stars), but he cares for her more sincerely than anyone else which is enough to break through all these illusionary barriors.
So that’s why this is Dharmendra’s birthday movie. Because it was his star-making performance, but also because it is a tribute to a really kind of decent thing he did in his personal life. Happy Birthday Dharmendra!!!!
Now, let’s talk about just how and why this film was transgressive.
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This is such a perfect simple plot. Dharmendra, a thief, breaks in to a mansion and hears a woman call out. He finds Meena Kumari, dying, having been abandoned by her in-laws when she became ill with the plague that is running through their town. He can’t bring himself to leave her there, and so he cares for her, forces a doctor to come see her, and eventually takes her away to live with him in his dingy rooms in the city slums.
Meena Kumari is a widow, theoretically someone who should never be able to feel love again. Should never even be able to join the world again, should be cut off by her grief. But this movie doesn’t treat her like that.
Even before the Dharmendra love story begins, the movie has sympathy with her as a young woman forced to live with in-laws who hate and abuse her. It condemns them for leaving her to die, and for their abuses before her illness. It argues that we should not forget this young woman, should not want her to be locked up and forgotten after the death of her husband.
From the side of constructing these characters, Meena’s state as a forgotten widow is handled delicately as an explanation for why she is open to this bond with Dharmendra. Her life has been so empty of any kind of love, that she can’t help but respond to his care for her. Even while she still fears him as a man, as a lowerclass person, and as someone who initially broke into her home to rob it.
Dharmendra is similarly understandably hesitant. Hesitant to help her at first, and then even once he has committed to nursing her back to help, hesitant to stay in her life once she is healthy. He only takes the step of taking her away with him when there is no other option, when her relatives have returned to beat her and her brother-in-law to attempt to rape her. Then Dharmendra appears, saves her, and sees that there is no other option but to take her with him. As he is the only person in the world who seems to see her as a person rather than a victim.
It is their time in Dharmendra’s world that I find most fascinating. Because it acknowledges that just as a thief should not look at a wealthy widow, so should a wealthy widow not consider taking a strong man from his community. Dharmendra’s neighbors judge her for living with him and him for living with her, in a way they would not if she were a woman of their neighborhood. Dharmendra’s girlfriend Shashikala is angry that he would look at another woman, especially a woman like that.
And yet the two of them are still pulled to each other. Not because they need the other one, but because the other one needs them. Meena finds her voice in defending Dharmendra, in caring for him while he is injured and, in the finale of the film, in declaring his nobility and pureness in open court. And Dharmendra finds his decency in caring for Meena.
Which brings me back to that shirtless scene. It’s a combination of all of this. Meena is asleep in his rooms, in his bed. He returns late at night after having gotten drunk. She hears him come in and pretends to be asleep. He takes off his shirt and leans over her bed and, for just a moment, seems about to touch her. And then he straightens himself and instead puts his shirt over her for warmth, and then walks away.
It’s Meena’s (justifiable) fear of this stronger person, this person who has already broken through societal bonds. And Dharmendra’s need for her, desire to reach out and possess her. But what holds him back is his greater desire to care for her. So he takes off his shirt, and then uses it to give her warmth, sacrifices his own protections and opens himself up, but only so he can greater care for her.