"Gumrah" is translated in the subtitles of B. R. Chopra's 1963 film as "misled," a word with two main senses: "to go astray" and "to be deceived." Both meanings come into play in this story of a woman torn between the passions of romantic love and the constraints of familial duty.
Just in case we miss the point, the movie's pre-credit sequence portrays the moment in the Ramayana when Sita sees a golden deer and asks Ram to capture it. Ram and his brother Lakshman are both skeptical—they rightly suspect a trick—and before leaving Sita alone Lakshman draws a line around their cottage that he urges her never to cross:
It's the social and emotional consequences of a married woman "crossing the line" that Gumrah will explore.
In the idyllic hill country of northern India, Meena (Mala Sinha) meets and falls in love with the dashing Rajendra (Sunil Dutt), an artist and a singer. Rajendra sure knows how to sweet-talk a girl:
Meena's older sister Kamla (Nirupa Roy) and her two young children are visiting the family home in Nainital, while Kamla's husband Ashok (Ashok Kumar), a well-known barrister, has had to stay behind in Mumbai to deal with work. The two kids, Dollie and Pappu, love to play with their Auntie Meena and are just too adorable for words:
When Kamla learns that Meena and Rajendra are in love, she promises Meena to speak to their father (Nana Palsikar) on behalf of Rajendra's marriage proposal. But tragedy strikes: before she can bring up the subject, Kamla has a fatal accident. Shocked and grieving, her father approaches Meena with his misgivings about the future of the children: Ashok is too consumed by the demands of his career to raise them on his own. The children need a mother's love, says her father,
Meena's response is immediate:
She goes to her bedroom, where the children are sleeping; so as not to disturb them, she takes a pillow and blanket and curls up on the floor. But in the morning she discovers that the children have made their choice:
Out of her love and concern for her sister's children, she bows to her father's wishes and marries Ashok—without revealing her love for Rajendra.
Ashok is not unkind, but he is neglectful: he leaves early for work and returns late, often bringing cases (and clients) home with him. It's not made explicit, but it seems as though they may sleep in separate bedrooms. Unlike other married couples in their Mumbai social circle, Meena and Ashok rarely argue, but in part it's because their relationship is rather formal (Ashok addresses her as madame and mon cher) and passionless.
One night the children ask her for a bedtime story. Meena sings to them the mournful tale of a young woman who is forced to leave her true love and marry a stranger, and whose "dreams of love remain unfulfilled":
The music is by Ravi with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi; the playback singer for Mala Sinha is Asha Bhosle. It's in this song that we see through the surface normality of her domestic routines with husband and children to Meena's deep unhappiness.
For a celebration of their first wedding anniversary Ashok and Meena are invited by Meena's father to visit him in Nainital. Meena leaves first with the children, and Ashok promises to join them later. Of course, he becomes enmeshed in work and gets stuck in Mumbai. At the Ashokless anniversary party, Meena hears a familiar voice singing "Come, my dear; my love is calling you. I didn't know our love would end so soon, and that you'd become a stranger...when once I held you in my arms." Yes, it's Rajendra, singing for the entertainment of the party (Sunil Dutt's playback singer is Mahendra Kapoor):
Rajendra urges Meena to begin meeting him again. After a brief struggle with her conscience, Meena starts visiting Rajendra every afternoon, and spends hours in his company. One evening as she's sneaking back into her father's house she unexpectedly encounters Ashok. He's finally managed to get away from the office, and he's brought her a make-up present—a diamond ring:
Through a chance encounter Ashok meets Rajendra and strikes up a friendship with him—a friendship that causes Rajendra and Meena many uncomfortable moments in Ashok's company (and Chopra excels at making us squirm along with Meena and Rajendra).
Following Ashok's advice, Rajendra winds up moving to Mumbai. Ostensibly he is pursuing his painting and singing career; his true motive, of course, is to remain as close as possible to Meena. And once he's in Mumbai, Meena finds it impossible to resist seeing him every day; if she is not being technically unfaithful to Ashok during these clandestine meetings, she's certainly being emotionally unfaithful.
One day as Meena is leaving Rajendra's flat she is accosted by an unfamiliar woman:
The woman claims to be Rajendra's abandoned wife, and knows all about her visits to Rajendra. She begins to blackmail Meena; desperate, Meena hopes to buy her silence. Predictably, though, the woman comes back for more, and begins to intrude even into Meena's home. Meena finds it harder and harder to meet her demands while continuing to keep everything concealed from Ashok.
Finally, the woman's demands become so extreme that Meena is reduced to pleading with her for more time to raise additional cash—when the woman spots her diamond ring:
Meena has no choice but to let her take it; but she can't let Ashok see that she is no longer wearing the symbol of his love. She's then in a race against time to raise enough money to redeem the ring from her tormentor before Ashok learns the truth. But has Ashok already begun to suspect that she has transgressed the boundaries of their married life? And, despite the difficulties involved, shouldn't Meena have been honest with Ashok from the very first?
Meena is a flawed and erring woman. And yet, thanks to Mala Sinha's utterly compelling portrayal, it is impossible not to sympathize with her. Some of her choices may be poor, but her alternatives are sharply constrained by social forces over which she has no control. And this is a film in which it's clear that no one is blameless.
Mild spoilers follow. There are two models for resolving the conflict between love and duty in mainstream Hindi cinema: the Krishna-Radha model, where love conquers all, and the Ram-Sita model, where duty requires a selfless sacrifice. Which model is operative in Gumrah is never in doubt. If the pre-credit Ramayana sequence didn't clue us in, there are repeated dissolves to images of fire (Sita's symbol). So if the final moments of the film offer the resolution that we've long anticipated, at least it is shown to be Meena's choice. And complicating the facile final title card ("...and they lived happily ever after"), which I strongly suspect is the contribution of B.R. Chopra's younger brother Yash, is the depth of emotion in Mala Sinha's eyes. Her performance suggests the profound emotional costs for Meena of that "happily ever after."