Identifying the earliest examples that document partition in Bombay cinema, this article delves into the relationship between a historic trauma and physical comedy through the star performance of Meena Shorey in a trilogy of romantic comedies, Ek Thi Larki (Once There Was a Girl, 1949), Dholak (Drumbeats, 1951), and Ek Do Teen (One Two Three, 1953). In these films, the female protagonist wrestles men, scales walls, drives tractors, and makes a spectacle of herself, demonstrating a complete disregard for received ideas of femininity. Informed by her multiple marriages, irreverent religious conversions, switches in national location, and a disavowal of the “partition serious,” Meena's image in these comedies served as visual innuendo for the abducted woman. Adapting the trope of a piteous partition figure to explore the possibility of feminine liberation, the Shorey comedies bring about a radical cinematic recovery through the laughter-inducing abandon of their star comedienne.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Pakistan's popular television talk show Silver Jubilee featured a film star of yesteryear, Meena Shorey. A fragment of the interview survives—a half-minute clip on YouTube—in which a silver-haired Meena, in advanced age and by all accounts a penurious state, croons “Laralappa Laralappa” to the chat-show audience (video clip 1).1 Three decades after migrating to Pakistan from India and appearing in more than a dozen films there, Meena revisited an iconic song from an Indian film that first launched her into the comedienne star orbit. After a trepid start, her lilting voice, swaying head, and sideways clap confirm that indeed the droll queen of 1950s Hindi-Indian film was addressing the Pakistani TV audiences of the 1980s.
The sexagenarian star's performance is multivalent; it positions her Indian life over the Pakistani, yet is mnemonic of forsaking India for Pakistan. As a nostalgic signifier of an Indian past possessing a broader resonance in Pakistan, it connotes severance. Film cultures and icons provide the intense semiotic regime through which the postcolonial nations of India and Pakistan relate not just to themselves, but also to each other. Fifty years after the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistanis attending a cricket match against India chanted from the stands “Madhuri de do, Kashmir le lo” (Give us Madhuri, take Kashmir), professing their enthusiasm for the leading Indian female star of the 1990s, Madhuri Dixit. While the desire to give up Kashmir for Madhuri is independent of Dixit's star image, it is not devoid of social memory and history. Interchangeable and exchangeable, women and geographical territories have been central to transactions of masculinist nationalisms in the region. I quarry the memory of this desire around the expropriation, exchange, and recovery of women through Meena's star image, which is intimately linked with partition, the violent convulsion that accompanied decolonization in South Asia.2
Furthering my previous attempt to retrieve Meena's star biography, missing from existing partition studies of cinema, this article delves into the relationship between a historic trauma and physical comedy through the comedienne's persona.3 In doing so, it urges a departure from the dramatic registers of mourning, silence, and repressions that have remained dominant in film scholarship on partition and offers comedy as a highly expressive mode.4 A historically anchored reading of the Shorey comedies, informed by life biographies of its refugee personnel and the verisimilitude of the comedies' comic referents, including other aesthetic regimes and the milieu of circulation, reveals their radical capacity. While Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik caution against overstating this potential, noting that “subversion” and “transgression” are “the institutionalized generic requirements” of comedy, I argue that the genre's latitude allows a commensurate reworking of the excesses of a grim and gendered Indian partition, primarily through its star attraction, Meena.5 Emerging from a decade-long creative and personal collaboration with the refugee producer and director Roop Shorey, Meena's stardom is distinctive in yoking sexual allure with droll defiance. Informed by multiple marriages, irreverent religious conversions, switches in national location, and in particular a careful separation maintained in Shorey comedies between narrative progression based on sexual desire and action driven by material considerations (for instance, lack or excess of money), Meena's image serves as a visual innuendo for the abducted woman—the partition figure who “became symbolic of crossing borders, of violating social, cultural and political boundaries.”6 This abducted woman who stood for the humiliation of one community by another during the long-unfolding of partition appears in state records, photographic documentation of humanitarian intervention, and contemporary popular culture.
This article builds on two areas of feminist scholarship. The first involves the canonical interventions in South Asian historiography that have drawn attention to the ways in which “women's sexuality, as it had been violated by abduction, transgressed by enforced conversion and marriage and exploited by impermissible cohabitation and reproduction,” emerged at the center of debates around national honor, identity, and citizenship in post-partition India.7 These acts caused state operations of “citizen-recovery” on both sides, during which women were recovered, often against their wishes, and returned to their pre-partition families and homes, defined in terms of religious identity. While making women's subjective experiences of the partition their central concern, these oral histories also conjure their irretrievability. As a response, I offer the counter-narratives that emerge from the earliest examples that document partition in the Bombay film industry, the Shorey comedies. The second area of scholarship, more influential and Eurocentric, identifies in the unruly female and her comic performances a threat to patriarchal structures.8 While I find “female unruliness,” or the condition of defiant and outrageous femininity, a liberating impulse in Shorey comedies, its true significance lies in disputing the differential freedom based on gender and religion that emerged in postcolonial South Asia.
In an attempt to recuperate her voice in partition, the feminist writer Urvashi Butalia encounters the layers of silence that congealed into histories of shame. Occasionally the unregulated world of Bombay film would expose these hidden histories of partition. The film Lahore (1949), made and set in the aftermath of partition, narrates the story of star-crossed lovers Lilo (Nargis) and Chaman (Karan Dewan) separated in the violence. Chaman makes an arduous journey to Lahore to “recover” Lilo from her Muslim abductor and, overcoming societal taboos, the two reunite. Lahore's narrative progression is consistent with the efforts and publicity undertaken by the Indian state to rehabilitate “recovered” women in the face of their social ignominy and rejection. Relief work pamphlets aimed at dispelling traditional notions of purity and defilement drew parallels with Ramayan, the mythological epic in which the suffering Sita undergoes trial by fire on her return from Lanka. Around the same time, in late 1949, Prithvi Theatre, a private theater group with widespread public appeal, staged its fifth play, Ahooti (Sacrificial Offering), didactically confronting the stigma and isolation that abducted women faced once restored to their families and society. Allegorically referring to Sita's abduction, the play ended on a tragic note when the rescued girl, unable to find acceptance, commits suicide. A decade later, the film Chhalia (Trickster, 1960) would also deploy this trope, where the suffering yet virtuous Shanti (Nutan) is a Hindu woman “rescued” from Pakistan whose son carries a Muslim name. Her husband, Kewal, who is initially ecstatic to reunite with his long-lost wife, is unable to accept the child as his own and rejects her. Deserted by her family, Shanti tries to jump to death when Chhalia (Raj Kapoor), the petty thief with a golden heart, comes to her rescue. Eventually, Chhalia's efforts reunite Shanti and Kewal in a Ramlila carnival, where anxieties around feminine chastity and masculine honor are resolved through the narrative device of a song:
In a film explicitly pivoted around women and children wedged in the partition turmoil and made more than a decade after the event itself, the female lead of Chhalia, as in Lahore, awaits rescue while silently accepting ignominy and abandonment until she is made respectable again through masculine altruism and the exonerating parallel of religious mythology.
The aesthetic regime of melodrama, common to these two films and the Prithvi play, potently elaborates on the suffering of the silent and inherently virtuous abducted woman, and resolves postcolonial deliverance through cathartic remorse and collective acceptance. These strategies suggest the formation of a partitionized film public, by which I imply a cognitive capacity rather than actual demography, after 1947. Coeval with Lahore, Ahooti, and most significantly the citizen recovery projects of India and Pakistan, the Shorey comedies addressed this partitionized film public. Yet in striking contrast, the key attraction of these films was the romantic heroine with madcap energy reminiscent of the female lead in Hollywood screwball films, an extremely popular genre in colonial India. I propose that the Shorey comedies adapted the trope of the abducted woman to explore the possibility of feminine liberation through the laughter-inducing abandon of their star, Meena. Unrecognizable from the archetypal suffering and passive woman in films on partition, the Shorey rendition moves away from considerations of chastity and defilement but into a world that is nonetheless dangerous, providing an occasion for adventure and an array of thrills. Could these cinematic inflections offer echoes for feminist scholarship to recover her voice in partition history, which has been obscured by dominant paradigms of abduction and conversion? If, as Joan Wallach Scott suggests, “women acquire intelligibility when the historian attributes significance to what she has been able to hear,” then I concentrate on the reverberations in Meena's persona and performance that speak of women's resistance and partition.9
THE RUNAWAY GIRL
Meena's memoir, published in Pakistan in 1986, narrates her humble beginnings, steady rise, personal setbacks, and, finally, relegation to obscurity. A fascinating archive of the actress's multiple identities and improbable life—she conducted a twenty-five-year career across three political formations (British India, independent India, and Pakistan)—the memoir is striking in what it chooses to reveal and to withhold.10 Three of her five marriages are discussed at length, whereas the other two are not mentioned at all. Similarly, there is a silence surrounding the two children she adopted with Roop Shorey and their subsequent fate after her migration to Pakistan. Photographed with her adopted kids on beach holidays and birthdays in Indian film periodicals, the memoir refuses this memory in Pakistan and effects a de-kinning in Meena's image, mirroring in yet another way the “rescue” of the abducted woman. However, the most confounding of Meena's omissions is any reference to the “droll queen's” comic talents, which were central to her stardom. References to her beauty and popularity abound, but rarely is there a self-recognition of her innate ability to perform comic routines.
Born as Khurshid Jahen in the mid-1920s, Meena received her stage name when she joined the major-league studio Minerva Movietone in Bombay. Her early appearances were in historical romances (Minerva's métier) such as Sikandar (Alexander the Great, 1941) and Prithvi Vallabh (1943). It was around the making of Pattharon ka Saudagar (Merchant of Stones, 1944) that Meena made a decisive shift. Finding her career options limited by a stifling studio contract with Minerva, she left Bombay for Lahore in the mid-1940s. This was preceded by a court case she filed against Sohrab Modi, Minerva's holder, who allegedly exploited her lack of education and failed to make explicit the terms of the contract, which carried the thumbprint of Meena's unlettered mother. Belonging to an economically hard-up family from provincial Punjab, and yet to come of legal age at the time of entering employment, Meena's chances of negotiating a fair contract were even slimmer than those of the leading actresses of pre-independence India. In her study of Shanta Apte's infamous hunger strike, Neepa Majumdar reads the actress's desire to break the studio contract and “revive a flagging career by going elsewhere.”11 For Meena, as recounted in her memoir, moving from Bombay to Lahore was a strategy to thwart the control of a studio impeding her professional growth. By the same token, she would cast aside considerations of communal and national belongings, moving from west Punjab to what would become a nation for the Muslims of the subcontinent, thus ensuring her employability. In the summer of 1947, when film production came to a standstill in a volatile Lahore, Meena returned to Bombay and acted in films like Actress (1948) and Dukhiyari (The Pitiable Woman, 1948) with independent producers in that city.
The Punjabi film Chaman (1948) was Roop and Meena's first collaboration in independent India.12 Though the hero of the film was reserved to the title role, Meena insists in her memoir that she staked out a more prominent role for herself, not as an actress but as one intimately involved in production decisions. The moment “when a star selects other stars to appear in [her] picture” comes into view in Meena’s star trajectory in the aftermath of partition.13 On her suggestion, a “low-priced hero,” Karan Dewan, whose brother, Jaimini, would soon produce the film Lahore, was cast as the lead.14,Chaman portrays electoral rivalries in a fledgling democratic context in which the Punjabi girl Meena is out to avenge her father's humiliating defeat in local Lahore elections but ends up falling in love with his political rival. Chaman's success set into motion the production of Roop and Meena's most enduring work, Ek Thi Larki (Once There Was a Girl, 1949), followed by Dholak (Drumbeats, 1951), Ek Do Teen (One Two Three, 1953), Aag Ka Dariya (River of Fire, 1953), and Jalwa (Luster, 1955). Magazine reviews described these films produced under the banner of Shorey Art Productions as “fast entertainers,” “slapstick,” and “gay romance, and rollicking comedy that filmgoers [had] come to expect in Roop Shorey's pictures.”15 Unlike her contemporaries in India and Pakistan, Meena's persona merged the romantic heroine and the comedienne, though her critics often deemed her performances excessive: “She has interpreted the role fairly well but her performance lacks restraint. At moments the audience wishes there was someone to check her a bit.”16 Apart from acting in husband Shorey's productions, Meena appeared in similar roles in Shri Naqad Narayan (Money Is God, 1955), Shrimati 420 (Trickster Wife, 1956), and Awara Shahzadi (Vagabond Princess, 1956), and worked as an associate producer on Ek Do Teen and Mukhda (Face, 1951).
After her marriage to Shorey and a much-publicized conversion to Hinduism, Meena took on an additional name and became Kiran Shorey in her offscreen public life.17 In the actress's life narrative, her personal and professional collaboration with Roop was underpinned by the refugee filmmaker's losses during partition and her subsequent attempts to replicate their pre-partition Lahore success in post-partition Bombay. The claims made in her memoir resonate with the tongue-in-cheek gossip published in the monthly journal filmindia in early 1950, which also suggests a motivation behind Meena's decision to marry Roop: “Meena, the Pakistan-born Muslim actress is reported to be doing better refugee-relief work than the Government of India. They say that she earns a lot of money doing hard work and with it helps a refugee producer to produce pictures and to relax when he is tired.”18
Even as the description “Pakistan-born” bears the markings of filmindia's intentional anachronisms, it must be read in conjunction with the “domicile” and “birth” criteria of Indian citizenship introduced in late 1949. In her work on the bureaucratic processes of partition, Vazira Zamindar observes that the citizenship of women became contingent on the location of their fathers and husbands.19 With Meena's father and her last husband, Raza Mir, living in Pakistan, her employment in the Bombay film industry was dependent on Indian citizenship. Thus, marriage to the Indian Roop would have foiled the obstructions generated by partition for a “Pakistan-born” Meena who wished to work in Bombay.
In 1956, when Meena decided to “defect” to Pakistan, she re-converted to Islam and was renamed Khurshid Jehan. Her decision to serve the Pakistani film industry appeared alongside news of her separation from Shorey.20 Meena's transgressions, which included multiple husbands and shifts in communal belonging, could only be absolved by enacting a “recovery” similar to what the paternalistic states of India and Pakistan had done in the case of abducted women, and mandated that her marriage with Roop be portrayed as lacking consent. A Pakistani film magazine in 1956 likened her to a hostage, claiming that the actress had wished to terminate the marriage years earlier.21 Though this is not corroborated in Meena's memoir, she explicitly states her unease at the prospect of remaining in India as a “Hindu forever.”22 Nevertheless, she is unequivocal about Shorey's liberal cosmopolitanism and their shared indifference to their respective faiths. Meena's dilly-dallying between film cities of the subcontinent, which continued until 1956, embodies in its willful disregard of national limits a response to an important partition question: “Do women have a country?”23 And while these oscillations are underpinned by the precariousness of belonging and identity, they emerge from the inescapable reality that an actress's labor pursuits were contingent on an unequal citizenship.
Meena's stardom straddles complex political formations and engenders historical anxieties akin to those associated with the figure of the abducted woman. It is absurd but easy to misconstrue this argument as collapsing the collaborative relationship shared by the actress and the producer-director with one that involves force, that of an abducted woman and her abductors. What I am proposing here is related to the collective anxieties that were (and continue to be) activated in the transgressions that lie at the heart of Meena's star persona. Turning the figure of the abducted woman on its head by proactively crossing national and communal boundaries, Meena's agency as a star annotates her performance as the recovered woman in the comic trilogy Ek Thi Larki, Dholak, and Ek Do Teen. It is the play between the on-screen and the offscreen that makes discernible the resuscitation of a partition figure associated with collective honor and shame into what Kathleen Rowe Karlyn identifies as “the unruly woman” who creates humor and spectacle.24 This resuscitation is orchestrated by fashioning the unruly woman as the runaway girl.
An early publicity still of Ek Thi Larki, with a full shot of Meena (fig. 1), carried the tagline: “Here is the runaway girl who creates history in Kashmir.”25 The hold of the runaway girl on Meena's persona goes beyond Ek Thi Larki, capturing an intentional mobility and disregard for societal discipline. Most acutely it resurfaced when the actress decided to move to Pakistan in 1956. Born as a Muslim in west Punjab, which now lies in Pakistan, the actress's decision to trade national location was popularly regarded in Pakistan as the return of the prodigal daughter. However one chooses to view Meena's migration, either as a defection or as a return, it was made historically intelligible through the figure of the abducted and recovered woman.
Listening closely to women's stories from partition, a transference between the figures of the abducted woman and the runaway girl presents itself. The abducted woman escaping or colluding with her captors could become a runaway girl, while on the other hand, a runaway girl by rejecting familial and patriarchal protection could elicit anxieties no different from that of an abducted woman. Urvashi Butalia offers the example of Satya, who was taught to ride a horse and carry a rifle by her “captors” during the partition violence, and joined a gang of dacoits.26 Extremely resistant to being “recovered” by the Indian state after partition, Satya did not fail to direct her “venom” toward Damyanti Sahgal, the woman who had led the Indian rescue team in Pakistan.27 What sort of freedom had Satya come to know during “captivity” that made her snub the “liberation” offered by the rescue operation? By way of response, I draw attention to the image archive of feminine abandon and paternalistic rescue in the Shorey comedies, which radically repurpose a familiar and piteous partition figure into the chaotic screwball heroine and bring about a cinematic recovery.
DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
Moving to actual instances of being on the run, Meena (also the character's name) decamps several times in Ek Thi Larki. The opening scene has her tiptoeing away from her rented accommodation before her landlady catches her. Soon after, she flees a job interview room after finding her prospective employer unresponsive and, well, murdered. The third and fourth instances are her escape from the team of con artists in hotels. The fifth is her attempt to leave her fiancé Ranjit (Motilal) to avoid revelations about her past, including her brief collaboration with her captors. Finally, she leaves on her wedding day, nearly becoming a runaway bride but this time she is the pursuer, chasing the con artists who speed away with the jewels of the wedding guests across Dal Lake in Srinagar. Retrieving the valuables and her freedom, Meena returns to Kashmir to tie the knot. Playing out the climactic chase sequence in a territory that has often been referred to as the “territory of desire” and “the unfinished business of partition,” Ek Thi Larki represented the refugee film team's realignment with new national aspirations.28 The film makes a proprietorial claim on behalf of India over the disputed territory by bringing Kashmir to the screen in a form akin to a tourist documentary. Yet in contrast to the touristic gaze of the camera, which anticipates the fetishized representations of Kashmir in Hindi cinema, is Meena's risible escapade on a speedboat (video clip 2). While a seasoned steersman gets toppled into the water, Meena's success confirms an instinctive knowledge of the enemy and the flair to negotiate symbolically charged sites of rival claims such as Kashmir, but also women's bodies.
The anxieties around the abduction and rescue of women are evident early on in the film Ek Do Teen. Here an unconscious Roma (Meena) is rescued by the rich heir Moti (Motilal) and his merry friend Hiralal (Majnu) from petty robbers, and brought to the Moti's palatial house. As the two men wonder what to do next, Moti's disciplinarian father appears and is disconcerted to see a young woman in his house late at night:
Yeh larki sofe pe kya kar rahi hai?
Lalaji so rahi hai.
So rahi hai? Kyun so rahi hai?
Ji so nahin rahi hai, behosh padi hai.
Behosh padi hai? Aadhi raat ke waqt? Humare ghar mein? Tum iska matlab jaante ho?
Pitaji aapko koi galatfehmi hui hai
Tum isse galatfehmi kehte ho? Mujhe maloom na tha ki tum itne khul jaoge ki aadhi raat ke vaqt ek naujawan larki ko.
Yeh larki apni marzi se yahan nahin aayi.
Apni marzi se nahi aayi? Toh tum laaye ho. Yeh aur bhi bura hai.
What is this girl doing on our sofa?
Sir, she is sleeping.
She is sleeping? Why is she sleeping?
Actually, she is not sleeping, she is unconscious.
She is unconscious? In the middle of the night? That too in our house? Do you realize the meaning of this?
Father, there seems to be a misunderstanding.
You call it a misunderstanding? I did not know that you would become so freewheeling to bring home a young girl at midnight.
The girl is not here of her own will.
She is not here of her own will? So you have brought her. This is even worse!
These quick exchanges between the three men progress on the double entendre that repetition creates. The power of this absurd discussion lies in making rescue look like abduction; even the family doctor summoned to check on the unconscious woman is skeptical of the rescue operation. The farcical confusion over Moti's intentions continues until class privilege comes to his rescue and his policeman friend declares him an honorable man. The narrative premises of the previous films of the trilogy, in which benefactors and protectors are cast in the dubious light of predators, also sustain such an ambiguity. In Ek Thi Larki, on the pretext of protecting her, the con artists Sohan and Mohan trick Meena into joining their operations. In Dholak, the aging Rai Saheb, who underwrites her college education, hopes to recoup his investment by coercing the indebted family into wedding Mona (Meena) to him.
While these instances of entrapment and female helplessness could have serious implications in social melodrama, the principle of what Neale and Krutnik identify as the “exclusion or disavowal of emotional complications” in romantic comedy performs a critical role in Shorey films.29 It provides ample occasion for the female protagonist to be dauntless when faced with perilous situations, including these three instances that push genre boundaries and momentarily participate in action-oriented suspense:
In Ek Thi Larki, Meena flees a murder scene and is entrapped by the con artists.
In Dholak, Mona is abducted on a beast gone berserk.
In Ek Do Teen, after a combative fight with the robbers, handling two at a time, Roma faints at the sight of the knife and is rescued by Moti. (video clip 3)
Insofar as romantic comedies state the serious through disavowal, the Shorey films involve a disavowal of what can be termed the partition serious and thereby steer clear of rape, which is the primary threat facing female protagonists in social melodramas of Bombay cinema.30 The dismissal or non-recognition of this threat allows the comic-romantic heroine to access dangerous spaces and become an agent of narrative change while remaining perfectly ordinary or even incompetent on occasions. However, the admission of other dangers, like getting one's throat slit, falling off a frenzied horse, or being falsely accused of murder, does not dispense with precariousness altogether; the protagonist must negotiate and overcome it. Thus, a double reading of occasions when the Shorey heroine loses her otherwise-robust agency suggests the traumatic origins of her madcap persona. Artfully dodging her pursuers, steering motorboats, skating, and driving atypical automobiles, Meena's active control is marked by vulnerability and the inadvertent. These nervous energies within her bravado, including the exceptions listed above, reveal an unruly personality as a response to duress.
Precariousness is also evident in the layers of performance involved in negotiating unfavorable situations and entanglements. These are distinctive in striking a pact with the audience by creating a knowledge field inaccessible to the rest of the characters in the narrative. Having struck this relationship, these films and the female protagonist in particular are enabled by the simple and, in the contexts of rigid hierarchies, subversive pleasure of laughing behind someone's back and pulling faces when no one is looking. In Ek Thi Larki, Meena enters Ranjit's office while dodging the con team who are out to entrap her in a murder. Here she is mistaken for a job seeker and instantly hired. The comic diversion in her perfunctory sentences and unfinished gestures during the verbal exchange with Ranjit emerges from the audience's knowledge of what has recently transpired, what Meena is capable of, and what is concealed from Ranjit. The pleasure ensues from the audience's knowledge of Meena and thus watching her perform to them. This repeats when Ranjit and his fiancée leave the office and Meena mimics the latter. Her cautious and deferential act in front of the new employer is dropped instantly, and the office girls discover a mischief-maker in their midst. When she sleeps on top of the office table, her employers see it as quirkiness, but as a pursued woman whose accommodation in the city is precarious, Meena's idiosyncrasies are geared toward self-preservation. From the sly smile that comes to her face upon spotting an advertisement for servants, or the all-knowing blush that appears after Mona banishes Manohar from her bedroom, the subjective alignment is with the comical damsel in distress of Shorey comedies.
While this alignment is obviously discernible in Ek Thi Larki and Dholak, in Ek Do Teen there is a dramatic shift in subjectivity Moti, who has been testing his father's adages, carries the game too far and finds himself accused of murder. Until this time, the audience's knowledge of Moti's game would subjectively align them with him, but this changes once Moti is imprisoned and sentenced to death. The plot then depends on Roma's perseverance to bring back the friend believed to be dead and save Moti from the gallows. The two men (Moti and Hiralal), and by extension Moti's deceased father, who until the fake murder had known better, are thrown headlong into chaos and incomprehension, until Roma maneuvers everyone out of the crisis. If in Dholak Mona escapes the fate of marrying the absurd and aging Rai Saheb, who lives by his late father's adages, in Ek Do Teen Roma finds herself in Moti's house, where his business-tycoon father wields considerable influence. Ek Do Teen can be read as the “what if” of Dholak: What if Mona had been coerced into a marriage with Rai Saheb? The film proceeds around the last three counsels given to a son by his father on his deathbed. As Moti puts his father's conservative and misogynistic homilies to the test, Roma runs amok to save her fiancé and impending wedding (video clip 4).
The unruly heroine of the Shorey films, constituted partly as a nod to male desire, also threatened to upturn the world with her artful artlessness. Characteristic of Meena's performance was her earthiness, located regionally as Punjabiyat through her parlance, hardy body, and mannerisms. Verging on the boorish, her encounters with modern institutions and technology assume a Chaplinesque reversion inflected by an archetype of Punjabiyat, which was shared across the India-Pakistan border and could be mined for comic and anarchic effects. Her percussive hand-tapping on office tables in “Laralappa Laralappa,” the song forever linked with Meena, offers a familiar cultural resonance and rhythm to the impersonal conventions of the workplace that ordinary women in Shorey films had to negotiate (video clip 5). Such a negotiation speaks of the large number of women released into the workforce as a result of the mass destitution and displacement of partition.31 While expanding the possibilities of existence in a changing world, her image nonetheless kept close the conditions of her origins in rural Punjab, a region torn apart by partition violence and boundary formation.
Simultaneously, the humor created by these encounters constitutes a jibe at colonial modernity and the inspired, if laughable, negotiations by the native woman. Her readiness to avail herself of modern technology and innovations without prior training, offset by a lack of ladylike composure, provokes laughter. In Ek Thi Larki, upon being instructed to write in shorthand, Meena proceeds to sketch out the contents of the dictated letter. Hiding this improvised “shorthand” from her boss, she moves on to transcribe the letter on a typewriter, an unfamiliar machine whose noises and movements cause her to jump. However, her unfamiliarity with shorthand and the typewriter does not prevent the new secretary from finishing the task, and her eccentricity breaks the tedium of office routine. In Dholak, while playing table tennis in the students' leisure room, Mona delivers three sideways but well-aimed blows at her competitor in love, hitting her hard on the head with a ping-pong ball (video clip 6). Sitting far away from the playing table, the competitor rightly complains of being hit on purpose. Mona, however, blames it on the angrezi khel (English game), where a stray hand could cause unintended damage. While her cheeky explanation suggests a distance and cultural unfamiliarity with a recreational activity, which could also refer to modern courtship, her bull's-eye aim shows her to be actually in control.
In Ek Do Teen, Roma drives a bus, a tractor, and a rail push trolley to reach her destination. Failing to apply brakes, driving in reverse, and hurtling down a slope, Roma's instincts run contrary to safety principles of automobile operation. Yet she reaches her destination safely and in time, and frugal innovation and quick thinking trumps the regulated usages and procedures of modern technology. Accommodating the woman who has been dislocated from her home in a traditional and regionalized rural landscape to meet the demands of a modernizing and cosmopolitan urban climate, the Shorey comedies provide “a sympathetic home” for the transgressive woman.32
MAIDEN OR MOUNTAIN?
Restrictions on the depiction of sex and the general social conservatism of popular Hindi films meant that the Shorey comedies, like the American screwball comedy, conveyed more by implication than by explicit portrayal. In one scene, the boss-secretary team of Ek Thi Larki find themselves in a public park with nowhere to go. As it begins to rain, Meena crawls underneath a small bench, inviting Ranjit to follow suit. Dropping his initial reservations, he joins her with a suggestive declaration, “Lagta hai aaj janwar banna hi padega” (Looks like today one will have to be wild). While outwardly the narrative maintains sexual distance between the two, a critical exchange a day later reveals what may have transpired. On learning that they are to share a room, Ranjit attempts to cast aside any ensuing anxieties:
Theek Hai! Dinn bhar toh hum bahar hi rahenge.
Jee haan raat bhar main bahar reh liya karoongi.
As it is, I will be out the entire day.
Yes, similarly I will stay out the entire night.
This accidental admission of her nocturnal excursions elicits a raised eyebrow from Ranjit, who just spent the night squeezing beneath a bench with the amply proportioned Meena. The comic star's overweight body was eloquent with possibilities, and the potential impediment of the avoirdupois accomplished pleasures conventional and otherwise. Comments on Meena's weight made their way into film reviews as well, though these did not always portend to be undesirable.
Meena looks too heavy as “Ragini,” the actress.33
Meena looks fat and repulsive, though her performance is quite lively.34
Meena as Mona supplies half the production value with her face and flesh. She is the full meal for the non-vegetarians in romance. The picture gets half its spring from Meena's round face and round figure.35
We wish we had more such orphans with Meena's upholstery and costumes… . These fellows toss her about so much that one almost feels that Meena would lose weight but she doesn't.36
An article in Filmfare on the pairing of Motilal and Meena, who appeared together in Ek Thi Larki, Ek Do Teen, and Shri Naqad Narayan, attributed their comic chemistry to being physically unevenly matched, a nod to the common humor around a fat woman and her frail beau.37 The cartoons that began appearing regularly in filmindia starting in 1950 fixated on her bulk and took special delight in devising new epithets for the actress: “maiden or mountain,” “glamour balloon,” “bag of wheat from Punjab.”38 These functioned as publicity inserts that anticipated the comedies under production. In at least two instances, acting in physical comedies with Meena reportedly created medical emergencies for her fellow actors. A filmindia cartoon claimed that Meena had knocked out Majnu with a single blow during a shoot, and in Filmfare a reader confirmed: “Is it a fact that Majnu fainted on receiving a blow from Meena while acting in a scene in Ladaki?”39 Similarly, during the shoot of Ek Do Teen, Motilal was reported to have dislocated his shoulder after carrying her, most likely in the scene in which he rescues her from the armed attackers and brings her home (fig. 2).40 The film presented a diegetic response to this news, with Meena scooping Motilal off the office table in a song sequence. Offscreen, too, Meena would continue her gender-inverting capers in a charity cricket match, where she lifted Motilal and ran off the field, reportedly eliciting a loud roar of laughter from the crowds (fig. 3).41
That Meena’s bodily combat wasn’t limited to her male costars was central to her appeal and comedic talents. One such instance is a telling cartoon of Meena wrestling with Begum Para, with director Shorey issuing instructions from ringside.42 An unexceptional trope of humor, there are plenty of instances of cross-dressing, camp, and erotic polysemy in films featuring Meena, consistent with the association of the unruly woman with sexual inversion. In Ek Thi Larki, “Bin marzi ki shaadi humko maar gayi” (A Marriage sans Choice Did Us In) is a duet sung by a cross-dressed couple—a man plays the wife while a woman plays the husband—describing their incompatibility dilemmas. In Dholak, the three male trustees at the first school, while insisting on recruiting only heterosexual married couples, are evidently single themselves, with a touch of camp in their performances. In a puerile contrast, headmaster Anand and lady teacher Krishna at the other school have a strict policy of hiring singletons, only to romantically pursue them. Here Mona and Manohar attempt to save each other from the unrequited advances of their employers. Their frantic efforts prove successful when, on a moonless night, all four gather on a park bench and unwittingly pair up as a same-sex couple—two men and two women—holding hands. Films other than the Shorey trilogy starring Meena also offer instances of gender bending.
The synopsis of the no-longer-extant film Shri Naqad Narayan does not fail to mention Meena's disguise as a Pathan singer to save her lover held in captivity. In the film Actress, she plays the buxom belle to Rehana's lean baanka (beau) put-on, and several stills of this couple were used to publicize the film before its release (fig. 4).43 The excess in Meena's body was not grotesque in terms of “a deviation from a norm,” but in its uninhibited deployment.44 Actively incognizant of the restrictions placed on women's bodies, Meena's masculine disguise and feminine masquerade suggest an active embrace of what Mary Russo identifies as “a specifically feminine danger”—making a spectacle of oneself.45 It also stood in opposition to the deliberate erasures visited upon her historical underside—the abducted woman.
The relationship between Meena's star trajectory and partition does not merely involve a historical passage that produces inflection and leaves its trace. It reveals an active negotiation through comic performance, and a repurposed stardom that overrides the nationalist impulses in Bombay cinema. This involved the disavowal of the “partition serious” in Shorey comedies that posited female unruliness as a strategy of resistance and active agency, marking a departure from the dominant narratives around abduction and rescue. It is here that Meena's performances provide not just an alternative archive, but more crucially a radical register to access women's experience of partition that is audacious enough to indicate in abduction an unshackling abandon. Flitting between communities and nations, there is an unmistakable shadow of the abducted woman in Meena's transgressive star image. Simultaneously, her performance in the Shorey comedies reveals an imagination that seizes this shadow to reflect on paternalistic rescue as a form of entrapment and to ask what a true release could look like. It could be, as the Shorey comedies insouciantly suggest, a plump woman's downhill dash on a railway trolley.