Home >mint-lounge >features >Opinion | The girl and the ‘gau rakshak’

Here’s a plot summary for a 1973 film. Identify it.

Jaya Bhaduri plays a village girl who enjoys singing and represents an idealized, pastoral way of life. She marries a young man from the city and suffers because of his narcissistic and insecure behaviour. Eventually he repents, and all ends well. And, oh yes: Bindu plays the Other Woman, and there is a scene where Bhaduri confronts her to assert her claim on her husband.

Abhimaan, you say? That sounds reasonable, but what if I throw this memorable one-line description into the mix: “A woman must choose between an abusive husband and the cow who loves her unconditionally."

Thus reads an online synopsis of Gaai Aur Gori. (Which you can translate as “Cow and Girl", or “Bovine and Belle" if you want to be alliterative.) It’s a film I had only vaguely heard about, and found most intriguing when I got around to watching it—even when it is tying itself up in knots.

A film with a cow as protagonist—mother, friend and guardian to the human heroine—has a resonance in our time, when “cow-protection" has become a national fetish and a pretext to tyrannize those who don’t subscribe to the gau-as-deity narrative. But Gaai Aur Gori is notable for other reasons too. For instance, to watch the first few scenes is to be reminded of how rarely our mainstream cinema has depicted genuine affection in a human-animal bond.

Even when an animal is used for sentimental purposes on-screen (the elephant in Haathi Mere Saathi, the dog in Teri Meherbaniyan), there is usually an air of carnival about the whole project, and a sense that the creature is a gimmick. To a degree, Gaai Aur Gori follows that path too. Lakshmi, the beefy brown cow, constant companion to Vijaya (Bhaduri), spends a lot of time performing tricks: escorting children to school, crossing a railway track after scrutinizing the signal, saving a train from being derailed, entering a house where a function is taking place so a payal can be placed on her foot. The film gets emotional mileage from close-ups of Lakshmi weeping during sad scenes (this sort of thing always makes me cringe—not because it is melodramatic or unscientific, but because I wonder what they put into the animal’s eyes to produce such a reaction), and her symbolic function is evident in scenes like the one where Vijaya sings about how mothers only feed milk to their own children, but a cow—being the Supreme Mother—nurtures the whole world.

However, there are also some surprisingly tender and moving scenes where the gaai is just a well-loved gaai (not a symbol or a performing flea). It’s startling to see Vijaya planting big wet kisses on Lakshmi’s forehead (the latter waggles her ears approvingly), or keeping her head in a tight grip while saying sweet things. (Bhaduri rarely showed as much depth of feeling with her romantic heroes as she does in some of these sequences.) It helps that Lakshmi is a personable animal. That is usually the preserve of cinematic dogs—yet some of the best-known dog scenes in Hindi films involve circus stunts, such as Tuffy’s cricket-umpiring in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! Lakshmi, on the other hand, is dignified, knowing and affectionate at the same time.

Meanwhile, other things are afoot. When Vijaya’s path crosses that of the film’s villain-cum-hero, Arun (Shatrughan Sinha in one of his many fine early roles as a smooth-talking scoundrel with a caustic sense of humour), value systems get muddled. Without giving too much away, the hitherto independent-minded Vijaya starts trying to win over a husband who has deceived and mistreated her. In so doing, she manages to be both condescending (towards “Westernized" people) and discomfortingly submissive (towards pati-parmeshwar). As a champion of the idea that tradition must be unquestioningly upheld (in this case: marriage is sacred, no matter how messed up its foundations were), she comes across as not very different from some of today’s gau-fetishizers.

And yet it would be simplistic to say—as many liberals do while judging cinema—that Gaai Aur Gori is a “regressive" film or, more patronizingly, “acceptable in its time". Such a view must be balanced against the marvellous presence of Arun’s mother (played by Sulochana) who, after initially being manipulated by her son, transforms into a much firmer figure who flatly tells him he should leave her house if he mistreats his wife (and her cow). Lakshmi disapproves of what is going on too; both mother figures—the human one and the bovine one—fight an unambiguous feminist battle for the girl, even when the girl herself is playing doormat.

All this can make a viewer feel very ambivalent. On the one hand, Arun does see the error of his ways in the end, asks for forgiveness and makes a real effort to mend the situation; on the other, Sinha’s charismatic performance has made the man seem a little too appealing throughout, and one feels that he has been allowed to get away with too much (certainly more than Amitabh Bachchan’s sulky Subir got away with in Abhimaan). We want to like the heroine, but we almost start sympathizing with the villains instead—including Bad Girl Bindu, who looks good in hot pants (and drinks Vat 69 in a wine glass at 10am) but gets heavy-handed lectures from Vijaya because she performed a “vulgar" dance on stage.

Still, if you don’t want to grapple with these ethical issues, you can occupy your mind with subtextual deconstructions of scenes like the one where Lakshmi gets the better of a nasty Alsatian in head-to-head combat. Does the German Shepherd—mascot dog of the Nazis—stand for hardline fascism, you may ask, while the cow stands for a more seemingly benevolent, paternalistic approach to tradition—gentle but still insistent? And if so, does anyone realize how similar these two creatures are beneath their hides?

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

He tweets at @jaiarjun

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