Fifteen years ago, Dor, of the finest Hindi films about female bonding was released. A flashback the Nagesh Kukunoor film:
Indian films, like Indian society, do not care much about female bonding. The leading lady will have sahelis, who will giggle and tease, or sing songs, but after she meets her man, they all vanish. It is expected of a woman who is in love, or married, that she will leave all her old attachments behind. Women in Hindi films hardly ever associate with each other as individuals, only as adjuncts of men, while male bonding is a recurring theme or sub-plot in every other film.
Based on the Malayalam film Perumazhakkalam (The Season of Heavy Rains), Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor is one of the rare ones, in which two women in trouble reach out to each other. The one who has to cross the desert to connect with a woman who can help her, is the incredibly determined Zeenat, played by Gul Panag.
When the Himachali girl Zeenat is first seen, she is hammering nails into a wall, repairing her house. She lives alone and earns her own living. Before leaving for a job in Saudi Arabia, her boyfriend Aamir (Rushad Rana) proposes to her, and marries her against the wishes of her parents. Zeenat wins over her in-laws by looking after them in Aamir’s absence and giving them the money he sends.
Then comes shocking news, that Aamir has been accused of murdering a Rajashtani co-worker, though he claims it was an accident. According to the law in Saudi Arabia, he will be executed, unless the widow of the dead man grants a pardon.
Zeenat has no idea where the woman lives in Rajathan, but she sets out to find her with the piece of paper on which her signature is needed, and a deadline looming over her. A truck driver takes her to Rajasthan, where she runs into a Bahuroopia (Shreyas Talpade), an itinerant entertainer, who claims to know every bit of the land. He first robs her, and then returns to help after he reads the letter in her bag.
Incredibly, they find the haveli where Meera lives with her in-laws. The condition of a widow in feudal Rajasthan is sub-human; suddenly from a happy young bride she become a non-person, forced into dark, unembellished clothes and treated worse than a servant. Her father-in-law Randhir Singh (Girish Karnad) regrets the possible loss of his debt-ridden haveli more that the death of his son. The little support that she gets is from her husband’s grandmother (Uttara Baokar), a widow herself, who has lived the anguish that Meera now endures.
When Zeenat approaches Randhir Singh with the request for pardon, she is angrily rebuffed. Zeenat is prepared to do what it takes; she stays in a small hut in the village with the Bahuroopia, who has come to admire. A platonic friendship grows between the two, and even under the condition of such stress, they find reasons to laugh and support each other.
The only time Meera is allowed out of the house, it is to go to an isolated temple. Zeenat meets her there and befriends her. For Meera, a friend is relief from the cruelty and loneliness she faces every day, and is happy for the conversation.
Independent, wise, and brave Zeenat teaches Meera to think and act for herself, rather than be tied to the life-long mourning dictated to her by tradition. Meera is laden with guilt, because her society blames her bad luck for her husband’s death. With Zeenat she drops her aura of grief, enjoys a film, eats the rasgulla forbidden to a widow; the scene in which the two women and the Bahuroopia dance to Kajra re playing on a transistor, with abandon amidst the sand dunes is hauntingly beautiful.
By the time Meera does find out what Zeenat is really there for, she also understands what her life in the haveli will be like. Randhir Singh has made a deal with an engineer renting their mansion, she will be sent to him to offer sex till he is there, and in return he will pay off their debts. So, when Randhir Singh talks of “maryada,” Meera is enraged by the hypocrisy. It is not emphasized, but Meera signs the pardon letter, perhaps because she does not want another woman to suffer her fate.
More than her dilemma, what is so moving is the about Dor is the compassion and warmth with which Kukunoor portrays the relationships—between the two woman and between Zeenat and the Bahuroopia. It tells a simple story of friendship, loss and love with incredible depth and would leave no soul untouched at the end.
(This is a slightly abridged version of a chapter from my book, Sheroes: 25 Daring Women Of Bollywood, published by Westland in 2015)