As a tribute to the medical profession in the midst of a pandemic, a look at one of the earliest female doctors in Hindi cinema:
In films of the old days, men were doctors and women stood behind them as attentive nurses; Dr. Vidya (1962) featured one of the earliest female doctors in Hindi cinema.
In the film, written by Mohan Segal and directed by Rajendra Bhatia, the sprightly Geeta (Vyjayanthimala) must have been the only heroine of her generation, to be told by her father that times were changing and women could no longer be dependent on men. (Dialogue by filmmaker PL Santoshi, Rajkumar Santoshi’s father.)
Geeta is a bright, young woman, the teacher’s pet type, also a good dancer, because there was no point casting Vyjayanthimala and not letting her dance. When she was a child, she had an accident and almost lost a leg. Her father’s best friend told him not to worry, his son would marry her, no matter what. That bit of kindness stayed with the family and when she grew up her marriage was fixed with Ratan (Manoj Kumar), even though he was not as educated as her.
Ratan has an altercation with Geeta’s friend Shanta (Helen) when she and her friends go to picnic in his village. By their rude behavior, he forms an opinion about educated women—they are no good. Shanta thinks of herself as modern and Westernised and leaves her husband who believes in Indian traditions. Geeta is conservative, however, and thinks the pati should be a parmeshwar. She says it without the usual air of piety that the virtuous woman puts on, so she is not a lost feminist cause.
On their wedding day, Shanta and her friends cruelly mock Ratan, who leaves in a rage without even seeing his bride’s face. His parents are mortified by his behavior, but Ratan is adamant—he does not want an educated wife. (The film was based on a Marathi original called Shikleli Bayko, which means educated wife).
Geeta’s father insists that she complete her studies and become a doctor, which she does. Bowing to the need for commercial elements, she also gets into Western dress and beats Shanta in a dance completion to a song with the odd words, Pappa jamaar lo. This is to prove to her friend, that she can be modern and have men flocking around her, if she wishes, but she’d rather win her husband back.
Ratan has been returning all her letters back unread, and in reply to the latest one informing him of her passing medical exams, he insultingly sends her Rs 5000, his token towards husbandly duty. She takes the money and goes to his village, accompanied by her cook (Sunder), who if forced to pretend to be a doctor, while she plays his niece, a village belle, called Vidya. They also get to live in one of Ratan’s havelis (mansion), where they open a dispensary, with Vidya hovering around the fake doctor and telling him what to do.
When Ratan is around, she jumps into a pond and pretends to drown. The chivalrous Ratan dives in to save her, and falls in love. He keeps looking for excuses to meet her and is elated when she tells him that she is illiterate. She’s the woman of his dreams, but there is a wife to deal with. The villainish Banarasi (Madan Puri) flirts with Vidya and tells her about Ratan’s marriage. But obviously she does not pay heed and in a few days has Ratan wrapped around her little finger.
Then, because of Banarasi’s evil sabotage of his wheels, Ratan gets seriously wounded during the village bullock cart race. Banarasi kidnaps the real doctor, so that he cannot reach Ratan. Vidya is forced to blow her cover and operate on Ratan. He comes to, and is furious that Vidya conned him. “People hide their faults from others, I had to hide by worth,” she tells him. “The world worships Savitri whose devotion saved Satyavan’s life. Education is also a form of devotion, and that helped me save your life. But if you don’t like it, I will throw my books into the river.”
Ratan then delivers the clinching line, “The scales have fallen from my eyes, you are not worthy not just of love but of worship.”
He still has to discover that Vidya is Geeta, and when he does after some more teasing on her part, they end with a happily-ever-after embrace.
There is the regressive bit in which Shanta repents her modern ways and wants to be a good wife; by current opinion, Dr Vidya’s approach to her chauvinistic husband would be considered old fashioned, but Bhatia directs it more like a romcom (before the term was coined) rather than a melodrama. Geeta does woo Ratan by becoming what she is not, but in the end she has him exactly where she wants him—contrite and madly in love. There is also the happy after effect of Geeta serving the village as a good doctor.
Vyjayanthimala played Geeta with solemn practicality and Vidya with a sense of playfulness she did not often get to display in her long and very successful career. She put on a wide-eyed, innocent look and acquired a small sniffy mannerism, like a kid with a cold.
Most importantly, the film recognized, in its own way, that the world was changing and not leaving women behind. Men who stubbornly continued to abide by the old order, would be taught a lesson one way or another.
Rajendra Bhatia directed half a dozen films, among them Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar (1973) that later became a cult comedy. Interestingly, he was the producer of Anpadh (1962), which was about the travails of an illiterate woman played bt Mala Sinha.
(This is an edited version of a chapter from my book, Sheroes: 25 Daring Women of Bollyood, published by Westland in 2015)