Saturday, June 06, 2015

A tribute to Guide in its 50th year

[Did a shorter version of this piece for The Hindu]

If you call yourself a movie buff and haven’t yet seen Vijay Anand’s Guide, or don’t remember it well, you must make up for that lapse soon – but for now, just go to YouTube and search for “Guide snake dance”. Watch the scene where Rosie (Waheeda Rehman), a former dancer “rescued” from a courtesan’s life and now stifled in a marriage to a self-centered man, breaks her shackles during an outing with Raju the guide (Dev Anand).

See the look on Rehman’s expressive face as she watches a village girl perform the cobra dance; how Rosie, initially seated on a cane chair like a privileged memsahib, gets up and perches on the floor as the performance begins; how she begins to sway while still in that position, continues her graceful movements while rising, and then joins in the dance. (Meanwhile Raju goes from being a “mere” guide to occupying that chair himself and supervising her
performance – a foreshadowing of what will happen to their relationship later in the story.) Note the long takes that follow – so characteristic of Anand’s cinema – culminating in the scene where the camera follows Rosie dizzily as she circles the arena, and how the sequence as a whole suggests that she is having something like a religious experience, the bliss of self-expression combined with the joy of having transgressed.

Now here is the equivalent passage from RK Narayan’s novel The Guide, two sentences in Raju’s voice: “She watched [the cobra] swaying with the raptest attention. She stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm – for just a second, but that was sufficient to tell me what she was, the greatest dancer of the century.”

Rather terse, isn’t it, compared to that mesmerising scene?

Which is not to imply that the movie is “better”, or that Narayan’s cool, refined prose (more elaborate elsewhere) expresses Rosie’s circumstances less poignantly than the combination of Rehman’s acting, SD Burman’s music and Fali Mistry’s cinematography do – it is just to point out that a good commercial film may achieve its ends in very different ways from the literary work it was based on, and that it can be silly to compare two such disparate forms. Such comparisons are usually more deferential to literature anyway, more sympathetic towards writers whose visions were “ruined” by money-minded filmmakers. In an essay titled “Misguided Guide”, Narayan related, with dry humour, the processes by which his low-key, Malgudi-centered story was transformed into a colourful, pan-India extravaganza. But it is possible to enjoy that essay even while appreciating how Guide uses cinematic form and language.

Those long takes, for instance, add dramatic intensity to many scenes – such as the one where Rosie confronts her husband Marco in the caves, a brilliantly atmospheric setting for the playing out of overwrought emotions – and give the performances the dimensions of good theatre. Music – and the way it plays out on screen – is another of the film’s crowning achievements. (Would it be facetious to point out that the book has no soundtrack?) Look at the “Tere Mere Sapne” scene where Raju plights his troth to Rosie. “Khandaron mein guide khada hai” (“There is a guide waiting for you amidst the ruins”) he first tells her in dialogue, but prose is inadequate to this situation (a woman has just left her husband; a hitherto carefree man is baring his heart to her), so he has to shift to the more exalted meter of song. Though more than four minutes long, the sequence is made up of just three shots – there are only two cuts, each of which occurs after Rosie draws away from Raju; she is still conflicted, and the process of reassuring her must begin anew. This is then done at a dual level, by the song’s lyrics as well as by the camera’s sympathetic, probing movement – leading up to the long, pivotal final shot and a beautiful moment where Raju stands at a distance and holds his hand out, and the camera first tracks from him to Rosie, bridging the large gap between them, and then tracks back, this time “coaxing” her to him by not allowing her the option of “escaping” to another shot (via a third cut).

Music and visuals meld perfectly in other scenes too, such as the shot in “Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai” where Raju emerges from the darkness of a Chittoor Fort ruin as Rosie sings the line “Kal ke andheron se nikal ke”. Or in the heartbreaking contrast between the union of Rosie and Raju in “Tere Mere Sapne”, and the distance that has opened between them in “Din Dhal Jaaye”.

Part of Narayan’s concern was that the film had made something too big-canvas and starry out of his narrative about circumscribed lives. But the expansion of scale and setting doesn’t compromise the story’s essential concerns: how people and their power equations can change over time, how love can fade and be replaced by self-deception or self-interest, and how, despite all this, a form of redemption may still be possible. This is also a rare popular film that comes close to transcending the expectations created by the star system: it is possible to watch Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand, to be fully aware of who they are, and to still feel how stifled Rosie is, how liberating the very act of walking through the marketplace in her ghungroos is for this girl who loves dancing more than anything else, for whom it is an art (and who has tragically been told that practicing it consigns her to the damned).

Because Rehman’s performance is one of the finest we have ever had, it is easy to overlook Dev Anand. He was at a point in his career where the urbane charm of his early days had begun veering towards the self-conscious, head-bobbing mannerisms that became so common through the 1970s and later. Yet that rarely happens in this film, even with the obvious temptations of the scene where Raju gives Rosie a lecture about self-actualisation. Anand seems to know exactly when to stay in the background: watch his expressions during the snake-dance scene and the ones around it, where he discovers new dimensions to Rosie’s personality and begins to be intrigued. This is a performance made up of finely observed moments, such as the way he doesn’t look directly at Rosie when she comes down the stairs at a party shortly after they have had a bitter argument; or a split-second shot where Raju, reeling after a physical altercation with his friend, tries feebly and fails to shut the door of a car that is about to drive away.

Guide does have minor weaknesses: in its final leg it uses the plot thread about Raju being mistaken for a holy man to indulge the traditional narcissism of the Hindi-movie hero; it seems a pity that a film with such a fascinating, ahead-of-her-time heroine should marginalize her in its final half-hour and end with a close up of its male star looking saintly, his voiceover saying “Sirf main hoon” (words that would define Dev Anand’s later screen work!). Thankfully, that pat ending can’t diminish the power of all that went before it. Now 50 years old and yet timeless, this is one of our cinematic landmarks, and a testament to the possibilities of artistic collaboration within a commercial system.

[A longer post about "Tere Mere Sapne" is here. And more about RK Narayan's "Misguided Guide" here]


  1. Guide is one of my favorite films. I think it is one of the most grown up representation of relationships in cinema. I've liked all your pieces on the film.

  2. I saw the film before I read the book, and reading R.K Narayan's novel hasn't at all diminished my admiration for the film. The ending and the culmination of the fast was certainly treated better in the novel. As one writer (Krishna Sen) puts it ''Narayan's interest lies in the complexity of human psychology as projected through Raju, and not in any simple moral fable about the reward of goodness".

    One weakness in the film is the willingness of Rosie to attribute base motives to Raju when she finds out about the forged signature. In the book Raju is an interesting and not unlikable person. However, for much of the novel he is basically an opportunist. The 'Raju Guide' of Anand's film may be smart-talking and street savvy, however he is through and through an idealist. While the downward slope of the relationship between Raju and Rosie makes perfect sense in the novel, when the film initially takes this turn, it strikes a discordant note. Too much has gone through, and Raju has demonstrated his integrity and commitment to Rosie in the face of very substantial personal hardship (loss of livelihood, displeasure of his family and friends etc). For Rosie to assume without a second thought that Raju forged her signature because he was covetous of her jewellery box is almost absurd. I think there's been quite a bit of discussion about how this film was groundbreaking in it's depiction of flawed characters and particularly it's portrayal of a flawed hero. It's axiomatic to say that we all have flaws, shades of grey etc. But the flaws of the characters are not their salient features for me...I came through with a very strong sense of their goodness.

    Many of Narayan's misgivings about the film are perfectly understandable; our losing out on significance nuances because of the change in Milieu, the transformation of Marco, the Rosie & Raju of the novel being in some respects almost different people from the characters played by Waheeda and Dev, with different motivations etc. Most authors certainly would be peeved with such liberties being taken with their text. The film sticks pretty closely to many of the events informing the narrative of the novel, such that it's not that easy to class as a 'loose adaptation'. Even so Vijay Anand basically went out and did his own great effect.
    The novel is definitely good, but some of the best scenes in the film, such as the confrontation in the caves, Raju's (Dev's) early encounters with Rosie, her exuberantly strolling down the market place in her ghungroo and the lines that are exchanged between them, do not feature in the novel. The brilliance of these scenes can be attributed to Vijay Anand's own literary flair, rather than R.K Narayan's pen. As you mention the songs have an important role in facilitating the progression of the story.

    I have seen far too few of Satyajit Ray's films to be able to say this with confidence (I may well be wrong), but my impression is that if he had gone ahead with his own version of "The Guide" it would have been very cerebral and compelling in its own right, but lacking in the vitality and youthfulness of Vijay Anand's vision.