Monday, July 08, 2024

The old man in the studio: Guru Dutt Dark, and Guru Dutt Light (or Lite)

(As Guru Dutt’s centenary year begins, I wrote this personal tribute for Money Control)

I remember being stunned when I first learnt that Guru Dutt was only thirty-nine when he died.

Not because it was such a young age, or because of the question of how and why he had gone so soon – all that was part of it, yes, but there was a deeper reason. It was because my first (and for many years, my sole) viewing of Guru Dutt on the screen was as an old, old man with his features buried beneath a thick white beard. That was the only image I carried in my head for a long time.

This was via a Doordarshan telecast of Kaagaz ke Phool sometime in the mid-1980s – a film I caught only the beginning and the end of.

Suresh, a once-famous movie director, now old and destitute, is revisiting the studio that was the site of his greatest triumphs. He wanders slowly around the deserted space, ascends a stairway as “Dekhi Zamaane ki Yaari” plays on the soundtrack. Suresh is played by Guru Dutt, only in his early thirties at the time, but to a nine-year-old’s eyes the man on the screen looks ancient. (It was fairly impressive old-age makeup for a period when Hindi films tended to depict car-accident survivors with a careless brush of paint across their faces.)

An uncle who is watching TV with us makes an oblique remark about the film being Guru Dutt’s “real story”, discreetly adding something I couldn’t decipher at the time, but which probably implied that he was in love with Waheeda Rehman and had died of a broken heart. These remarks seemed to add much mystery to this figure.

I wasn’t curious enough to watch the film, and so I missed the entire mid-section where Guru Dutt looks much younger, even dashing. I remember the ending, though, because the scene where the old man is discovered dead in his chair left a big impact. My uncle’s words, blurring the line between fiction and reality, had already given the whole thing the force of a documentary, or a “found footage” film, and part of my child-mind was convinced I had seen the real Guru Dutt, tragic actor-director-lover, dead on the screen.

For years after this, I never got to see Guru Dutt in a film – maybe just an indeterminate magazine photo here or there – so he remained very old and gloomy in my mind. This changed when, as a youngster educating myself in classic cinema, I watched his major films in their entirety, got to see him even in his boyish, bantering, clean-shaven avatar in the first half of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or in Chaudhvin ka Chand. But that initial impression never fully went away. After all, even as literate film students, what we are always told about Guru Dutt the auteur is that Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool – two dark, solemn, sometimes oppressive works – were his defining films.

There is much truth to this, of course: those are towering films, the ones he will most be remembered for as a personal filmmaker working within a commercial, sometimes heartless industry and often using his medium to comment on the plight of the artist. And I say this as someone who once had major reservations about Pyaasa, and came to fully appreciate it only in recent years.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that for years I had access to a mediocre print which couldn’t do justice to Pyaasa’s visual beauty, jointly conceptualised by Guru Dutt and his great cinematographer VK Murthy. But it was also because the protagonist Vijay was so self-righteous and entitled (all of which remains true in a broader sense for so many male leads through Hindi-cinema history), and I thought Guru Dutt underwhelming *as an actor*. I had impassioned exchanges with others who felt similarly, as well as with those who liked Pyaasa but felt it was less than the sum of its parts (some of those brilliant parts being Waheeda Rehman, SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi, Geeta Dutt and Mohammed Rafi, and of course VK Murthy).

Re-watching Pyaasa a few months ago, I loved it almost unconditionally. I still feel Vijay is a whiner who over-fetishizes his own sensitivity, thinks the world owes him appreciation, and is so lost in his own world that he can’t even check on his mother to see how she is doing. (A case can be made for Johnny Walker’s Abdul as being the real artist of the story, using hair oil and humour as his creative tools!) But the film itself has a depth and soulfulness that its protagonist sometimes lacks, and this is before one even looks at its extraordinary visual and musical qualities.

As anyone who has taught or studied Hindi cinema knows, both Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool have classic moments that lends themselves to endless analyses. If Mukesh was famously Raj Kapoor’s voice, VK Murthy was Guru Dutt’s piercing eye in these films, and this is literalised in Pyaasa in the audacious shot just before the song “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par” begins: Vijay watching as a young woman in a brothel, a mother wanting to tend to her infant child, is bullied into performing for her drunk clients. As Vijay weeps silently at the sight, the faces he is looking at become distorted by “tears”, to show his perspective.

Then there is that legendary moment during “Waqt ne kiya” in Kaagaz ke Phool, Suresh and his muse Shanti in the film studio having just bonded with each other. A beam of light (captured by Murthy through the artful placement of two mirrors) falls between them. And then, while they stand physically apart, knowing they can’t be together, their souls move towards each other and unite in the light; in an ethereal, unreal space where anything might be possible. Elsewhere in the film, the lyrics of a song mention “one” and “zero” being separated after they came together to form something much greater (ten) than either of them – an analogy for the Shanti-Suresh relationship, completing each other artistically and emotionally. In the “Waqt ne kiya” scene, the camera finds another way of expressing this.


Such moments – timeless in their poignancy, testament to a mind that thought in the cinematic language of light and shadow – mark Guru Dutt’s filmmaking career. And yet, to grasp the entirety of that career, it is important to look beyond the veneer of darkness and see the breezier things he was capable of as director and actor.

To re-watch Aar Paar (1954) and Mr and Mrs 55 (1955), for instance, is to marvel that these films were made by the same man who made Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool – and yet, when you look closely enough the connection is easy to make. The dominant tone of these earlier works might be playfulness, but some of the director’s concerns and strengths are right there: the interest in film form, the thoughtful and inventive composition of major sequences. In Mr and Mrs 55, there is even a key motif which would later be seen in his two iconic tragedies – the theme of the artist in the gutter, impoverished and trampled on – but here it is treated with humour. Dutt plays an unemployed cartoonist named Preetam, heavily dependent for money on a reporter friend, until he meets the beautiful heiress Anita (Madhubala) and is hired to be a temporary husband – but meanwhile he and Anita are falling in and out of love.

Once a non-fan of Guru Dutt the actor, I was converted by his roles in both Mr and Mrs 55 and Aar Paar. In the latter, playing the dashing young taxi driver Kalu Birju, he shows a sly sense of humour that makes him a worthy kindred spirit to Johnny Walker and the teenage Jagdeep. In the same year that his friend Dev Anand – a more suave “hero” figure – played a cab driver in another film (Taxi Driver), Guru Dutt manages to be just as charismatic, even stylish, in his own way – whether he is mock-punching at Nikki (Shyama) when he comes to her father’s workshop late at night (“Mard ka bacha hoon – sar utha ke chalta hoon”) or teaching her how to put her lips together and whistle (much like Lauren Bacall did with Humphrey Bogart), or saying a sardonic “Thank you very much, kindly” in English. He is incredibly likable in the scene where he visits the jailer and asks for a character “certificate” so Nikki’s family will know he wasn’t jailed for a major offence.

While the film is passable as a thriller, and for its street-level views of Bombay as a city of crime, it is obvious that Guru Dutt had a special knack for staging song sequences. This was clear even in his earliest films as director, Baazi and Jaal. Look at the brilliant “Yeh Raat, Yeh Chandni” sequence in Jaal, where a rakish Dev Anand seduces Geeta Bali – with its sense that the young woman is being drawn out of her safe space not just by the music and the words but by the camera itself; and the dangerous, noir-ish imagery of trees silhouetted against the night sky with the moon shining through them (“Pedon ki shaakhon pe soyi soyi chandni”). Here is the use of a device – a Hindi-movie song – that no Hollywood noir would employ, yet it works so well.

In Aar Paar, I particularly love the conceptualisation of the “Mohabbat kar lo, ji bhar lo” song, in which Kalu Birju’s cynical-sounding view of love finds a counterpoint in the views expressed by others around him. In its depiction of the various possibilities of love – as deceit, farce, but also something one can’t do without – this sequence is a dynamic bit of multi-perspective storytelling, beautifully framed and composed, much more interesting done than a similar scene in the much later Trishul, where Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini and Shashi Kapoor sing of the pros and cons of “mohabbat”.


So how does one account for the dichotomy between the tragic Guru Dutt of Pyaasa and the genial leading man of Aar Paar, who was so comfortable bantering with comic sidekicks, or playing screwball comedy? The only answer is that you have to watch the films themselves, to see how a theme that is given solemn treatment in one context can be dealt with lightly in another space, without compromising the director’s personal vision. After that, it’s up to you as viewer to decide if you prefer the grand but occasionally pedantic tone of a Kaagaz ke Phool or the breeziness of a Mr and Mrs 55, or if you can see them as being all of a piece. Where different cinematic idioms can be used for the meeting of hearts and minds. (To offset that hyper-dramatic shaft-of-light moment in “Waqt ne kiya”, there is a sweeter, more literal shot in Aar Paar’s “Sun sun sun” where Guru Dutt and Shyama, standing on opposite ends of a pillar, meet each other on the other side, outside our view.)

There is often a large gap between our childhood memory of a film and the experience of watching it again as an adult – but for me, an exception to this rule remains that opening fragment of Kaagaz ke Phool. The scene – the forgotten old director drifting around the studio – was indelible in my mind for decades, and when I watched the film as an adult, it turned out to be exactly as I remembered it. Which rarely happens. Maybe this adds to the case for Guru Dutt as a great director – so much in control of his frames and his personal vision that even a child’s mind had no option but to deferentially remember a scene as it had unfolded. And maybe, in some parallel universe, the man who died so young – and burnt so bright – really is wandering around a studio where he gets to realise his dream projects, and finds a measure of peace in doing so.

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