An actor; director and producer par excellence, Guru Dutt and his work have left an indelible impression on Indian cinema. Offering a reading of his oeuvre, this book reflects on the thematic and stylistic innovations that made his movies a connoisseur’s delight. A must read for every cinema student and lover, this book captures the genius and versatility of the enigmatic Guru Dutt.
Rashmi Doraiswamy is Professor (Central Asia) at the Academy of Third World Studies, University of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She was awarded the National Award for the Best Film Critic in 1995 and the Majlis Research Fellowship in 1999 for a project on Hindi commercial cinema. She has participated in national and international seminars on cultural issues, served on several film festival and critics’ juries in India and abroad and lectured extensively on cinema at film appreciation courses. She is co-editor of the book Being and Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia and author of The Post-Soviet Condition: Chingiz Aitmatov in the nineties.
Much has been written about Guru Dutt, the ‘melancholy poet of Indian cinema’, ‘the solitary existentialist’, the romantic hero consumed by the pain of living. In Pyaasa, the most consummate of the films he made and acted in, he achieved a tragic stature.
His life as much as his oeuvre is the stuff that legends are made of. But Guru Dutt was much greater than the myths that have grown up around him. He directed and/or acted in only a few films two of the biggest successes he produced Chaudvin ka chand and Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam which were ‘directed’ by his friends M. Sadiq and Abrar Alvi respectively, but bear the unmistakeable stamp of his hand and are generally considered a part of the too-small body of his work.
Like many great artistes (Ritwik Ghatak among them), he remained unsung in his lifetime. The last film he lent his name to as director, Kaagaz ke Phool, was a box- office disaster and he vowed never to put his name as director to another. Ironically, it was Chaudhvin ka Chand and Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam which followed, achieving the resounding success that eluded the films lie had directed earlier. His premature death, before he was 40, was widely regarded as suicide. Success came later— huge success, national and international. In the Hindi cinema iii Bombay, the Golden Period is acknowledged as the fifties, and it belongs indisputably to Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt. Very different, one from the oilier, they shared a worldview informed by a rage against a system that separated the rich from the poor, a deep commitment to human values and enormous talent as talent makers, whether as directors or actors (or both), and sometimes even as producers.
Today Guru Dutt is revered and recognised as a ‘master’ not only in India, but everywhere in the world where cinema is recognised as an art. Retrospectives of his works are shown in film festivals all over the world; scores of articles, books and monographs about him, abound. A film has been made about him as well.
So why did we need yet another book on Guru Dutt? Because Rashmi Doraiswamy, who is a scholar and an author, looks not only at his life and his career — both of which have been widely written about, she analyses his films from a different perspective, making few concessions to popular myths or tastes, choosing to look at the distinguishing marks of his authorship — the recurring motifs in his films which he directed or produced, his use of space, his song picturisations, the manner in which his films are structured, and more. In writing about Guru Dutt’s films, it reveals the art of cinema itself.
Guru Dutt was born in 1925 to a modest middle-class family. His father, who worked as an administrative clerk in Burmah Shell Company, had studied English literature and wrote poetry that remained unpublished. Guru Dutt’s mother, who had a troubled relationship with her husband, had a great zest for life. Guru Dutt’s brother, Atmaram, says: “We came from a lower middle-class family, so there was a lot of ambition to do well. Success was very important; it was very necessary to do things in life. My mother fired that ambition.”
Although he travelled a lot with his mother to many cities — Bangalore, Mangalore, Madras, Ahmadabad — it was in Calcutta that the family lived together for a long time which happened to be Guru Dutt’s growing years too. Bengal and its culture were to have a deep impact on Guru Dutt’s life and work. He never went to college, but he was very well read — a trait lie imbibed from his father. Atmaram remembers, “He spoke Hindi very well, but he was more at home in English and in Bengali. At home we spoke Konkani with a lot of English too. He thought in English and wrote in English and that’s the truth.” At 15, Guru Dutt, who had a flair for dancing, expressed his desire to his uncle, B. B. Benegal, a painter, to join Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. He left a year later for Almora, to join Uday Shankar’s India Culture Centre, without even colecting his salary of Rs 40 from his first job as a telephone operator at a mill.
When this Centre closed down due to lack of funds during [he war, Guru Dutt returned home in 1944. His family was now in Bombay. Benegal introduced him to Baburao Pai, the Chief Executive of the Prabhat Film Company and Studio iii Poona. Dutt was employed as a dance director at the studio on a three-year contract. He also started working as assistant director and as an actor in small roles. Dutt worked in Poona for two years. Here he met Dev Anand, who also worked at Prabhat; he also came to know Rehman. Pai later set up his own company in Bombay. Guru Dutt worked for him there till 1947, when his contract with Pai ended. He was out of work for many months, but eventually found work as assistant director to Amiya Chakravarty, Gyan Mukherjee and others. Dev Anand, keeping a promise he had made earlier, offered Dutt the opportunity to direct Baazi (1951) for Navketan, the company he had set up with his brother Chetan Anand. Dev Anand, already a star by then, played the lead role in this and the next film Guru Dutt directed — Jaal (1952).
It was during the making of Baazi that Guru Dutt met Geeta Roy, an established singer. They got married in 1953. In 1953 itself, Dutt set up his own production company called Guru Dutt Productions, which henceforth produced all his films. In 1952 he had set up a production company called H.G. Films with Haridarshan Kaur, who was actress
Geeta Bali’s sister. This company produced only one film directed by Guru Dutt: Baaz (1953). It was the first film that Dutt was to star in, in the lead role, The story was set in the 16th century and the film did not do well at the box-office. Aar Paar (1954) was Guru Dutt Productions’ first film, and it proved a hit. This was followed by Mr and Mrs 55(1955) and CID (1956), produced by Dutt and directed by his assistant, Raj Khosla. Sailaab (1956), produced by Geeta Dutt’s brother, Mukul Roy and directed by Guru Dutt, did not create any ripples at the box-office. Pyaasa (1957), based on an early script written by entitled Kashmakash, was the next film he directed. Its sombre mood was in stark contrast to the spirit of the two films that had preceded it, Aar Paar and Mr and Mrs 55. The film did welt i11 he box-office and remains one of the high points of not only Guru Dutt’s career, but also of the Hindi cinema.
The sell-reflective Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), India’s first film n cinemascope, followed; it too remains one of the landmark tins in We history of Hindi cinema, but it flopped badly.
Guru Dutt did not recover from the rejection of the film by the audience and henceforth did not sign his name as director. Chaudvin ka Chand (1960) directed by M. Sadiq, produced by Dutt with himself in the lead role, was the biggest commercial success of Guru Dim’s company. Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), directed by his long-time friend and dialogue writer, Abrar Alvi, was the last film which Dutt produced and acted in. The turmoil in his marriage, his troubled love-life, his alcoholism and his own lonely, troubled and intense nature contributed to the many attempts at suicide that he made. His death in 1964, at the age of 39 is widely believed to be a case of suicide.
As a director, Guru Dutt experimented with many genres: a historical (Baaz), thrillers (Baazi, Jaal, Aar Paar), a social comedy (Mr and Mrs 55), a social (Pyaasa), and a self-reflective film with autobiographical elements (Kaagaz ke phool).
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