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October 2, 1959 saw the release of Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool. The film was a total washout at the box-office and what’s more, received some scathing reviews in its time. Hailed as a masterpiece today, it is also remembered for being India’s first feature film to be shot on CinemaScope and released 50 years ago.
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Created by 20th Century Fox, CinemaScope was a lens series used to photograph widescreen movies and marked the beginning of the modern anamorphic format in both principal photography and movie projection. The first film released using this format was the epic The Robe starring Richard Burton, Victor Mature and Jean Simmons on 16th September, 1953 and proved to be a smash hit at the box-office. Following the success of How to Marry a Millionaire, released on November 5th the same year, Fox then licensed the process to other film studios.
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The representative of 20th Century Fox in India approached Guru Dutt and asked him if he’d like to make a film in the new format. Guru Dutt was naturally excited. The first tests were taken in his own garden as wife and well-known playback singer Geeta Dutt ‘modelled’ for him and cinematographer VK Murthy, sitting on a swing. The tests were found satisfactory and it was decided to go ahead with the format. In hindsight, it is easy to see why Guru Dutt was the right director to make India’s first cinemascope film. He was one filmmaker who gave equal importance to the technical side of filmmaking along with the story and screenplay. To him, to try out something new was a challenge and a way of keeping up with newer cinematic techniques.
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Interestingly, Kaagaz ke Phool was not even meant to be India’s first CinemaScope film, Gouri was. Once he had obtained the necessary copyright licence from 20th Century Fox, Guru Dutt began Gouri to be made in Bengali and starring himself alongside Geeta Dutt. Some shooting was even done for the film around Calcutta and two songs were also recorded before Guru Dutt decided to abandon the project and embark on Kaagaz ke Phool instead.
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Even with the experience of Gouri behind him, the filming of Kaagaz ke Phool brought its own headaches. After viewing the rushes, Art Director MR Achareker brought to Guru Dutt’s notice the fact that the framings were suitable for the standard academy ratio not but not for the new format. Achareker then sat him down and taught Guru Dutt to conceive and compose the shots keeping CinemaScope in mind. Guru Dutt had to scrap all that was shot till then and re-shoot everything!
Let’s be honest. I think Kaagaz ke Phool flopped on its release because it is an inconsistent film. In its better moments, it represents the best and most poetic work Guru Dutt has ever done. But it also suffers from a weak screenplay and it was the film’s overall morbid and pessimistic mood that caused audiences to reject it outright.
Still, one cannot fault the film technically.f anyone came out of the film unscathed, it was cameraman VK Murthy and of course, Acharekar, both of whom won Filmfare Awards for the film.
Filmindia (and Baburao Patel!) had the last word on the film and the new format, declaring, “Guru Dutt Films’ Kaagaz ke Phool is a dismal incoherent funeral-paced picture which has hardly anything more remarkable about it than that it is the first Indian picture to be made in cinemascope, a process designed to provide an image that has more than twice as much width as height and to which squint-eyed spectators can perhaps do more justice than those with normal eyes.”