The film tells in flashback the story of Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt), a famous film director who enters a film studio before the day’s shooting has begun. As he recalls his life, we see him being a successful filmmaker but on his own. His marriage to Bina (Veena), a girl from a wealthy and titled family, is on the rocks because her father (Mahesh Kaul) sees filmmaking as a job lacking in social status. He is also denied access to his daughter, Pammi (Naaz), who is sent away to a private boarding school. On a rainy night as he takes shelter under a tree, Sinha meets a woman, Shanti (Waheeda Rehman), shivering in the cold and gives her his coat. She later comes to the film studio to return the coat and disrupts the shooting walking in front of the camera. Seeing the rushes, Sinha is sure that she is a star in the making and she is cast as Paro in Devdas, the film that Sinha is making. Shanti becomes a star and she and Suresh, two lonely people, come together finding solace in each other. But this has repercussions. They are spoken about in gossip columns and even Pammi’s friends make life miserable for her. She pleads with Shanti behind Sinha’s back to leave Sinha’s life and a desolate Shanti withdraws, leaving the film world and becoming a school teacher in a small village. Her withdrawal leads to a decline in Sinha’s fortunes and he finds himself down and out as his films fail at the box office one after another. Shanti is forced to return to films since she has a contract with the studio but cannot help Sinha, as he is too far-gone, an alcoholic, who is now living in abject poverty. Finally, Sinha, remembering his glorious past, dies in the empty film studio in the director’s chair, a lonely and forgotten man.
Kaagaz Ke Phool, India’s first film in the Cinemascope format, has been considered Guru Dutt’s finest and most autobiographical film by many. It is generally felt by most old timers and historians that the film was a cinematic masterpiece that, tragically, went over the audience’s heads and sank like the Titanic so to say in its time. But a truly objective look at the film shows that it is actually quite an inconsistent film with its share of expected highs, but also a lot of lows. There’s no denying that in its better moments, the film is nothing short of being cinematically brilliant. These sequences, lyrical, poetic and poignant, represent some of the finest work that Guru Dutt has ever done.
The film’s biggest flaw that lets it down is its foundation – its script. The screenplay is weak and the film, at its worst moments, appears to be totally narcissistic and heavy handed. Perhaps with the success of Pyaasa (1957), Guru Dutt felt he could make yet another serious film but Kaagaz ke Phool, with its defeatist attitude (at least Pyaasa had a happy ending of sorts), appears almost morbid in comparison. Guru Dutt was known to be an extremely moody and indecisive person and the script of the film kept changing during the making. According to Shammi Kapoor, a good friend of Guru Dutt, the release of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight killed Dutt’s original concept as the similarities between the two films were many. Limelight aside, the film also has a lot of similarities to George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932), which looked at the fall of a filmmaker as against the simultaneous rise of his protege, which was then repeated in the various A Star is Born films. In trying to write and rewrite to get away from Limelight, the film’s story spun out of control. In fact, Kapoor recalled that when Dutt originally narrated the script to him and wife, Geeta Bali, on the steps of the Famous Studio building, the latter wept, so moved was she by the story and the narration. Lyricist Kaifi Azmi recalls that with all the shooting and reshooting, more scenes were left out of he film than those retained. In fact, initially there wasn’t even a situation for the film’s best and most popular song, Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm. According to Azmi, it was all but decided that the tune, wonderful as it was would be used in another film. But when Azmi wrote the immortal words Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm, Tum Rahen Na Tum Hum Rahen Na Hum, Dutt made sure it found place in the film. Today, the film is unthinkable without the song.
Even if the story and script had their shortcomings, what is inexplicable in the film are some of the characterisations. Unlike his earlier films where the characters were so beautifully drawn out, it was not so in this film. The family of the film director’s wife, the upperclass Westernised elite, who want nothing to do with him as they look down on the film line, are treated as laughable, cardboard caricatures. And Johnny Walker’s angle to provide comic relief appears to be poorly forced in the film rather than integrated into it with Walker badly miscast. As Guru Dutt himself admitted in an interview to Filmfare in 1963, “It was good in patches. It was too slow and it went over the head of audiences.”
But for all its flaws, like any Guru Dutt film, the highs still do manage to outweigh the lows. The relationship between the director and his protégé, the central relationship of the film is delicately handled and beautifully developed on a very human plane. This is helped to a great extent by Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman’s fine performances and Abrar Alvi’s perceptive dialogues. The filmmaking scenes are shot with a lot of love with meticulous attention to detail. The ambiance of the film studios (inspired by New Theatres, Calcutta) is most effectively created. Although I suspect that audiences of the time could not digest this breaking down of the myth surrounding the film world, in particular, its aura and glamour. And song picturizations, a strong point of Guru Dutt, are taken to new heights in Kaagaz Ke Phool, particularly Dekhi Zamaane Ki Yaari, soulfully rendered by Mohammed Rafi, and Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm, one of the greatest songs sung by Geeta Dutt, perhaps her all time best. However, barring these two outstanding songs, SD Burman’s music is merely adequate. And that is surprising for a Guru Dutt film.
Technically, the film is perhaps Guru Dutt’s best crafted film. The camerawork with its poetic use of light and shadows is magical. Rarely has the Indian screen seen better Black & White cinematography. The frames have been beautifully composed keeping in mind the Cinemascope format. Interestingly, Kaagaz Ke Phool might not have been the first ever Indian film in this format had Dutt completed the Bengali film, Gouri, he had started in 1957 to launch wife, Geeta Dutt, as a singing star. After some shooting, the film, Gouri, being shot in Cinemascope, was shelved and it was then decided to make Kaagaz Ke Phool in the new format. It deservedly got cinematographer VK Murthy the Filmfare award for his wonderful work in the film. He created the light beam in the film studio by opening the roof of the studio and reflecting the sunlight from a mirror kept outside the studio to another mirror kept on the lighting catwalk, which then sent the beam down lit up by adding smoke and the dust of the studio. Special mention also has to be made of MR Acharekar’s wonderful art direction keeping in mind the expanse of the Cinemascope format. In fact, it took the crew a while to get used to the new format. Acharekar had them reshoot an entire schedule pointing out they had failed to keep in mind the new aspect ratio (2.35:1 as against 1.33:1) and his set dimensions in their filming.
After the film flopped miserably, a dejected Guru Dutt never ‘officially’ directed a film again. Though Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) bears his unmistakable stamp, the direction is officially credited to Abrar Alvi.
Ironically, today Kaagaz ke Phool enjoys a cult following and goes house full whenever re-released.
Hindi, Drama, Black & White
Header photograph courtesy Arun Dutt