Sensitive, Poetic, Magical. These and more words have described the genius of Guru Dutt, easily one of Indian cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
Guru Dutt Padukone was born in Mysore in South India on July 9, 1925. He had his early education in Calcutta before doing basic training with dance maestro Uday Shankar at his dance academy in Almora after which he joined Prabhat Studios. It was here that he got a break as an assistant director and actor first with Lakharani (1945) and then with the film Hum Ek Hain (1946), the launching pad of friend and actor Dev Anand, where he was the choreographer, assistant director and even an actor! Thanks to the friendship between Dev Anand and himself that grew at Prabhat, the two made a deal. If Guru Dutt were to direct a film, Dev Anand would star in it and if Anand were to produce a film, Dutt would direct.
From Prabhat, Guru Dutt moved on to Famous Studios and then on to Bombay Talkies assisting filmmakers like Amiya Chakraborty and Gyan Mukherjee. Meanwhile in 1949, Dev Anand (now a star) had launched his own banner, Navketan. The Production House’s first film Afsar (1950), directed by Anand’s elder brother, Chetan Anand, was not a success. Remembering their agreement, Dev Anand invited Guru Dutt to direct a film for him. Thus 1951 saw the release of Baazi, Guru Dutt’s directorial debut. The film, starring Dev Anand, Geeta Bali and newcomer Kalpana Kartik, though dated today, was a trendsetter regarded as the forerunner of the spate of urban crime films that followed in Bollywood in the 1950s. Not only that, Guru Dutt and singer Geeta Roy met during a song recording of Baazi and fell in love, finally marrying on the 26th of May, 1953.
Guru Dutt followed Baazi with another nourish thriller, Jaal (1952) again starring Dev Anand and Geeta Bali. Inspired by the Italian film, Bitter Rice, the film won much praise for its ‘realistic’ depiction of the Christian fisherfolk as against usual stereotypes of them being immoral and drunkards. Jaal shows the community as hardworking and god-fearing respectable folk, but unfortunately uneven characterizations and a sometimes plodding pace make Jaal a not-so-tense thriller even if it has enough going for it. Baaz, in 1953, saw Guru Dutt make his debut as leading man in addition to direction. The film, a swashbuckler on the high seas, was a huge misfire.
Aar Paar (1954) finally established Guru Dutt as a director to reckon with. The film was a crime thriller in the genre of Baazi but by now with Jaal and Baaz also behind him, Guru Dutt had polished his filmmaking skills and Aar Paar stands out as among the best of the genre. The plot of the film may now seem formulaic but the film scores heavily in its treatment. It’s great strength lies in the way even the minor characters are fleshed out – be it the barman, the street urchin or the newspaper vendor. And for once, characters spoke with a language that reflected their socio-economic background.
Followed some of his best work – Mr and Mrs 55 (1955), Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). Pyaasa was Guru Dutt’s real masterpiece. It tells of the thirst for love, for recognition, for spiritual fulfilment. There is a strong parallel between the hero, a poet, the outsider trying to make a place for himself in the society he inhabits and the director, the outsider trying to leave his independent stamp in a world of formulaic cinema. It is in Pyaasa where we really see Guru Dutt transcend way above the ordinary and succeed in totality.
Kaagaz ke Phool, looking at the decline of a successful filmmaker, was a dismal failure at the box office and a dejected Guru Dutt never directed a film again. But for all its flaws, like any Guru Dutt film, the highs far outweigh the lows. Technically the film is perhaps his best film. The camerawork with its use of light and shadow is magical. The frames have been beautifully composed keeping in mind the cinemascope format (It is India’s first ever film in cinemascope). The relationship between the director and his protege is delicately handled on a very human plane. The film making scenes are shot with meticulous attention to detail and the ambience of the film studios is most effectively created. And above all, song picturizations are taken to new heights. Lyrical and poetic, it represents some of the finest work that Guru Dutt has ever done. The screenplay however is weak and the film at its worst moments appears to be highly morbid and totally narcissistic.
Post the debacle of Kaagaz ke Phool, Guru Dutt continued to produce films and act in both home and outside productions. But never did he ever give his name in the credits as director again. Still, the films produced by him – Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), credited to M Sadiq and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), credited to writer Abrar Alvi, both bear his unmistakable stamp. The latter won the President’s Silver Medal as well as the Best Film Award from Filmfare and the Bengal Film Journalists Association (Guru Dutt won Best Actor, his only acting award), besides going to the Berlin Film Festival and being India’s official entry for the Oscars.
For all his success as an artist and filmmaker, Guru Dutt’s personal life was a shambles. He had separated from his wife allegedly due to his involvement with his discovery and leading actress, Waheeda Rehman, and on October 10, 1964 he took an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with his drink though doubts still linger as to whether his death was accidental. At the time of his death, he was producing Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi starring Mal Sinha, Tanuja, Johnny Walker, Rehman and himself in the lead roles. The film, based on the New Theatres’ classic bi-lingual President/Didi (1937), was finally released in 1966 with Dharmendra taking over Guru Dutt’s role, but flopped miserably at the box-office.
Themes of his films aside, Guru Dutt has also brought in some major technical revolutions in the grammar of the mainstream Hindi film. He had a unique knack of being able to integrate the film song into the story and make the story move forward even through the song. This is because Guru Dutt stuck to the vocabulary of his characters even in the songs and picturized them in the locations the characters would normally inhabit. Also, he began a lot of songs without the introductory music thus using it as an extension of the dialogue. Hence the songs never appear out of place. His strength lay in his sense of music as well as in the picturization of songs, particularly his shot takings. Guru Dutt used the effect of light and shade to poetic in fact magical effect to create romance. There is no better use of light and shade in Indian cinema than the songs Saqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin Aayegi from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, and Waqt ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm from Kaagaz ke Phool.
Guru Dutt also revolutionalized the close up shot. He went in for closer magnifications of characters than those seen till then almost as if probing for their internal feelings. He went beyond the standard 50mm lens used then, using lenses with higher focal length to get tighter close ups. He strongly felt that 80% of acting was done in the eyes and 20% the rest of the body. For the eyes are the most expressive part. And being an actor – director made it easy for Guru Dutt to get good performances from his artistes. And if he wasn’t completely satisfied with the results, he scrapped the film he was making irrespective of the amount of money and time gone into the project. This explains the large number of incomplete films that he left.
According to his one time assistant and successful director in his own right, Raj Khosla, “His ambition was not just to make a good film or be one of the top filmmakers. He aspired to make a great film, a different film and he wanted to be the best filmmaker. He always wanted things in absolute terms. Be it acclaim or success. He would settle for nothing less. Filmmaking was an obsession with him. He was a very ambitious man. But ambition is a passion that can destroy. It ultimately drove him to the point of no return.”
Writer and close friend Abrar Alvi recollects. “Frankly none of his films satisfied him as a director. He always felt that something was missing from his films.”
Raj Khosla further felt that Guru Dutt had achieved too much too soon as far as his professional life was concerned. After Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool, there was nothing better to be achieved. This created a vacuum in his life. Perhaps this emptiness caused him to take his own life. His death was an irreplaceable loss for Indian Cinema.