Fifty years ago this week, one of the most discussed and admired films of Indian cinema, Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool, was released. I saw it at the New Empire in Bombay on the opening weekend. It was the first Indian film shot in cinemascope and it required special wide-screen projection in cinema halls, a rarity in those days.
New Empire was one of the few theatres in the country equipped to handle that format. There was also a normal 35mm version of the film meant for the small towns. The theatre was very posh, restricting itself to showing English films. The theatre was Parsi-owned and if you live in Mumbai you will know exactly what that means.
Kaagaz ke Phool was the first Hindi film screened in that theatre. They probably fumigated the place after we left.
I bought the ticket on the black market. If I had waited a week, it is quite likely that the touts would have sold it to me for less than what they paid for it. Kaagaz ke Phool bombed — it was a box-office disaster, one of the biggest flops of all time, right up there with Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. The film’s failure unnerved Guru Dutt and he stopped taking directorial credit for the ones he made after that.
That is why I sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about. In 2002, Sight and Sound, the venerable magazine of the British Film Institute, ranked it 160th among the best films ever made. Kaagaz ke Phool seems to be everyone’s favourite romantic movie, spoken of in the same breath as Mughal-e-Azam. It turns up on all lists as one of the best Hindi films of all time, among the top ten if not the top five.
The film was technically superb; V.K. Murthy’s camerawork was astonishing. Sadly, it was also pretentious, narcissistic and self-pitying. Its worst fault was that it dragged; it was boring. Everyone talks about it, but how many people have actually seen Kaagaz ke Phool? Guru Dutt’s legendary status is partly due to his death at an early age, at 39 — a suicide.
By the time he decided to make the film, he had fallen head over heels in love with Waheeda Rehman. She was his protégé. He had discovered her on a visit to Hyderabad. She had acted in two of his earlier films, both very successful, and she was now a major star. She did not reciprocate his feelings towards her. The fact that he was a married man with two children had something to do with it.
His wife, Geeta Dutt, was one of the leading playback singers of that time. S.D. Burman’s music composition for Kaagaz ke Phool was surprisingly indifferent, but it had one memorable number sung by her. It is still very popular: ‘Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam.’
The story of the film revolves around a famous director, Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt), whose personal life is a mess. He married above his station and his wife and her family are contemptuous of his profession. He comes across Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) on a rainy night and he chooses her to play the lead in his next film. Shanti becomes a star. They become close and there is gossip. His daughter confronts Shanti and asks her to leave. She is heartbroken but abandons her career. Suresh turns to alcohol, loses everything and, in the end, returns to the empty studio and dies in the director’s chair.
The film was autobiographical. The story’s similarity with Guru Dutt’s personal situation was unmistakable. He made the hero the sympathetic character. The wife was the villain in the film, played by Veena, an actor who specialised in negative roles. S.K. Mukherjee, head of Filmalaya Studio, walked out angrily from a private screening when he saw how Geeta Dutt, a fellow Bengali, had been portrayed in the film.
To recover his losses, Guru Dutt quickly made another film, Chaudavin ka Chand, a Muslim social, set in Nawabi Lucknow. It was a formula film with great songs and turned out to be his biggest hit.
Whenever Guru Dutt devotees meet, the argument is on which is his best film, Kaagaz ke Phool, Pyaasa or Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. My personal favourite is Mr and Mrs 55, a comedy, light as a soufflé. And Madhubala looked gorgeous.
Bhaichand Patel was a jury member at the 2003 Venice Film Festival ( The views expressed by the author are personal.)