In Guru Dutt’s life and art, frames of disenchantment - Hindustan Times
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In Guru Dutt’s life and art, frames of disenchantment

Jul 06, 2024 09:30 PM IST

The birth centenary of the filmmaker known for works such as Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool, and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam begins on July 9. His cinema anticipated the disillusionment over Nehruvian India’s failure to deliver on its promises

The birth centenary of Guru Dutt — easily one of Indian cinema’s greats — begins on July 9. The occasion should invite the artistic fraternity and citizenry at large to pause and think as they face an overwhelming avalanche of technology and speed in all art, including cinema. Independent India was only 10 years old when Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa was released. The film, both in its temporal and aesthetic conscience, is still significant as the country’s political-cultural text, or subtext, refuses to move past Nehruvian agony and ecstasy. The year 1957 was also the time when the world’s first elected Communist government in Kerala was formed, led by EMS Namboodiripad, the Hindi film Jagte Raho won the first prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (second in the Apu Trilogy) won the Golden Lion in Venice, and Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala, which adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, received a special mention for music (set by Pandit Ravishankar) in Berlin. It was also the year India’s first Oscar-nominated film, Mother India, and the first Indo-Soviet co-production, Pardesi, were released. Nehruvian India was shining. Yet, for Pyaasa’s sensitive Urdu poet Vijay (played by Dutt), all was not well. Heartbroken, as he roamed the streets of a red-light district where women live in abject poverty, he asked the country’s leaders: Ye kooche ye nilaam ghar dilkashi ke/Ye lutate huye caarvan zindagi ke/Kahaan hain kahan hain muhafiz khudi ke/Jinhe naaz hai hind par woh kahaan hai (These lanes, these houses of auctioned pleasure/ These ravaged caravans of life/ Where are they, the guardians of dignity?/Where are those who claim to be proud of Hind).

Guru Dutt - HT Photo by SL Purohit.
Guru Dutt - HT Photo by SL Purohit.

Dutt, also the director-producer of Pyaasa, made us feel the anguish of Nehruvian India through these lyrics of the progressive-humanist poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, which was set to music by SD Burman, and sung by Mohammed Rafi. The song is still relevant after India’s 77 years of Independence. And, we are still in search of some elusive nectar (amrit) as time (kaal) passes, just as the fictional film director, Suresh Sinha (played by Dutt again), was, in India’s first CinemaScope Hindi epic, Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959).

Dutt’s first film as an actor, Baaz (Falcon, 1953), which celebrates its 70th anniversary, echoed the overall contours of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA)’s films released a year before the Tricolour replaced the Union Jack — Dharti ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946), a Hindustani film directed by KA Abbas, and Neecha Nagar (directed by Chetan Anand, 1946) that was an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel, The Lower Depths. Based on a story and screenplay by Dutt himself, apart from being directed by him, Baaz is set in the 16th century Malabar coast, where the ruler of a small state signs a treaty, giving the Portuguese the right to trade in exchange of military protection. An entertainer with thrilling action scenes and scintillating songs composed by OP Nayyar, and lead roles for Dutt and Geeta Bali, Baaz still echoed unmistakably anti-colonial sentiments. The renowned Russian artist, Ludvilla Primakoff, designed costumes for the film.

Dutt’s directorial debut was the Hindi noir, Baazi (1951), written by Balraj Sahni. Starring Dev Anand, it was produced by Anand’s production house, Navketan. The Nehruvian ethos was in the artistic air at that time. Interestingly, Dutt’s consciousness of a class-fragmented society is seen even in romantic comedies such as Mr & Mrs 55 (his fifth film as director) which was written by Abrar Alvi, Dutt’s confidante and screenwriter. As Preetam, the cartoonist protagonist of the film, Dutt uses a familiar plot to satirise the “reformism” of India’s upper class. In a scene, his sweetheart Anita (Madhubala) and her authoritarian aunt Seeta Devi (Lalita Pawar) are in the room where Preetam lives. The following conversation ensues.

Seeta Devi: How can you live in such a hovel?

Preetam: Very easily. I am used to it.

Seeta Devi: You may say that because you haven’t seen a better life.

Preetam: Perhaps you haven’t seen the life of the poor folk living on the pavements. I am far better off than most.

Seeta Devi: Are you a communist?

Preetam: No, a cartoonist.

We see Preetam caricaturing the dictatorial aunt (in fact, it is the deft hand of India’s legendary cartoonist, RK Laxman, that we see in the film).

Dutt’s manner of film editing has been the least-discussed subject so far. In early 1991, I had the opportunity to interview his editor, Yeshwant Chawhan (YG Chawhan, sometimes credited only as Chawhan), in his modest house in the Mumbai suburb of Mahim. His eyes moist, Chawhan said, “On the editing table, Guru Dutt would sit with me and often insist upon bringing about a certain effect he had in his mind, and when I would manipulate frames to achieve that, he would say, ‘Arre yaar Chawhan, I want something more, not just that. Koshish karo, yaar…’ You can perhaps see the best use of montage in his Kaagaz ke Phool.” Except for Jaal (1952), Chawhan edited all his films.

Not many people know that Mani Kaul wanted to make a film on Dutt. Sometime in the late 1990s, he had asked me to do some preliminary research, which I had done according to his instructions, but unfortunately, the film remained unrealised in its nascent stage. Or else, we would perhaps have had a unique film by Kaul, on Dutt — much like his Satah Se Uthta Aadmi (1980), which is on the life and work of the eminent Hindi poet and writer, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. Kaul always talked very eloquently about Dutt’s film craft. He found a certain element of randomness in the way Dutt lighted the actor’s face and body that made them moulded and supple, thanks to the cinematographer VK Murthy’s sensitivity. I believe Ritwik Ghatak, Dutt, and Kaul shared the same intellectual-emotional-temperamental quotient. They yearned for “home”, universalising personal sorrow intuitively and impulsively.

Dutt was devastated by the utter failure of his ambitiously self-reflexive epic, Kaagaz Ke Phool at the box-office. Penned by Kaifi Azmi, composed by SD Burman and sung by Rafi, a song from the movie still rings in the air: Ud jaa ud jaa pyaase bhanvare/Ras na milega khaaron mein/Kaagaz ke phool jahaan khilte hain/ Baith na un gulzaaron mein (Fly away, O thirsty bee/You will find no honey/Amid these raging torrents/Where paper flowers bloom/Visit not these gardens).

Dutt, the luminous lament, was in perennial search of a fragrant garden where he could rest. Unable to find one, he took his own life on October 10, 1964, in Bombay. Gurudatta Padukone, born in Bangalore, was only 39.

Though the filmmaking process has now transformed from analogue to digital, Dutt remains exemplary, for making timeless cinema of the stories he wanted to tell, even while working within the boundaries of market demands. In the year of his birth centenary, he should return to us as a teacher and practitioner of telling one’s truth.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, curator and historian. The views expressed are personal

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