Guru Dutt was born on this day in 1925 and died in 1964, at the age of 39. Between the decades that have whizzed by, the Pyaasa auteur’s reputation has only soared to unimaginable heights. Time has been kind to him, as it usually is to great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Heath Ledger — lives and careers that were snuffed out young prompting them to fall head-first into the mysterious and undefinable trenches of myth. In Hindi cinema, the 1950s is considered to be the Golden Age and even in an era dominated by such forces as Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, B R Chopra and Mehboob Khan, the name ‘Guru Dutt’ was spoken with respect. Of course, like the filmmaker he’s most often compared to — Orson Welles — Dutt’s work started getting its due only after his tragic death. But one assumes that the industry of its time must have taken note of Guru Dutt’s intense obsession with his art and unparalleled attempts at making films his way. So unmistakably artistic they are, packed with glorious music and evocative motifs, that you know it’s a Guru Dutt film when you see one. Dutt, whose real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, started out as a choreographer. He met three people in the show business who changed his life — for better or worse, we will never know. One was Dev Anand. Dutt and Anand’s friendship goes back to the time when the latter, not yet a big star, was acting in Hum Ek Hain (1946). The newcomer Dutt was a choreographer in the same film. The two met accidentally one day at the Prabhat Film Studio in Pune when Anand saw Dutt wearing his shirt. The laundryman, it seems, had sent Dev Anand’s shirt to the wrong man. The duo had a hearty laugh over the confusion and became good friends soon afterwards — so much so that Anand promised Dutt that if he ever turned producer he would hire Dutt as a director and Dutt would return the favour by casting his handsome buddy as a hero whenever he donned the producer’s hat. As history would prove, they kept their word.
Dev Anand’s Navketan Films launched Guru Dutt as a director with Baazi in 1951. Established by the Anand brothers, the banner had earlier made Afsar helmed by Chetan Anand. Baazi was extraordinary for one obvious reason: it was a coming together of a number of brilliant talents. Sahir Ludhianvi on lyrics and SD Burman’s compositions, Geeta Dutt’s voice, Balraj Sahni as its scriptwriter, Zohra Sehgal as choreographer and Raj Khosla as assistant. Stylishly shot along the lines of Hollywood noir with low-key lighting and set in the world of urban crime, the film blazed the tone for future Navketan templates. Besides proving himself as an ace director with a good command over both suspense and romance, Dutt’s gift for songs was something that was on ample display in Baazi. It was followed by Jaal in 1952. Once again starring Dev Anand and Geeta Bali, the crime drama was inspired by the Italian neorealist hit Bitter Rice (1949) and featured the emerging romantic male star as an anti-hero, one of the first that would come to define Dev Anand as a charming urban drifter. It is sad but not exactly puzzling that Dutt’s best and breeziest of films somehow get lost in the soulfully self-destructive glamour of his infinitely more popular Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).
In Aar-Paar (1954), Dutt plays an ex-convict who takes up a job as a taxi-driver to gain some respectability and marry his lady love, Nikki (Shyama). But instead, he gets involved in a criminal conspiracy. Mr and Mrs ’55 (1955) sees him pair up with the ethereal Madhubala. We have seen the rich heiress-poor hero trope before, perhaps the mother of this setup is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). So while not entirely original, Mr and Mrs ’55 still manages to give the viewers a good time. Particularly, the sparkling chemistry between Madhubala and Dutt is one of the many veritable charms of the film, aside from the timeless music (‘Udhar tum haseen ho’, ‘Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya jee’ and ‘Thandi hawa.’) Both Aar-Paar and Mr and Mrs ’55 have a frothy soundtrack, in OP Nayyar’s trademark upbeat style. In these romcoms, Guru Dutt, who is known as a master of gloom today, appears at ease with just playing a character without burdening it with too much baggage — the thinly-veiled autobiographical, more personal brand of self-pity married to poetic sensibility would come later. It’s probably a fair guess that Dev Anand would have been an ideal choice for such parts, but watching Aar-Paar and Mr and Mrs ’55 today you can’t imagine anyone else as cabbie Kalu and Pritam, the talented cartoonist (is he a cartoonist or a communist, the veteran Lalita Pawar asks him at one point). Dutt is immensely likeable in these entertaining outings, maybe more so in hindsight because we know what Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool will forever paint him as cinema’s ultimate suffering soul.
Dutt was no great actor and he had no illusions of it either. That’s why he had first approached a truly great actor for Pyaasa. Dilip Kumar initially said ‘yes,’ only to back out eventually. Years later, the thespian regretted it. Dutt reportedly chased him right till the end. When Kumar, who passed away at 98 on July 7, didn’t show up on the sets Dutt had no choice but to put himself into the role of the down-and-out poet Vijay. The bleak outlook of the film, reflected most powerfully in Sahir Ludhianvi’s rousing lyrics, did not tie in with the general mood of a newly independent India but over the decades, this is one classic that has been seldom out of circulation. Filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia and many others have kept its flame burning. Kashyap, for one, was so fired up by Ludhianvi’s ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye’ — even in 2021, it’s unlikely that populist cinema would use such a nihilist anthem as its heartbeat — that he made a film out of it. Gulaal (2009) tried to recreate the same angst and rejection that you saw in Pyaasa. Even Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar has a Pyaasa hidden inside its rock-and-roll core. The trials and tribulations of Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) has its ancestor not in Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 or Mera Naam Joker but in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa.
And then came, Kaagaz Ke Phool which, as some say, destroyed Dutt — emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially. Was the protagonist Suresh Sinha, who’s a frustrated filmmaker at a time when a career in the movies were frowned upon, a stand-in for Dutt? “Partially, if you join Vijay of Pyaasa and Suresh of Kaagaz Ke Phool you can say it’s Guru Dutt,” his son Arun Dutt told Wild Films India. More than anything, Kaagaz Ke Phool is a meditation on the ephemerality of fame as reflected in its title and along with Pyaasa, it gave Dutt his enduring image as a saint of sadness, the tortured artist rejected by society and torn by love and passion. There are other aspects of his personal life that find expression in it — estranged marriage, a creative man’s love for his muse, alcoholism and depression. In real life, Dutt’s marriage with Geeta Dutt was on the rocks. That’s the second person he met in the film world who defined his life. Last but not the least, Waheeda Rehman. His alleged closeness with Rehman, whom he discovered in Hyderabad and summoned to Bombay subsequently, has been one of Bollywood’s best-kept secrets. Describing their separation, Arun Dutt — without giving too much — called it “a breaking of trust.”
Now 83, Rehman, one of the last links to Bollywood of yore, has always maintained a dignified silence about it. Guru Dutt is not around to demystify it. And so, with his small but cult body of work, a short and troubled life and many unanswered questions, Dutt continues to fascinate.