The Melancholic Poet of Celluloid
A voracious reader, Guru Dutt enjoyed watching jatras and films, and dancing. Bengal had a seminal influence on his life, with him growing up amidst performing arts, and becoming a performer himself, writes Sharad Dutt.
July 9, 1925! Shiv Shankar and Vasanthi Padukone were blessed with their firstborn - a son. Named Vasant Shiv Shankar Padukone, the lad was quite mischievous from his very childhood. One day while playing in the courtyard he fell into a well. Though rescued from drowning, the child remained unwell and his grandmother consulted a sadhu, who then predicted the child should abstain from water bodies and his name should be changed. As the child was born on Thursday, the day of Lord Duttatrey, thus the child was re-named Guru Duttatrey. As he grew older, he found his tongue-twisting name rather lengthy and shortened it to Guru Dutt.
Born in a middle-class family, Guru Dutt's father changed many a job and finally joined Burma Shell in Calcutta as a clerk in 1929. Guru Dutt's initial schooling was in Calcutta and he finished his matriculation in 1941. A voracious reader, he learnt Bangla language and studied its literature. Fascinated by performing arts, he enjoyed watching Jatras and films, and hence, didn't want to continue with his studies.
Interestingly, Guru Dutt was as interested in dancing, too, and he had pursued his lessons both in school and service. His public performance of the famous snake charmer number in Calcutta was much appreciated. Critical acclaim fuelled his zest and he pleaded with his maternal uncle BB Benegal to follow his passion and expressed keen desire to join Uday Shankar's cultural centre in the hills of Almora. Benegal was known to Uday Shankar but he wasn't confident about Guru Dutt. Uday Shankar visited Calcutta and Guru Dutt secretly gave an audition performing the same snake charmer number. He was amazed by Guru Dutt's performance and invited him to Almora. His two-year stay in Almora lent invaluable training, which moulded his career in later years. He left Almora in 1943 and came to Bombay where his father was posted.
Benegal had a seminal influence on Guru Dutt's life. When Guru Dutt decided that he would not continue with dancing, everybody was surprised. As he shared this with Benegal, the latter showed him a new path and introduced him to Baburao Pai of Famous Pictures, who was also the chief executive of Prabhat Film Company. Pai was fairly impressed by Guru Dutt and asked him to go to Poona and meet Saheb Mama Fatehlal, one of the partners of Prabhat. After reaching Poona this meeting and subsequent audition led to a three-year contract with the condition that he would be willing to work in any department as and when required. Guru Dutt readily gave his consent, joined Prabhat at a salary of 50 rupees a month in 1945, and started shooting Lakha Rani directed by Vishram Bedekar. He was to be its assistant director and also played a cameo role in the film. After completing it Prabhat commenced another film, Hum Ek Hain, which introduced a young, handsome, ever-smiling hero from Punjab, Dev Anand. Also starring Kamla Kotnis, Rehana and Rehman, the film was directed by PL Santoshi. Guru Dutt worked as assistant director cum dance director and again appeared in a brief role.
Guru Dutt and Dev Anand bonded in Poona. Although they were staying in the same chawl built by Prabhat for its staff, one particular incident brought them closer through a comedy of errors. By mistake, a washerman interchanged their shirts. When they met at the sets and found that they were wearing each other's shirt, they just smiled. In Poona, both of them promised each other that whenever they would have a production company of their own, they would give each other a chance as director and hero respectively.
Prabhat's next film was Gokul. Guru Dutt didn't have any specific assignment for this film, so he started taking interest in the story sessions and participated in the sittings. In 1946, Guru Dutt got a call from Pai, who informed him that he was going to launch three films under his banner, Famous Picture – 'Girls' School', 'Mohan,' and 'Nargis'. Though the credits of Nargis were yet to be decided, Pai asked Guru Dutt to assist in the direction of these films. But all these ventures received a lukewarm response at the box office. Later, Guru Dutt also assisted Gyan Mukherjee in Sangram in 1950.
Once again, Guru Dutt and Dev Anand met on the sets of Mohan, wherein the latter played the lead. During the breaks, they would recall the Poona days and reiterate the promise they had made to each other. Meanwhile, Dev Anand joined hands with his elder brother Chetan Anand and set up a production house, Navketan. Its maiden launch Afsar was based on Nikolai Gogol's play, 'The Government Inspector.' Though Chetan Anand had directed Neecha Nagar earlier that won him laurels abroad, it didn't accrue any financial benefits.
Dev Anand honoured his promise by giving a chance to Guru Dutt to direct Baazi (based on the Hollywood film Gilda), who scripted its screenplay jointly with Balraj Sahni. A light crime thriller starring Dev Anand, Geeta Bali, Kalpana Kartik, KN Singh and Johnny Walker, the film had a terrific run for twenty-five weeks. The highpoint of the film was its music and lyrics, composed by SD Burman and penned by Sahir Ludhianvi. After Baazi, Guru Dutt earned the reputation of a successful director and directed Jaal based on an Italian film, Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice), starring Dev Anand ,Geeta Bali and KN Singh.
Geeta Bali came closer to Guru Dutt during Baazi and Jaal. They decided to launch a new venture, which led to Geeta Bali's elder sister Hardarshan Kaur becoming a producer and Guru Dutt joined the team as another partner. Baaz was produced under the banner, HG Films. Guru Dutt wanted Dev Anand as the lead, but it could not materialise because of the latter's professional fee. Geeta Bali didn't like it and persuaded Guru Dutt to play the hero, who made his debut as the lead. In spite of Guru Dutt's direction, Baaz flopped at the box office, and HG Films was shelved.
Guru Dutt wanted to make a blithe crime thriller 'BT112', which was originally produced under HG Films. He approached other producers but on getting a tepid response changed the title to Aar Paar and produced it under his own banner, Guru Dutt Films, in 1954. Produced in record time and released on May 7, 1954, the film became an instant hit. Music director OP Nayyar, who could not make much mark in Baaz, composed lilting tunes for Aar Paar. After its amazing success, Guru Dutt produced and directed Mr and Mrs 55 starring Madhubala, Lalita Pawar and Johnny Walker.
The third film of Guru Dutt was CID (1956). He asked Raj Khosla to direct it and Dev Anand was signed for the first time in a Guru Dutt film. He also introduced Waheeda Rehman in CID and Shakila was the leading lady. In 1957, Guru Dutt produced and directed one of his immortal classics, Pyasa. The hero of the story, Kashmakash, was a journalist, but after hearing Sahir's 'Parchhiyan' from Abrar Alvi he changed the hero to a poet Vijay. Sahir's poetry was used very imaginatively and became an integral part of the film. Guru Dutt wanted Dilip Kumar to play the lead. The latter declined and he played the role himself. The film was an assault on the pseudo society, which neglects the poet in his lifetime, but begins to worship him after his rumoured death. Pyasa was an exemplary amalgamation of art and commerce.
After Pyasa Guru Dutt directed his most ambitious enterprise, Kagaz ke Phool. Inspired by PC Barua's film, Mukti (1935), in which the hero was an artist, Guru Dutt changed the protagonist to a film director. Naturally, it was surmised that the film was autobiographical. Kagaz ke Phool was released on October 2, 1959. The audience rejected it outright and Guru Dutt witnessed the reaction sitting amidst the spectators. During the interval when Raj Khosla came up to him, he said, "Raj, it's a stillborn baby!" What an irony that Kagaz ke Phool is a cult film today and VK Murthy won a Filmfare award for its photography. Guru Dutt was emotionally attached to this film and it shattered his confidence. He decided not to direct his future production, Chaudvi ka Chand, and asked M Sadiq to wield the directorial baton.
After the roaring success of Chaudvi ka Chand, Guru Dutt produced another classic, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, based on a Bangla novel by Bimal Mitra. He sought the rights and asked Abrar Alvi to work on the screenplay and direct the film that revolved around the decadence of zamindari system. After approaching Shashi Kapoor and Biswajeet, he himself played the role of Bhootnath. Hemant Kumar was signed for music and lyrics were penned by Shakeel Badayuni. After the release, the audience raised objections about two scenes, in particular, where Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) tells her husband played by Rehman, "Please give me two drops of whiskey for survival," and where she puts her head in Bhootnath's lap. Both the scenes were deleted and re-shot.
The film was much appreciated for its brilliant performances, dialogues, commendable photography, and its haunting music that embellished the film. All the songs were picturised by Guru Dutt himself. While 'Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam' won the National Award for best Hindi feature film, Meena Kumari and VK Murthy bagged the Filmfare awards for Best Actress and Best Photography.
In 1963, Guru Dutt announced his new film, 'Baharen phir bhi aayengi', and asked his friend Shahid Latif to direct it. A remake of New Theater's President with minor changes, this film was in progress when Guru Dutt was found dead in his flat on October 10, 1964. It is more than half a century when Guru Dutt passed away at the age of 39, at the peak of his career as a filmmaker and an actor. But the legend of Guru Dutt lives on and no one can ever forget the quality of his cinema.
In recent times, there has been a revival of Guru Dutt's cinema the world over. Henri Miccollo, his French biographer, organised his retrospective in France. Sight and Sound has included Kagaz ke Phool among the best films of world cinema. And Time magazine has placed Pyasa among the hundred all-time great films. The present-day film directors, Ashutosh Gowarikar, Sudhir Mishra and Anurag Kashyap revere Guru Dutt as their source of inspiration. What a tribute!