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Guru Dutt and his muse Geeta: Birth anniversary special

Despite their bitter separation and Guru Dutt's rumoured affair, the couple remained inseparable in success and failure. On the director's 92nd birth anniversary (9 July), we look at the relationship between the husband and wife whose tale unfolded through songs on screen.

Shriram Iyengar

The legend of Guru Dutt has only grown since his sudden and tragic death on 10 October 1964. While there were many who claimed to have shared a close relationship with the auteur, there was only one person he called on his last day — wife Geeta Dutt.

The relationship between Geeta Dutt nee Roy Chowdhury and Guru Dutt was a mercurial and romantic one. Both were talented, passionate, incredibly neurotic artistes struggling with their own demons. While Geeta Roy rose to become one of the most talented singers of her time, when Lata Mangeshkar was in her prime, Guru Dutt went on to make a mark on the pages of world cinema with his poetic documentation of life on screen.

It was Guru Dutt's directorial debut Baazi (1951) that brought the two talents together for the first time. Geeta Roy sang six songs for the album composed by SD Burman, including the famous 'Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqdeer Bana De'. The song, written by Sahir Ludhianvi, was supposed to be a ghazal before Burman teased Geeta Roy's lilting voice into a sensual cabaret tune. While the music director changing the metre of the song infuriated lyricist Sahir no end, director Guru Dutt was smitten by the voice.

It was SD Burman who used Geeta Dutt the most, owing to her versatility. Her voice stood out for a vivacity and emotional quality that remains unsurpassed. Music director OP Nayyar, in a 1957 interview, remarked, "Cultured, comely and well-read, Geeta could as easily be a leading lady as she is a top playback singer. But she sincerely believes she has found her niche in the realm of ghost-singing. And who will deny that there is a unique quality in her singing? Give her a blatantly Westernized tune this moment and a complex classical composition the next, and she will do equal justice to both with an ease of expression which a singer can only be born with."

The marriage of a talented singer to a director praised for having an innate understanding of the relationship between music and storytelling naturally resulted in a wonderful team. Starting with Baazi (1951), Geeta Roy became a key part of Guru Dutt's team consisting of the actors Rehman and Johnny Walker, writer Abrar Alvi, cinematographer VK Murthy and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi.

The couple got married in 1953. A director whose greatest strength was the ability to use songs in a meaningful way, Guru Dutt often chose his wife for breezy, dreamy, romantic numbers. She remained his ideal woman, even when their marriage was less than ideal. Songs like 'Babuji Dheere Chalna' (Aar-Paar, 1954) and 'Thandi Hawa Kali Ghata' and 'Jaane Kahan Mera Jigar Gaya Ji' (Mr & Mrs 55, 1955), both albums composed by Nayyar, were prime examples. Guru Dutt used her voice for situations that were light, playful, even seductive. This theme continued till 1956.

In 1956, Guru Dutt met Waheeda Rehman and thus began one of the more tempestuous romances off screen in Hindi cinema. Waheeda Rehman would go on to become the director's muse in some of his finest works, including the eternal classic Pyaasa (1957). It was in this film that Geeta Dutt's positioning, even as a singer, changed for Guru Dutt. In the film, she sings 'Hum Aapki Aankhon Mein' and 'Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Le', the first an aspirational dream sequence recollected by the poor Vijay (Guru Dutt) on the occasion of an accidental meeting with his unrequited love (Mala Sinha), the second a song of longing. For someone who used songs as a tool to tell his story, Guru Dutt was quietly telling his own tale.

In Sathya Saran's book Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey, the writer Abrar Alvi revealed how Geeta Dutt would grow suspicious to the extent of sending a 'torrid confession of love' signed in Waheeda Rehman's name to the director. However, neither Alvi nor Guru Dutt was convinced by the letter to fall for the ploy. As Alvi said, "I think this was the first time, that night after going home, that he confronted Geeta with the episode and, as he confessed to me later, raised his hand on her."

The couple soon separated, with Geeta Dutt moving out of her marital home with their children. Despite the rift, the two continued to work together in films like Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Geeta Dutt even sang for films that were not directed by Guru Dutt but featured him in a leading role like Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).

Incidentally, that immortal number 'Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam' from Kaagaz Ke Phool has Geeta Dutt singing the heartwrenching ode to two hearts growing distant while Guru Dutt is bathed in VK Murthy's textured lighting. The song is considered a milestone in Indian cinema for the lighting and composition, but the song itself tells a whole other story.

On 10 October 1964, Guru Dutt got into a heated altercation with Geeta Dutt on the phone over sending the children to visit him. He then sat down with writer Abrar Alvi to work on the screenplay for Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966), before he sent Alvi home. What happened thereafter no one knows, but the director died that night, apparently of an overdose of sleeping pills and cough syrup. He was only 39.

Despite their constant altercations, the death of the director left a huge void in Geeta Dutt's life and career. By 1964, Lata Mangeshkar had well and truly taken control of the world of playback singing. Geeta Dutt was fading, and fast. Worse, Guru Dutt's death had affected her composure. She took to drink and lost money in bad investments. On 20 July 1972, Geeta Dutt died of liver cirrhosis caused by excessive drinking. She was 41.

Reams have been written on the relationship between Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, describing the latter as the great director's muse. However, his real muse was Geeta Dutt, separation from whom led both down a fatal spiral. In the words of the bard, they were 'a pair of star-crossed lovers', whose passion consumed their lives, married and unmarried.