Article Hindi

Guru Dutt, the light that burned twice as brightly: Birth anniversary special


When Guru Dutt died, allegedly of an overdose of sleeping pills, in 1964, few would have guessed the critical and international acclaim the 39-year-old filmmaker's works would draw in course of time.

Shoma A Chatterji

Guru Dutt was born Vasanthkumar Shivashankar Padukone in Bangalore on 9 July 1925. His name was later changed to Gurudutt because it was thought to be more auspicious and because he was born on a Thursday, the day of the planet Guru (Jupiter) in most Indian languages.

Guru Dutt was the eldest of five siblings, the others being Atmaram, Lalitha, Devi and Vijay. The family belonged to the Chitrapur Saraswat community noted for its (relatively) fair skin and good looks.

The Chitrapur Saraswats are Brahmins who trace their origins back to North India and gradually settled in different parts of the country. The community's name is traditionally linked with the mythical river Saraswati in Kashmir, though many of them are now primarily located in coastal regions like Goa. They are said to be a creative and artistic community.

Two other members of Guru Dutt’s family, his sister Lalitha Lajmi and her daughter, the late Kalpana, are known for their own distinctive achievements in the fine arts and films, respectively.

Atmaram, who styled himself as Atma Ram, too was a filmmaker while Devi Dutt made a successful career in advertising. Shyam Benegal is a second cousin of the siblings.

According to filmmaker and author Nasreen Munni Kabir's biography Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema, published by Oxford University Press, Delhi, in 1997, Guru Dutt’s father Shivashankar Padukone was studying for his graduation degree when he got married to Vasanthi in 1923. He was 20; she was only 12. Padukone worked for a while as headmaster in a panchayat-run school in Panambur, then a village near Mangalore. In 1924, he moved to Bangalore and joined a bank. Vasanthi joined him. Guru Dutt was born to them a year later.

The Padukones were very poor. Guru Dutt’s early childhood was spent within the cramped space of a small flat in Matunga in Bombay. His father shifted from one job to another, leaving the family in a perpetual state of economic instability. In 1929, Vasanthi took Guru Dutt with her and went to Calcutta. Shivashankar joined them later and finally settled down to a job with the petroleum company Burmah Shell for 30 long years.

The family shifted residence several times. When they were living in Bhowanipore in south Calcutta, Guru Dutt became an avid fan of Jatra performances which used to take place regularly in an open space next to the house they lived in. He learnt to speak Bengali fluently and this stood him in good stead for the rest of his life.

Guru Dutt's mother Vasanthi’s cousin BB Benegal, a designer and painter of cinema hoardings, influenced the Padukone children in a positive way and had a special role in the moulding of Guru Dutt.

Guru Dutt finished his schooling in 1940 and soon after took up a job as a telephone operator. During this time, in the company of his cousin Sudarshan Benegal, Guru Dutt began to photograph the animals in Alipore zoo and the plants in the Botanical Gardens.

His first performance on stage was a piece Guru Dutt choreographed and composed himself. A painting of a man with a snake coiled around his body done by BB Benegal inspired him. He performed for a function organized by the Saraswat community of Calcutta and drew a lot of applause and won a prize of Rs5 from one impressed member of the audience who was to later distribute Guru Dutt’s CID (1956).

Soon after this performance, with the help of his uncle BB Benegal and another friend of the family, a man named SR Hemmadi, Guru Dutt won a five-year scholarship of Rs75 per mensem to study dance at the Uday Shankar Culture Centre in Almora, then a part of the United Provinces and now in Uttarkhand.

Guru Dutt trained under the great Uday Shankar from 1942 to 1944. He left Almora when the culture centre had to close down. The Padukones had shifted to Bombay by then. So Guru Dutt went to Bombay to join the family. Unsure what to do next, Dutt sought the counsel of uncle BB Benegal who took him to Poona and helped him to get a three-year contract with the Prabhat Film Company and Studio as dance director, according to his biography by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

(Prabhat Film Company was originally founded in Kolhapur in 1929 by VG Damle, S Fatehlal, SV Kulkarni and V Shantaram. Four years later it moved to Poona where it set up a lavish and well-equipped studio. Prabhat, New Theatres and Bombay Talkies were considered the most influential studios of the 1930s, each producing highly acclaimed films.)

During this three-year tenure with Prabhat, Guru Dutt acted occasionally in some of the second-grade productions and also assisted the directors. Here, he patiently learnt every aspect of filmmaking.

Guru Dutt also met Dev Anand, who became a close friend for life, during the making of Dev Anand's first film as hero, Hum Ek Hain (1946), which was produced by Prabhat.

Guru Dutt left Prabhat in 1947 and returned to Bombay, where he remained unemployed for a year because of the recession that Independence and Partition had brought about. He then joined Gyan Mukerjee as assistant. Mukerjee was the famous director of Kismet (1943), India's biggest blockbuster at the time. So Guru Dutt felt privileged to assist him.

Film production had begun shifting from the studio system to the star system. Financiers who had made a lot of money on the black market during World War II offered big money, including cash payments, to actors. Technicians and music directors also began freelancing on a contractual basis, a system that continues till this day.

Brief Career Review

Baazi (1951) narrated the story of Madan (Dev Anand), a small-time gambler who takes to crime to fund the treatment of his ailing sister. Leena (Geeta Bali), the dancer, loves him, but Madan chooses Rajani (Kalpana Kartik), a young doctor. But Rajani's father (KN Singh), who runs a notorious nightclub, is aghast at his daughter's choice and tries to get rid of Madan by framing him for a murder he did not commit.

The best and most memorable element of the film is music director SD Burman's experiment with a ghazal, 'Tadbeer Se Bigdi Huee Taqdeer Bana Le', which he set to Western music (Burman, SD, Far Away from the World of Music, in Cinema Vision, Special Issue, The Golden Age of Hindi Film Music, edited by Siddharth Kak, 1983). Baazi will also be remembered for the composition and choreography of the climax song, 'Suno Gajar Kya Gaaye'.

After the success of Baazi, Guru Dutt set up his own production house and produced his first film, Baaz (1953), in which he played the hero opposite Geeta Bali.

Jaal (1952) was set in a small village under foreign rule along the West Coast. It focused on a Christian fishing community and was shot on location near Ratnagiri between Bombay and Goa. Guru Dutt's brother Atma Ram said Jaal was largely based on Bitter Rice or Riso Amaro (1949), an Italian film directed by Giuseppe De Santis, according to Nasreen Munni Kabir's biography of the filmmaker.

The film broke the stereotype of the screen Christian portrayed as a happy-go-lucky, hard-drinking, hail-fellow-well-met type. The Christian fishermen in Jaal were presented as honest and hardworking. The film received praise for its slick direction and competent narration.

Jaal was structured like a thriller, but it worked better as a love story with beautiful songs. Boats at sea, village fairs, Sunday church services, fisherfolk at work created an ambience enriched by the absence of the synthetic plasticity of a studio set.

Like many Guru Dutt films, Jaal, shot in black-and-white by VK Murthy, who shot every Guru Dutt film after this, evokes to this day a sense of nostalgia for the period it was set in.

Pyaasa (1957) is the first of Guru Dutt's masterpieces and the first of his tragic trilogy that also included Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).

Pyaasa is a romantic melodrama set in Calcutta that explores, through the sojourns of Vijay (Guru Dutt), a man's thirst for love, for recognition and for spiritual fulfilment. Guru Dutt had originally kept the end tragic but, on the suggestion of his distributors, he changed it to a more acceptable one.

Another striking element is the characterization of the two women, Meena, Vijay's girlfriend who ditches him for financial security, and Gulab, the prostitute who buys back his poems from the junk shop where they had been sold. They offer sharply defined counterpoints to each other, probably by intent, and though this intensifies the melodrama, it does not strip the film of its essential statement.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) is one of the most moving self-reflexive films made in India. According to Nasreen Munni Kabir's biography of Guru Dutt, the film is a fine and subtle tribute to the glorious days of the studio era, using its history from about the 1930s to the 1940s as its backdrop.

The film is the introspective and retrospective journey of Suresh Sinha, a once-celebrated film director who is going through a bad patch both professionally and personally. He is estranged from his wife and daughter while Shanti, the leading lady whom he had groomed to fame and glory and subsequently fallen in love with, has drifted away.

Suresh discovers that the studio floors are his last recourse and seeks refuge there, tracing back his journey. He finally comes to terms with the reality that fame and success are as ephemeral as life itself. By then, however, it is too late.

Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) is based on Bimal Mitra's Bengali literary classic Saheb, Bibi, Golam and deals with the disintegration of a great zamindari haveli (landowner's mansion) and a vanishing lifestyle as experienced by the author, according to art historian Geeti Sen in Feminine Fables: Imagining the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema (Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2002). Sen wrote in a footnote that when she met Mitra in 1990, he had mentioned that his novel was based on his own experiences of visiting havelis in Calcutta during his student days where this pattern of life continued till the 1920s.

The film, directed by Abrar Alvi, focuses on the encounter between the flamboyant lifestyle and extravagance of the decadent zamindari class and the work ethic and ideology of the new, rising middle class of the Brahmo community.

Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) is Guru Dutt's most supremely tragic heroine. One observes that none of her circumventing and transgressing acts ends on a positive note. Her conspiratorial assignments with Bhootnath (Guru Dutt), with the Mohini Sindoor as with the liquor he brings her much against his will, are doomed to failure. Her only act of transgression of the antahpur ends in death. Her burial within the precincts of the Choudhury mansion, where a shocked Bhootnath finally discovers her remains, goes against her last wish to be decked in bridal attire so that people would know she had been a dutiful wife. Her last wish remains not only unfulfilled, but also insulted.

A Premature Death

The long phases of depression he experienced, coupled with his stormy relationship with wife Geeta, make it quite obvious that Guru Dutt took his own life. He had begun to drink a lot, though he never drank during a shoot. He was an incurable insomniac. And he had already attempted suicide on a couple of occasions. Shortly before his death, he shifted to a new flat on tony Peddar Road where he lived alone with only a servant, Ratan, for company.

Geeta Roy and Guru Dutt had married on 23 May 1953 after a long courtship of three years. Geeta was born in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, and received musical training as a child from Hirendranath Nandy. In 1942, during the Quit India movement, the family left East Bengal to settle in Dadar Hindu Colony in Bombay, a short walk from the Padukones' Matunga flat.

The Roys were so poor they had to stop Geeta's music lessons and push her into professional singing. Music director Hanuman Prasad introduced her in Bhakta Prahlad (1946). Her first big hit was the song 'Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya' under the baton and mentoring of SD Burman for Do Bhai (1947).

Geeta Roy worked with all the leading music directors of her time and was already a popular playback singer when the Padukones first met her during the mahurat (auspicious first shot) of Baazi.

The Roys were doubtful about Geeta's marriage to Guru Dutt because she was already famous and earning well and their primary source of sustenance while Guru Dutt was still quite unknown and earned little compared to her. Also, they suspected Guru Dutt of marrying her for her earning power.

After marriage, Geeta Dutt rarely sang for films other than those made under her husband's banner, though she continued to be much in demand.

When Guru Dutt died of an overdose of sleeping pills on 10 October 1964, he left behind Geeta, their three young children Tarun, Arun and Nina, his production banner, one unfinished film, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, a remake of an old New Theatres hit with KL Saigal called President (1937), his lifelong friends in cinema, and his loving brothers and sister.

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966) had to be re-shot completely with Dharmendra stepping into the role of the hero in the triangular love story. It flopped.

Guru Dutt's works stood out among other Indian films made in the 1950s that began to feature at international festivals in France, Italy and the USA. Some of his films were shown on British television while Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) were released in Parisian cinemas. Pyaasa was also featured in a festival of Indian films in Tokyo.

Few back then would have guessed the kind of international and critical acclaim Guru Dutt's films would draw in course of time. Death, ironically, brought him the kind of recognition that echoed his own feelings in Pyaasa, that a true artist is valued only after he is gone. This applied just as well to another of his great contemporaries, Ritwik Ghatak.

Though the Dutts had had a stormy married life, Geeta loved Guru and rebuffed all offers of marriage after his death. She was still quite young, barely in her mid-30s, and still very much in demand career-wise. But she became dependent on alcohol after her husband's passing and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1972. Her songs remain archived in the history of Indian film music.