The Films of Guru Dutt

Like Alfred Hitchcock in the US, Guru Dutt never strayed outside the confines of mainstream cinema. He played by the rules for almost the whole of his career; his only foray into artier turf, Kaagaz ke Phool, was a box office bomb. But like Hitchcock his sequences redefined how movies could be shot; his technical prowess and storytelling genius made all the conventions of pop cinema new again.

Guru Dutt in "Kaagaz Ke Phool"Kaagaz ke Phool (1959)
From the "Golden Age" in India (the fifties), it's the Bollywood Citizen Kane, directed by and starring Guru Dutt (picture to left). He avoided the long Wellesian decline of commercial obscurity and wine commercials by killing himself at the age of 39. Kaagaz was a commercial and critical disaster (Guru Dutt never "signed" another film as director) but has only gained stature since its release in 1959. It is a rare behind-the-scenes look at Indian filmmaking, the story of the decline of a gifted director after a divorce settlement separates him from his daughter. His protege Waheeda Rehman goes on to stardom while he goes on a terminal bender.

Ace cinematographer V.K. Murthy's lighting is exquisite, done with only a fraction of the budget and equipment available to a Hollywood DP. There is an amazing moment in a deserted film studio where Waheeda walks into and out of darkness through a beam of reflected sunlight while, on the track, Geeta Dutt sings the classic "Waqt Ne Kiya." It's worthy of Gregg Toland. Nobody ever picturized a song like Guru Dutt, and his treatment of song sequences is still influential today. For instance, Dutt instructed his music directors to always begin with solo voice; there is rarely an instrumental introduction, as he wanted the smoothest possible transition between dialogue and song.

cinemascope Kaagaz Ke PhoolKaagaz is also India's first widescreen picture, shot with Cinemascope lenses leased from 20th Century Fox. A flat version was shot at the same time and this version has become the only one available to modern viewers. As far we know there's only one Cinemascope print still in existence (the negatives decayed long ago) and it's in the collection of the National Film Archive of India in Pune, where my family and I saw it in March of 2007. I took the picture to the left standing in the middle of the Archive's auditorium, just to prove that a scope version exists!

Johnny Walker in PyaasaPyaasa (1957)
is Guru Dutt's most commercially successful picture and yet another major film about a poet. The scribe in question is portrayed by Guru Dutt, and the film follows his quest for a degree of commercial success, or at least some sort of recognition from society as he is cast out by his brothers, exploited by a rich publisher, and finally imprisoned in an asylum after a mistaken-identity incident worthy of Sullivans Travels. He finds his only true friends among street vendors and prostitutes; head masseur Johnny Walker (see photo above) rescues him from the asylum, while prostitute Waheeda Rehman arranges for the publication of his poems. The poet finds fame only after he is believed to be dead. The hypocrisy and moral rot of society is revealed to him in the process; finally he denys his authorship and walks away into the fog with Waheeda.

Comic sidekick Johnny Walker was part of Guru Dutt's repertory company and featured in all of his pictures from Baazi to the very end. Though Indian comedy doesn't translate well — something that is probably true of all national comic traditions — Walker brings more than shtick to the proceedings, often showing emotional depth as well (in 1958 he won a Filmfare award, India's equivalent of the Oscar, for a best supporting actor turn in Madhumati). He became a much-loved personality in India, with copious eulogies published upon his death in 2003. Pyaasa's most famous tune, "Sar Jo Tera Chakraye" ("Maalish! Tel Maalish!"), is picturized upon Walker as grabs a client off the street and gives him a hair-oil massage.

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi aur GhulamSahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
Though Dutt is not the director of this film (it was screenwriter and good friend Abrar Alvi who took the helm instead), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master, Wife, and Slave) is a Guru Dutt film in every way, and perhaps his finest. After the commercial and critical failure of Kaaghaz Ke Phool, he never allowed his name to be associated with the direction of any of his productions again, perhaps considering it unlucky. Alvi had been a critical part of Gutt's team since Aar-Paar in 1954, and his work on Sahib was his only outing as director. He notes in his recent memoir that he more or less barred Guru Dutt from the set at times in order to work without interference; as it was, Dutt still showed up for the song sequences and Alvi finally absented himself on those occasions.

This film represents one of Meena Kumari's final moments on the screen. As the wife of a philandering zamindar (feudal landlord), virturally imprisoned in the huge house she shares with her brother-in-law and dozens of servants, she begins a furtive friendship with a naive newcomer who has become part of the house retinue. Confiding only in village innocent Boothnath (played by Guru Dutt), she does everything to win the love of her husband, finally even learning to drink — your good girl's gonna go bad — so she can hang with him during his epic binges. It all ends badly. V.K. Murthy's cinematography in this film is worthy of anything in the John Ford canon; scenes of the ruined mansion that begin the movie's long flashback look like Piranesi etchings.

Other seminal pictures from Guru Dutt: Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1961), C.I.D. (1956), and Baazi (1951).

Waheeda Rehman in Guide
Guru Dutt

Waheeda Rehman in Guide
Poster for "Kaagaz Ke Phool," a Guru Dutt
masterpiece and the first widescreen Indian film.

Waheeda Rehman in Guide
Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt in
Dutt's biggest hit, "Pyaasa."

Waheeda Rehman in Kagaaz Ke Phool
Poster for "Pyaasa"

Waheeda Rehman in Kagaaz Ke Phool
Poster for "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam"

Poster for Kaaghaz Ke Phool
Another poster for "Kaagaz Ke Phool."
Note the Cinemascope reference.