In an interview, actor Waheeda Rehman described an episode that had occurred during the filming of Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). An extra who had been trying to pacify her crying infant was being cruelly berated for missing work by a senior on the set when director Guru Dutt had chanced upon the scene. Unhappy at the way things had been conducted, he had insisted that she attend to her child first. This incident which ultimately made it to the film’s final cut, Rehman says, offered a glimpse of the kind of person Dutt was in real life. It also was a peek into how easily he bled into the characters he created for the screen. Dutt’s artistic persona—a sensitive, perceptive individual often with creative aspirations of his own who is profoundly affected by the injustices and sadness he sees in the world—overlapped significantly, biographies attest, with Dutt’s real self. While speculations around his troubled personal life were rife, Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool were also considered deeply autobiographical, especially for the almost surreal way they prefigured events to come.
The 1950s and ‘60s witnessed the flourishing of a golden age in Hindi cinema, with popular filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan along with Guru Dutt producing some of its most enduring classics. In a relatively short career spanning less than two decades, Dutt worked on crime thrillers, noirs and romantic comedies in the early years and then gradually gravitated towards the melodrama where his focus became not just the individual but also the larger social structures around her or him. His themes changed substantially too. While early films like Aar Paar (1954) and Mr. & Mrs. ’55 (1955) hinted at a lighter, playful side, darker themes like that of the jaded artist in an uncaring world, unrequited love, and death began to recur in the later works. His vision of the world became increasingly tragic and hopeless, so much so that even in the absence of his persona or his directorial interventions, it seeped into many of the later films produced by his company. Dutt worked regularly with a preferred set of collaborators which included the likes of cinematographer V.K. Murthy, writer Abrar Alvi, and music composer S.D. Burman, to name a few. The result was the development of a distinct style which included superior black and white images, emotive close-ups, lyrical dialogue, and soulful songs. Throughout his career, Dutt was largely a commercially successful director, but following the failure of Kaagaz Ke Phool— now ironically regarded a classic—he refused to take directorial credit again. Hence even though Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) in their overall tone and style point to Dutt’s overarching vision, their directorial credits lie with M. Sadiq and Abrar Alvi respectively.
Both Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam begin in ruin. In the former, a gaunt, decrepit figure lumbers through a studio backlot and slowly finds his way into an empty soundstage. In the latter, an overseer surveys the damage wrought by time and neglect on a mansion even as his workers chip away at its last vestiges. Both are sites of former glory and in both, the once-impressive and long-lost past is viewed through the reminiscences of the Guru Dutt character. Memory both fuels and structures the films’ narratives, clearly distinguishing a splendid past from the evidently bleak present.
In Kaagaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s Suresh Sinha was once the acclaimed and yet lonely filmmaker operating within Bombay’s studio era who, while adapting the classic Bengali novel Devdas for the screen, found new talent and love in the young Shanti (Waheeda Rehman). Losing her, however, set him, like the eponymous hero of the film he was making, on an alcohol-propelled path to self-destruction. Curiously, the actor supposedly playing Devdas in the film within Kaagaz’s film remains absent, strengthening further the character’s ties to Sinha/Dutt himself, seeing especially how often Dutt doubled as actor in his own films. However, it is not only the director who falls from grace in Kaagaz. In true Guru Dutt tradition, so does the larger structure he had once flourished within. The movie business itself is seen as shallow, fickle and money-hungry, and Sinha’s decline also significantly signals the rise of a star-centered system where directors are dispensable, as opposed to the film’s performers.
Contrasting fortunes and trajectories are also at the heart of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s story. Naïve, young Bhootnath (Dutt) arrives at the Chaudhuri mansion in the heyday of the zamindari (landowning) system in Bengal and watches with wide-eyed fascination as the grandeur, excess and decadence of the aristocracy unfold before him. Progressively, as Bhootnath gains in wisdom and social status, the people he watches from the sidelines hurtle towards bankruptcy and ruin. The fact that by the end of the film he has not only risen socially and economically but has also physically outlived them marks the dawning of a new time where rank and inheritance lose out to a newly emerging ethic around work and vocation. Moreover, as in Kaagaz Ke Phool, it is the physical space which still holds traces of the old splendour that evokes the past and also frames the narrative by bringing the story back to where it began.
For Vijay (Dutt) in Pyaasa however, it is the future which, through an ironic turn of fate, brings fame and fortune. The present is dreary yet again. When we meet the poet for the first time in the film, we realise that the world has steadily turned away from him. He is poor, unemployed and struggling to get his verse published. No one sees any value in his work. His brothers shun him for what they see as idle behaviour while his flashbacks reveal how his former girlfriend cast him aside choosing security instead in the form of a wealthy husband. Vijay is perhaps Dutt’s most distilled and despairing vision of the artist—isolated, exploited and suffering in a morally impoverished society where humanistic values are on the decline. It is upon Vijay’s presumed death that recognition finally pours in, but by the time he comes back to attend his own memorial meeting, he has seen enough of the world’s materialism and selfishness to reject it and declare sorrowfully in one of the film’s many classic songs: “Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai” (“Would I care if such a world were mine?”). The fate of the artist who is lauded only after his untimely death tragically foreshadows the way things were to turn out in Dutt’s own life and career.
Author and television producer Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has done significant work on Dutt’s life and films, has spoken of the symbolic use of the staircase in Pyaasa, describing how all the significant exchanges between Vijay and Gulab (Waheeda Rehman) in the film take place on it. A liminal space, neither completely private nor wholly public, it is where the poet and prostitute meet many times, their growing bond similarly beyond the purview of clearly demarcated boundaries. In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, after being shot, Bhootnath recuperates in what is described by a servant as a chor (here, “secret”) room, “both in and not in the zenana (the women’s quarters)”. It leads to a door which opens directly into the private room of the film’s central figure, the younger daughter-in-law of the house – the beautiful Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari), upon whose instructions he has been shifted there so that he can be better cared for. Like his room then, Bhootnath too occupies a liminal space which allows him to move in and out of the women’s quarters when called for and with relative freedom; a movement certainly made possible by his lower social status. His class (he is the ghulam—servant—of the title’s triptych) has rendered him less conspicuous.
However, in a world where only confining spaces are allotted to upper-class women, as in Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, men’s entry into female spaces may go unpunished, but the same does not hold true for women. Chaudhvin, set in Lucknow and full of stunning set pieces, is a tale about male friendship, sacrifice and feminine beauty and drives its narrative forward through a central confusion about a woman’s identity. In the film which has been described as a Muslim social, Jameela’s (Waheeda Rehman’s) entry into the mardana (place in the house reserved for men) sets in motion a series of events that will ultimately lead her husband Aslam (Dutt) to not only the truth but also the tragic decision of killing himself. In Sahib on the other hand, when the intoxicated Chhoti Bahu steps out of her demarcated quarters in a final and desperate bid to save her feckless husband’s life, she is squarely punished with death.
Finally, Guru Dutt’s place in Indian cinema, specifically with regard to its long-existing division between the commercial and “parallel” categories, remains somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, his reliance on the traditional modes of melodrama and songs ensured his use of the popular idiom. Songs, in particular, are very effectively employed in his films. They drive the story forward, are ways of expressing the films’ deep emotional core, and in Pyaasa become a vehicle for the poet’s art itself. Dutt’s knack for choreographing songs is also evident in instances like Kaagaz Ke Phool’s exquisite “Waqt ne qiya kya haseen sitam,” (“The sweet sorrows that time has inflicted”) where a beam of light separates the two central characters even as their souls meet halfway. At the same time, Dutt’s emphasis on form, mood and atmosphere, particularly through the ingenious use of light and shadow, brought him closer to the traditions of art cinema. Commercially successful and yet formally rigorous, Dutt’s films too, like Bhootnath then, continue to occupy an in-between space within the larger traditions of Indian cinema.