A colour still featuring Guru Dutt in the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand

Chaudhvin ka Doosra Chand

Guru Dutt in a scene from PyaasaI had earlier written that I initially didn’t find Guru Dutt good-looking, at least not in the conventional sense and especially when compared with some of his contemporaries like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. The last, who was a good friend of GD, may well have had the charm and swag of all the other three combined. Contrast that with GD’s scruffy, shoddy appearance in most of his movies, even those under his banner. But that could be due to the characters he played – folk out of luck and as a result, often on the road.

In his later films though, especially the last few, done for outside banners, GD’s looks were more conventionally appealing – once he took off his moustache, it would seem. He looked appropriately innocent as the ingénue Bhootnath in his Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) and an intriguing combination of innocent and charming in movies like Bahurani (1963), Sanjh aur Savera (1964), and Suhagan (1965), the last releasing after his tragically early demise in 1964. In Sanjh aur Savera especially, he looked notably handsome as the well-to-do, well-meaning doctor. Initial stills of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (which he left incomplete due to his death and which released in 1966 with Dharmendra replacing GD) show him to have a confident and self-assured manner and appeal. Possibly the reason two women vied for his attention in the film.

Guru Dutt, Rehman and Mala Sinha in a still from Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

A still from the earlier version of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

However, it took me an even longer time (I’ve seen all his films at least once, except Baharen) to realise GD was actually very fair. This could be due to the same reason of the man-on-the-road characters he played. (He even had grease marks on his face in a song from Aar-Paar, where he plays a taxi driver-cum-garage hand.) However, it could also be because all his films were in B&W (apart from the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand, which he also shot in colour). Added to that, GD was the guru of light-and-shadow cinematography and his movies were very atmospheric, and atmospheric in B&W meant a lot more B than W.

Painter Lalitha LajmiIt was only when I started reading up a bit about his family (his parents and siblings) and saw his sister, Lalitha Lajmi’s photos and videos, that I realised GD was quite fair, in fact, very. Then, on closer look in some of his movies, I could see a deep 5 o’ clock shadow. He may have been fairer than Dev Anand, as fair as Dilip Kumar and just a bit less than Raj Kapoor.

Why, there could well have been a second version of the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand, a female version, with Waheeda Rehman’s wife character, Jameela, serenading him with the same words: “Chaudhvin ka chand ho, ya aftab ho…”

And, to do my number, GD could well have been called… Gora Dutt.

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Guru Dutt in a scene from Mr and Mrs '55

The Artist, the Humanist

‘What can I say about this great city that hasn’t been said before?’

In Wake up Sid, Konkana Sen Sharma’s character, Aisha Banerjee, is caught up with this deliberation, while planning her debut piece for the magazine where she’s been working a couple months. The monthly, Mumbai Beats, is about the eponymous city in question, and Aisha decides to name her column New Girl in the City, having arrived in Bombay / Mumbai (the city’s referred to by both names in the film) those few months ago. In the end, after several crumpled sheets of paper and some inputs from Sid, she decides to write from a personal place. Her love for the city, she realises, comes from the love she’s found with the guy (Sid) she met on her first night in Bombay.

When planning this tribute piece, I had a similar rumination. ‘What can I say about this genius artist that hasn’t been said before?’ There are over 10 books on him, one feature-length documentary, regular mentions in biographies of his contemporaries, and countless articles and videos on the net. In the end, like Aisha, I decided to pen from my personal perspective.

Cover of Nasreen Munni Kabir's documentary, In Search of Guru DuttLike Aisha to Bombay, I’ve come to Guru Dutt recently, but what I’ve lacked in time, I’ve made up with loads of intensity. I’ve watched all his films (directed, produced and acted, both under his banner and outside) and the documentary at least twice over; read all those books (and also the one on his wife, Geeta); consumed copious content about him on the net. And got consumed in the process.

While I’ve of course come to heart him as an artist (and here, I include all his talents of direction, acting, song picturization, choreography and cinematography), I realised, perhaps just like Aisha to Sid, what drew me to him was something personal: humanism. His own, as well as that of his characters. And in the case of GD (as he is fondly referred to by many), those two universes are pretty much the same.

It’s there right in the opening scene of his most loved and worshipped film, Pyaasa. The poet Vijay is being perfectly poet-like: lying in a field, casting casual glances at the gentle ways and sways of nature. Fittingly inspired, soft couplets emerge from his soul and being, nature acting as the muse and the idol. The poet’s blissful eye then moves to a bumblebee come to grace, or rob, a flower. Soon, heavy and intoxicated with fresh, sweet nectar, the bee decides to lull on the ground… only to be crushed the next instant by an onrushing foot. The poet is devastated by this turn of nature, and decides to hasten back to the real world.

 

Then, the names of his characters themselves. Hardly ever with a surname (be it Vijay of Pyaasa or Preetam of Mr & Mrs ’55), or if so, then of indeterminate community or region (Kalu Birju of Aar-Paar, Suresh Sinha of Kaagaz ke Phool and Ajoy Kumar of 12 O’Clock). Although his parents and he were Karnataka-born, GD was often taken to be Bengali. He had spent his formative years in then Calcutta, could speak the language fluently, had shortened and split his name (from Gurudutt Shivashankar Padukone, which itself was changed from Vasanthkumar Shivashankar Padukone after an astrologer’s advice) to the Bengaliesque Guru Dutt, and of course, got married to Geeta Roy. Notwithstanding his great love for all things Cal and Bengal (evidenced in many of his movies), GD himself is known to have said, “I am part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian…”

And then, the characters themselves. People either living on the streets or cast onto them through choice or circumstance (the four successive movies from Aar-Paar to Kaagaz ke Phool); working hard and honest to manage a living (from the sweaty fisherman’s cameo in the self-directed Jaal to the simpleton farmer in Bharosa to the earnest professor in his last film, Suhagan); or even if they are presently well-off, have emerged from bare beginnings (from Aslam who comes to eventually reside in a mansion in Chaudhvin ka Chand to the doctor who has toiled to own a house and car in Sanjh aur Savera). And of course, GD’s most celebrated and touching character – the creative soul seeking the artist’s recognition but not through the soul’s capitulation (Pyaasa and Kaagaz).

Screen grab of Waheeda Rehman's name appearing before Guru Dutt's in the credits of Chaudhvin ka ChandAs my discovery of GD deepened, I uncovered further examples of (t)his humanism. Some were right there at the start – in the opening credits of his movies. For all the films he both produced and acted in (through his film company), the name of his leading lady always appeared before his. Be it the lesser-established Shyama in Aar-Paar, the striving Mala Sinha during Pyaasa, the luminous and firmly-established Meena Kumari of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or his frequent co-star Waheeda Rehman. This was 60 years before SRK pledged the same in 2013 (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema), starting with Chennai Express.

Screen grab of the supporting cast credits in Chaudhvin ka Chand, with Uma Devi's name as the second in the fourth lineStill on opening titles, this next had me signed and sealed on GD’s side. In most of his movies (again, the ones made by his company), the comedienne Tun Tun, who acted in several of them, was credited under her real name, Uma Devi. In other words, in GD’s films, she was referred to as a lady, rather than a sound.

In an especially lit scene of Mr & Mrs ’55, the high-society women’s activist, Seeta Devi (Madhubala’s character, Anita’s aunt played by Lalita Pawar), both sizes up and sympathizes with the meagre room where Preetam (GD’s character) puts up, and can’t help asking how he manages to live so. Preetam promptly replies that she’s possibly not aware that a good part of India lives this way; his condition, at least, is better than many of them. Piqued by his strident response, she parleys, “Kya tum communist ho?” (“Are you a communist?”). He volleys right back, “Jee nahi, cartoonist hoon.” (“No, just a cartoonist.”) Aunt, and accompanying assistant, then swivel their necks to notice the artworks of numerous cartoons filling up the hovel’s interiors.

To that, this fan / admirer would simply like to add, “And a humanist too.”

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

A collage of scenes from the song Heer toh badi sad hai from Tamasha

Songs for Your Eyes

Tamasha was my favourite film of 2015, and among other things about the movie, I love the two songs, Heer toh badi sad hai and Agar tum saath ho. I watched the movie again recently, and have been watching the two songs quite often on YouTube since then. Actually, I’ve been watching one (Heer) and listening to the other (Agar). I tried only listening to Heer, but somehow, found something missing. I tried watching Agar, and that I liked as much as the song. I wasn’t able to figure out why this was so, but I wasn’t really giving deep thought to it. Eventually though, it struck me.

Heer (a brooding, pining song, in lyrics; the vocals are actually quite exuberant) takes the story forward. If you take out the song from the film (so many Hindi film / Bollywood songs are considered dispensable), there’s a jump in the story / screenplay, and you’ll be wondering what happened in the interim.

 

Take away Agar (a sorrowful, pained-in-love-and-heartbreak song), and the story / screenplay still works: you won’t feel something was amiss. It’s just there to demonstrate the anguish on both sides.

 

A Heer kind of a song seems a rarity in Hindi films these days, especially now that many songs nowadays are in the background, just an intro tune, an item song, or even just a promo song. Songs overall seem to be fewer these days, due to a shortening of the overall film length itself.

And this gave an answer to why, as much as I love Guru Dutt’s films, songs and song treatments (he was considered, well, the guru of song picturizations), I am never able to just listen to them, but need to watch them to drink in all the joy.

Jaane woh kaise log the is my favourite song of all time (not just of a GD film), and is sung by my favourite Hindi film singer of all time (Hemant Kumar). And my heart aches and breaks and anguishes whenever I watch it – over the lyrics, over their meaning, over GD’s expressions, over HK’s emotions… (My heart also aches and breaks and anguishes whenever I watch Pyaasa, but’s an entire book.) But, when I tried just listening to it… Nothing much. It even felt a little flat.

 

But now, take away Jaane from the movie (unthinkable), and you’ll miss the comments and takes on love, break-up, heartbreak; the situation in life the two main actors find themselves in; the reactions from the spouse of one of them; the social commentary about the lives of creative people… In fact, I dare say this is the movie in one song.

In contrast, you listen to another HK beauty, the absolutely melodious Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum. A simple, middle-class, married couple crooning a simple, pleasant song about their immense love for each other. However, take away the song, and from the scenes that come before and after, you’ll still be informed of the love they have for one another.

 

That seems to be case with almost all of GD’s songs, from the movies he produced / directed / acted in. Which is why, after downloading all those songs to listen to, I find myself not doing so.

Here, for instance, is my numero uno GD song when it comes to picturization. If inclined, first, just listen to the song, and then watch it. You’ll know all the joys you miss with just the audio version.

 

That the songs in GD’s films were tightly meshed with the rest of the film is a well-known thing. He also wanted the song to begin without any preamble tune – else people would know a song was coming up and would exit for a cigarette break. Also, it had to be an extension of the dialogue. (From the same movie, think Jaane kya tune kahi.) Clearly, GD was one clever filmmaker.

Really, if you simply sun sun sun (listen, listen, listen) to any of GD’s songs, that will be a rather zalim(a) (cruel) thing to do. And also, a bada sad thing. And clearly, I am one clever writer.

Deepika Padukone picking up a copy of Catch-22 in Tamasha

Spectacular: All the Symbolism in Tamasha

Catch-22.

That’s the book Ved, Ranbir Kapoor’s character, is reading when Tara, Deepika Padukone’s character, meet and do their matargashti in Corsica, in Tamasha (2015), my favourite film of that year.

The title of Joseph Heller’s cult book, which added, well, a catch-all phrase to the dictionary, aptly sums up Ved’s life (and work) when his and Tara’s paths cross again after a few years, this time though introducing each other with their real names. (In Corsica, they resolve to go with the spirit of getting away, and decide to eschew the standard path that follows after a meet-cute: no hi’s, no hook-ups.) Ved now, as Tara grasps, is caught between doing what he loves (theatre, the tamasha in the title) and what he is supposed to do according to society and dad. He chooses the latter, and only after Tara re-enters his life, does he realise he is anguished because of the decision.

But the symbolisms in Tamasha don’t end there.

The stamp of Social 110066 on the titular page of Catch-22 in TamashaThe inside titular page of the book bears the name of the place where he picked up the book from: Social 110066 (in Hindi), the Hauz Khas Social in Delhi, the number referring to the area pin-code. So, Ved is basically trying to be… social. When Tara turns down his proposal, she tells him that “a polite, well-behaved product manager” is not who she likes or is looking for, but rather “the guy who talks to mountains and drinks water from a stream directly with his mouth… like an animal”.

Also, the number 110066 appears within parentheses that look like they are book-ending him. Dev is trapped from both sides.

It goes on.

‘Tara’ is the ‘star’ that enlightens the truth to him, relights the fire within him and illuminates the path for him. ‘Ved’ has the ‘knowledge’ of his destiny inside him, but perhaps needed a star to shine its light on the path to it.

And if I have to push it, what does Tara do herself? She is the scion of a business family that is into tea import-export (the company named Darjeeling Impex in the film). Tea. The drink that invigorates. Enough for Ved to get charged up and work toward giving his audiences many a tamasha (spectacle).

And if all this isn’t enough, the melancholic Heer toh badi sad hai song. Where the performers are singing and dancing in what seems to be a Haryana village – about Heer, that is, Tara, who is actually in Calcutta / Kolkata.

 

How come? Because Heer doesn’t know who this guy she is sighing over and pining for is, his name or his place of domicile, in her mind – given his behaviour and how full of life he is – he would most probably be from a place where people are known for their loud, boisterous enthusiasm for and celebration of life. So, Delhi, Punjab or… Haryana.

And oh, Tara’s favourite book? Of course, Asterix in Corsica.

A collage of scenes from Pyaasa

Personal. Victory.

Vijay. It’s such an apt name for Guru Dutt’s poet character in Pyaasa. The poet who is despondent with the way society treats artists and the way the world treats women. Who, frustrated with his lack of success, rushes off to fling himself before a train mid-way through the movie. Who leaves it all – fame and fans – behind to walk away into the sunset to a far-off place with a streetwalker. ‘Victory’ is an apt name for this character? Absolutely.

Vijay, or Bijoy (as the Bengali pronunciation goes), is victorious from beginning to end. He refuses to sell out as a poet, not interested in catering to easy, romantically inclined readers. He refuses to have anything to do with people who spurn him when he was struggling and are quick to establish a relation with him once he gains fame. He refuses the recognition that comes from vanquishing an artist’s soul.

As he walks away into the sunset, hand-in-hand with Gulaab, “to a place far from here, from where he doesn’t have to go far anymore”, you get the feeling of Vijay setting off on his own, small, personal victory march. You celebrate a little bit with him, and if similarly inclined, feel like following him on that march. Happy. Ending.

Some other time, await a post on the symbolism of the names of the characters GD has played in his movies, at least the well-known ones.

 

A B&W photo of Sahir Ludhianvi

Passion and Perception

I came to Sahir Ludhianvi in the way I’m coming to most artists and Hindi films of the 50s and 60s presently: through Guru Dutt. Sahir had penned the lyrics for four of GD’s films: three directed by him (Baazi, 1951; Jaal, 1952; Pyaasa, 1957) and one by T Prakash Rao (Bahurani, 1963), which had GD opposite Mala Sinha again after Pyaasa. The first three all had music by S D Burman and the last by C Ramachandra. Sahir and SD never worked together after Pyaasa, and that also forms a part of this piece.

I learnt a bit about Sahir (real name, Abdul Hayee) through all the amounts I’ve read on GD, and then started reading a bit about him through other sources. I don’t think I’ll end up wanting to discover anyone from those times (or before or after) the way I have done with GD. So, I thought the best way to find out more about Sahir at one go would be through his biography by Akshay Manwani.

While waiting for the book to arrive and while reading a few other pieces on him, the first and constant remark I would encounter about him would be: ‘He was arrogant.’ Couple that with, so to speak, his rough visage, with pock marks and all (although he was a strapping six-footer), and you begin nodding in assent.

The cover of the book on Sahir Ludhianvi by Akshay ManwaniBut Manwani’s book does a lovely and necessary flip of that statement. Manwani is empathetic to Sahir (the way perhaps Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar was to the Talwars), beginning with how he zeroed in on which lyricist of the golden age of Hindi cinema he wanted to write a book on. Apart from the body and quality of work, Manwani decided to write on a singleton, as he would possibly have no kin in the years to come to hold forth on him (unlike the way GD’s younger son, Arun Dutt, took his legacy forward while he was alive).

Manwani spends some time – just the right amount – decoding Sahir’s “arrogance”, discussing it only in the latter parts of the book. This perception about Sahir comes from various notions and actions of his. He would ask to be paid Re 1 more than the music director, with the firm belief that the lyricist was more important to a film’s music than the latter. For most of Sahir’s movies, the music director would weave a melody around Sahir’s words rather than the usual practice of writing to a tune. And finally, Sahir’s words weren’t lyrics, they were poetry. In both a descriptive way of speaking as well as, erm, a poetic way of doing so.

Pyaasa itself owes a lot to Sahir’s association with the movie. Apart from Vijay, Guru Dutt’s despairing poet in the film being modelled around Sahir (only the profile, the philosophy was all GD’s), the lyrics Sahir penned for the movie are considered among the best in world cinema of any time. A few weeks after it released, after it became a hit, new posters were put out carrying lyrics of some songs and with Sahir’s name either prominent or ahead of SDB in the credits. This may have led to the clash between Sahir and SDB, which eventually had them parting ways.

Sahir just wanted to bring focus to the art of poetry and its significance in the movies. If that is considered arrogant, never mind how oversimplified, reductionist or binary that reading is, so be it. In keeping with the soul of Pyaasa, when is the true artist ever rightly understood?