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

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Newly wed couple, where the groom looks doubtful and the bride pensive

Male, Single | Problems Solved

I think I should finally get married. It will solve problems of getting a rental flat easily; getting a bigger rental flat easily (“Why does a single guy need a 2BHK??”); at the risk of sounding misogynistic, having home-cooked food available readily; and most of all, being asked at every turn and corner: “You are still single??” One of these days, I’ll really turn around and corner them with my equivalent of that question, “You are still married??”

I could have a marriage of convenience (as if most marriages aren’t that already). Marriage of convenience, because I ain’t too hot about the three pillars of marriage: kids, women and marriage itself. (Straight, gay, bi, I don’t think anyone can understand women completely, except perhaps other women. And then, they go and feel jealous of each other.)

She and I could rent or buy a double-bed flat. So, she gets her space and me mine. Nothing has to happen within our closed doors. Outside those closed doors, we can pretend to be like every other couple pretending to be a happy couple.

Of course, a year or so later, people will begin asking, “Why don’t you have kids yet??”

Then, of course, we could adopt. Or better still, do IVF and address the next question in advance, “How about a second kid as company to junior?”

The ending of Pyaasa, where Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman's characters walk away into the distance

Full. Filling.

‘I was waiting for him outside his office. But it looked like he would take long, so I crossed the corridor to stand at the balustrade. From the first floor of the school building (my friend’s an administrator there), I could oversee the football field just in front, the basketball court just beyond, and school-kids hard at play on both the two surfaces as well as around them. The view was covered just a bit by a big, solid tree on the left that rose to the height of the building.

‘In the shaded interiors of the tree, my attention went to a small bird descending from its flight onto a slender branch. As it landed and perched, a leaf, responding to the visitor’s weight, was rendered loose and then started making its own descent to the bottom of the tree, now swaying to the left, now to the right, now left, now right… I followed its journey, although brief, right to the ground.’

“Yeah…” my friend smiled. “Even the first time you narrated this to me, it felt good in some way.”

That, to me, is humanism. Attention to the smaller things in life. And the small joys derived from them.

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

No doubt, my favourite humanist these days (and perhaps for eternity), Guru Dutt, felt the same way. Which is perhaps why he came up to the future and borrowed my vignette. His most satisfying and appreciated film (and mine too), Pyaasa, begins with GD’s character, the poet Vijay, lying in a field. As the opening titles end, you hear a verse floating, somewhat like that leaf. The verse gets suspended next, for Vijay turns and lies on his stomach, his hands folded beneath this chin. He glances around, with all the time in the world. A bumblebee flits to a flower, then descends to the grass. Vijay follows its intoxicated path. The next moment, Vijay’s face is crushed: a hastily arriving foot crushes the bee beneath, the bee perhaps having been too somnolent to stir. He is shaken from his mid-day reverie, gets up, and hastens out of this fragile paradise.

When a movie begins like this, you are no doubt pyaasa (thirsty) for more. By the end, as Vijay walks away into the sunset with his companion, the streetwalker Gulaab, you are left feeling very, very poorna (fulfilled).

Ok, not entirely. You wish GD could have done this in real life too.

Guru Dutt holding a pipe and surrounded by a cloud of smoke in Kaagaz ke Phool

Guru Latt

Guru Dutt developed a drinking “problem” in his later years. And his death, some people say, rather than suicide, could have been a case of a lethal combination of heavy drinking that night along with an overdose of the sleeping pills he used to have.

However, what not many seem to notice / talk about is his smoking. And this, while not being judgmental, is a “problem” with or without quotes. I obviously don’t know how much he smoked, but in so many pix, including those for which he posed, he holds a ciggie in his hand.

Collage of two photos of Guru Dutt, each with him holding a cigarette in his hand while posing for the camera

Why, in both songs of his abandoned Picnic (possibly 1960), he is shown having a light, though this could be more an attribute of his on-screen character than his off-screen one.

Song 1 from Picnic, featuring Sadhana

 

Song 2 from Picnic, featuring Helen

 

He seemed to be so wedded to the ciggie, I was tempted to title this piece Guru Butt, but then I realised how that sounded. So, Guru Latt (addiction in Hindi) it was.

Of course, if I had lived around his time and somehow had access to him (ah, we wish, don’t we), both for the smoking habit and for the desire to give up on life, I would have exhorted him simply, “Guru, Matt.” (Guru, Don’t.) But sigh, we wish, don’t we.

Graphic of a man in office wear casting a shadow of a superhero

Whole and Soul

I have never had a role model. And for a long time, if only for a bit, that would weigh me down. Especially when I would see others happily citing everyone from Gandhi to Branson to Chopra (both Deepak and Priyanka). I used to wonder if something was amiss in my personality development by not having some big footsteps to follow.

Bollywood actor, Boman IraniThe closest I have come though has been Boman Irani. Mainly because he “made it” “quite late”. (At 44, my present age. And I trust I am still “struggling”.) Boman comes across as a nice and genuine chap, with no airs. I even used to follow him on FB, and found his shares the most sincere of the few celebs I would follow. He even liked a comment of mine on his very cute grandson. But I eventually unfollowed him. While I wasn’t looking at him as a role model, somewhere, this celebrity follow thing doesn’t work for me. No offence, Boman. Although if I were to catch him in person now (I did see him during the launch of his first Bollywood movie, Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk, back in 2002), I could still go schoolgirl-blush on him. Yup, he’s cool.

I eventually figured it out. When you are as individualistic and hatke (unconventional) as I am, you can’t have a role model. You are your own model, and perhaps for other individualistic and unconventional folk too. So, I started feeling easy about this don’t have a role model thing, and started allowing myself to just be myself.

And then, Guru Dutt happened.

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

When I started watching his movies in this intense discovery phase of mine, I could identify with the “tortured creative soul” he was, and not just in his movies. (GD is one of those few artistes, if not the only one, who put out a lot of himself, along with his world view, in his movies.) It was easy: I am a tortured creative soul myself.

And as I started and finished watching all his movies (directed, produced, acted) and started and am on the way to finishing all books on him, I began feeling more and more of a kinship with him. The same feelings of humanism toward the world, the same feelings of not being accurately understood by others, the same desire to be and remain a purist – or as I say, a truist (all themes in the glorious Pyaasa), the same desire to be uncompromising (brought out to a brutal extent in Kaagaz ke Phool), and the same anguish that comes from having these attitudes and making the choices that go with these.

Somewhere, across the time-space continuum, across the close to 10 years between his death and my birth, across the over 50 years after he passed away that I discovered him, getting to “get” him only through the written word (others’) and created visuals (his), I find that he could be the closest person I could come to be emulating. (I have been telling my friends that GD’s spirit, or a part of it, like the horcruxes in Harry Potter, has entered mine, perhaps explaining my newly acquired obsession of him.)

Of course, highly individualistic as I am, and no matter how immense I find GD, I could never want to become a clone of him. So, maybe not role model, but perhaps, and given that he is no more in the earthly realm, a… soul model?

Guru Dutt as an older man in Kaagaz ke Phool

Guru Dutt as the aged Suresh Sinha in Kaagaz ke Phool

 

Guru Dutt with his co-star, Shyama, in a promo scene from Aar Paar

Unconventional / Good Looking (?)

I never fancied Guru Dutt as a good-looking chap, at least not in the traditional Hindi cinema sense. Even when I started this intense-discovery phase of mine, I didn’t quite warm up to his looks. But then, there is so much (else) that GD has to offer. However, what I absolutely loved, looks-wise, was his pairing with Madhubala in Mr and Mrs 55 (from the year… ’55). The same Madhubala who it’s almost a cliché yet true thing to say was the most beautiful actress to ever come into and out of Hindi cinema. So, this woman from heaven paired with this guy very much from earth (but that goes with his character in the movie and his personality in real life: he is known to have often said, “I am very middle-class”). And somehow, they looked lovely together, Madhubala’s charm possibly rubbing off on him. GD looks super-smitten and yearning in return, but this in a separate post some later time.

However, on having read almost all the books available in the public domain on him now, I come across comments by his long-time collaborators to the effect that he was “handsome” and “good-looking”. I have searched for these qualities, but, but have decided to settle for “unconventional looks”. He had these biggish eyes, slightly drooping eyelids, and when you look closely (and he was the master of close-up shots), you see stained and crooked front teeth. (It seems he sought to go to Berlin in ’63 during the premiere of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam at the Film Festival also to have his crooked teeth removed. I believe it eventually didn’t happen.) He wore glasses in real life (he had bad eyesight, it seems), but took them off for the movies, so you could see the spectacle impressions on his nose, which the make-up men then, I guess, didn’t seem to worry too much about. Plus, he had this moustache typical of those times, worn as a badge of both masculinity and insecurity (as he wasn’t entirely confident of his looks, and in his early years, also of his acting.)

Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari in a promo scene from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

For Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (’62) though, he needed to shave off his moustache, to play the young, bumbling Bhootnath. And then, in some scenes, as his character begins growing (up), GD starts looking almost as good as Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu. And that’s saying quite a lot.

Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari in a poster for Sanjh aur SaveraAfter SBG, GD never went back to keeping his moush, perhaps to look younger as he had started ageing. (He had also started losing his hair, and took to wearing a wig.) And I felt he actually started looking better and better with each of his later movies. In his last release, before he passed away (Sanjh aur Savera, ’64; Suhagan was the last full movie he shot for, which released later in the year he died), playing the good doctor, he looked every bit the good, young, handsome doctor. And of course, it helped that Meena Kumari again starred opposite him. And more of this lovely pairing some other post, some other time.

Looks or not, again, you go to GD for other things in the movies. Many, many, many other things. Such as the warmth and humanity shining through in his movies and characters. And hey, maybe that’s where the warmth and humanity on his face came from too.

 

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

Sahib, Animals aur Main

It seems that Guru Dutt was quite an animal lover. (I glean this from the several books and articles I have read about him in my rapid discovery of the film-maker and the man.) Ok, perhaps not in the all-encompassing vegan mould, for he would oft go fishing (to Powai Lake) and hunting, apparently, in the nearby forests. (The thought of there being forests around Powai Lake, but this was the ’50s.) In his youth, it seems he had got home quite a few animals, right down (up?) to a monkey, but his mom wouldn’t have much of it. Later, he wouldn’t have much time either, as he started working quite early, in ’46, at the age of 21 (first as a choreographer and then an assistant director in Pune’s Prabhat Film Company).

In later years, he had kept an incubator at home, where he would be watch a chick being born with utmost fascination – the way perhaps his fans (devotees?) watch his movies. He would even call over his long-time friends / collaborators, such as dialogue and screenplay writer, Abrar Alvi, and cameraman, V K Murthy, to watch a chick hatch. Wonder if they too would have none of it.

Guru Dutt with wife, Geeta Dutt, and a dog, most probably a Pomeranian Spitz puppyI have come across a few pix of him and his family (earlier, his siblings and cousins, and later, his wife, Geeta Dutt) with a dog in each pic. One fellow, a Golden Retriever, he named Tony after the name of the leading character in Jaal, played by Dev Anand. Wonder what SRK and Aamir Khan would have to say about that?

Animal love seems to be one of the many connections that has drawn me to GD, which go beyond his film-making side. Yes, hunting and fishing are the opposite side of animal love (and while vegetarian in his childhood, he did have non-veg later on), but then, those were times when, forget animal cruelty, people had barely woken up to human cruelty, which wasn’t British-led, that is.

But then again, GD’s greatest pull for me, film-maker and person(ality) alike, is his great humanism. But more of that in some other post. Until then, no doubt, he watches numerous chick souls hatch in some great incubator in the sky. With Tony’s soul barking in excitement as each chick takes their first balletic step.