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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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.

Guru Dutt holding a drink to his face in a pose from Pyaasa

On the Rocks… of Life

Some time back, I had talked of Guru Dutt’s smoking habit, how even when posing for profile pix, for instance, he would have a ciggie in his hand. However, Guru Dutt’s drinking habit was known to be bigger. (Though it may also have been a habit of the times. There was GD’s female tragedy actor counterpart, Meena Kumari, who eventually succumbed to liver cirrhosis. His wife, Geeta, too went the same way. As a side comment, at a time when there was no concept of mental health professionals, I guess, folk in those times found the drink offered them some solace, or at least, forgetting.)

When watching Kaagaz ke Phool again recently though, I wonder if GD, through his character (the successful director, Suresh Sinha, who eventually has a great fall from grace), gives some insight into why he, and the others of those and present times, took to the drink. For there are at least two scenes, both with Waheeda Rehman’s character, Shanti (who he discovers and eventually makes an actor and star), where he talks of the “need” or vacuum that the drink fulfils.

Sometime in the first half, caught unawares by the rain and taking cover under the same tree, Suresh and Shanti strike up a conversation that starts understandably cautiously, moves to civil and soon starts being cordial. Offering her his coat, he says he is fine as he has had some brandy. Shanti seems scandalized, but ventures to inquire, “I have heard that after drinking, people engage in all sorts of vile behaviour…?” Suresh responds with comforting wryness, “Some people drink to forget the vile behaviour of others…”

A shabby-looking Guru Dutt holding a drink and speaking with Waheeda Rehman in a scene from Kaagaz ke PhoolIn the second half, Shanti, who seems more well-to-do now, comes to visit Suresh in his tenement. Suresh’s fall is all-too visible. He offers her an inverted pail to sit on, starting to cover the bottom with a quilt and the sweater she had gifted him when they had parted earlier, to make it softer for her to sit on.

To ostensibly celebrate her visit, he pours himself a drink. When, not out of a little concern, she admonishes him with “People don’t consume poison in a celebration”, his reply is deliberated, calm and poetic:

“Neither poison nor nectar…

This is alcohol…

Those who are used to living in a state of intoxication…

This is their last hope…

The intoxication of fame and success…

The intoxication of riches and love…

When all these intoxications leave you…

Then, people seek succour in this…”

Going by this, Guru Dutt was more addicted to the… think.

 

 

A composite image of the poster images from Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool

Seeking and Finding

In a movie that is about thirsting and seeking (Pyaasa), he looks for shanti (peace) and finally finds it in the company of a woman named after a flower, Gulaab (rose).

In a movie named after flowers (Kaagaz ke Phool), he finds a woman named Shanti but doesn’t eventually find peace with her as the world won’t let them be in peaceful company.

Such is Guru Dutt’s on-screen life and fate in his two best movies. The viewer though finds lots of peace, and soul, in both.

Still from the Pyaasa song, Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo

Love like No Other

Love is about understanding the other.

Love is about understanding the other’s thinking and emotions.

Love is about getting right to the heart of the other.

Love is about liking a beautiful soul.

Love is not about forcing yourself, or your love, on the other.

Love is not about wanting to make the other your own.

Or so I have understood from Pyaasa’s Gulaab.