‘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.
Like 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).
As 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.
Still 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