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.



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.

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.


Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in the pose from the Kaagaz ke Phool poster

Paper Flowers, Real Thorns

An illustrated version of the Pyaasa posterIf the Pyaasa poster took me a while to decode, the poster of another great Guru Dutt movie, Kaagaz ke Phool (the one he directed right after Pyaasa and after which he never directed again), was much simpler to get.

In KKP, GD’s Hindi film director character, Suresh Sinha, is married but separated with a school-going daughter, who is in his wife’s custody. Suresh meets Shanti, Waheeda Rehman’s character, in a different city (Delhi, if I remember correctly) one stormy night. When she comes to Bombay, she eventually ends up being cast in his under-production movie on Devdas. Over the days, feelings and a great understanding develop between the two, but they also know they can’t bring these to fruition. This was the 1930s after all. Plus, it was the grain of the characters: both are seekers enough to like each other, but are also tormented by their morals in not wanting to break up a marriage. So, they remain anguished in their almost-relationship, which eventually ends, and ends despondently.

The Kaagaz ke Phool posterGD and WR bring out the dual feelings of desire and anguish marvellously in the poster: just look at their faces and the expressions they bear. But, also look at the rest of the body language. WR faces away from GD and seems to convey a feeling of wanting to pull herself away from this situation (unlike in the Pyaasa poster, where although not fully facing him, she doesn’t appear like she wants to move away from him). However, her head leans toward his, to indicate a level of interest and yearning coming from the core. As for GD, he seems to be clutching her like he doesn’t want her to go. In all the tight embracing and thoughts of pulling away, they look painfully torn. This kind of love can only happen on paper (kaagaz). And on a brilliant poster.

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?

Guru Dutt serenading Waheeda Rehman in the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand

Love by Other Names

My deep discovery of Guru Dutt has led me to find out more about his collaborators (such as Sahir Ludhianvi) and his peers and contemporaries (right from Meena Kumari to Dara Singh). One thing, one aspect of language I noticed in movies of those times (I just finished reading the biography on Sahir by Akshay Manwani) is that the Indic word for love (romantic love) in usage was mohabbat. In today’s movies, pyaar is used most often and to some extent ishq, including film and song titles. Prem is used in even fewer movies, unless they have a Hindi heartland setting or are a Salman Khan movie.

The words, to the best of my knowledge, all mean the same, just the language or dialect differs. So, prem is a pure Hindi word, I trust, with its roots in Sanskrit. Pyaar sounds like a touch of Urdu in Hindi, or Hindustani as it’s called. Ishq sounds Arabic, and mohabbat sounds pure Urdu. Which is perfect for those times (50s and 60s), when Urdu was used a lot in those movies.

So, why and where did mohabbat lose currency? Because Urdu is used less in Hindi movies these days, and there are definitely no Muslim socials happening now? Because pyaar sounds the softest of the lot? Or because mohabbat sounds so big and long? After all, where do people have time – or care – for big, long romantic love these days?