The Romantic Outsider

Guru Dutt
Guru Dutt

By Pradyot Lal:

He was the quintessential outsider who made sheer craft a matter of distinctive style. Guru Dutt Padukone (1925-1964) is one of the most abiding icons of our cinema, largely because there was rare beauty and grace in almost each frame that he has left behind, frames and compositions fresh with the dead certainty of melancholy.

But to limit Guru Dutt to the groove of a mere stylist is doing him (and us) considerable disservice. He understood bourgeois sensibility even as he rejected its crassness. He appreciated beauty like only he could. And there is forever that wonderful longing and lust in his chosen angles.Good cinema is all about moments. Let us relive some of them.

The film was Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Dutt plays Bhootnath who makes his first entry into the haveli where he has been summoned by chhoti bahu. He is petrified at the thought of ‘meeting’ the maalkin. Almost teasingly, Meena Kumari compels Bhootnath’s attention. And as he looks up and establishes eye contact, he does not know what’s hit him. He had never encountered such beauty in life, and almost bashfully, he allows himself the luxury of a prolonged glance.

Between the romantic and the radical, there was always an element of deliberate intellectual dishonesty in Dutt. For all his refined taste and understanding, Dutt avoided making any class-statement through his films. He criticised hegemony and its protagonists. But at the same time, he was in love with the trappings of taste. The result was Guru Dutt turning into a rebel-without-a-cause. The synthesis of romance and radicalism remained incomplete in his work. There is no larger purpose to his characters; all of them fit a given loop, and even misfits (like Vijay in Pyaasa) remain specific to unidimensional definitions.

I wonder whether Guru Dutt would have been a happier man today. The answer cannot be definitive. Being the best choreographer that the 1950s had, Dutt would have been delighted with the strides this aspect of filmmaking has made in an era where presentation is a greater component of the cinematic package. A man with such a wonderful feel for music (and lyrics), how would he have felt in re-mixed Bollywood?

That he married Geeta Dutt shows his good taste. That he built a cult around Waheeda Rehman only amplified his aesthetics. Really, both these gorgeous women would not have been what they were if they had no Guru Dutt in their lives.

That he and Geeta led terribly unhappy lives seems to have been a function of a fixed notion of what marital bliss has to be like in the upper reaches of fashionable society. Dutt was a narcissist. Geeta was a picture of the complete singer who combined erotica and sobriety. Both were tremendously talented individuals. But they were too much their own selves for them to have evolved into a seemingly happy relationship.

Thus, while Dutt traversed the gamut with action-thrillers and semi-autobiographical ballads, Geeta sang unforgettable numbers like Jaata kahan hai deewane and Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan (CID); for the incomparable OP Nayyar, who had a lot of time for her before he stumbled upon the superlative Asha, Geeta sang Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le and Babuji dheere chalna. For SD Burman, Geeta was equally generous. She combined with him to create Aaj sajan mohe ang laga loSuno gajar kya gaaye re andWaqt ne kiya kya haseen sitamSahib Bibi aur Ghulam saw Hemant Kumar at his virtual best, as Geeta sang Koi door se awaz de chale aao. Then there was also that incredible, rare song: Dil ki dehleez par samaya hai koyee… kaun samaya hai, mujhe kya maloom for Kanu Roy.

Geeta’s unhappiness did not mean that Dutt was able to strike a happier note with someone else. His unmatched craftsmanship, the interplay between light and shadow, reflected his own growing vacuum. He made, with GM Sadiq, the memorableChaudhvin Ka Chand. The film saw the medium being gently caressed by an adoring man wielding the megaphone. Waheeda looked divine, though Dutt appeared uncharacteristically awkward at times. Maybe, the angst in his real life had already begun to take its toll. He killed himself when he was just 39.

In today’s perspective, Guru Dutt would appear as a maker who sought imperfections within the framework of an increasingly tyrannical technology. That he finds love (inPyaasa) in the arms of a streetwalker after his college mate accepts and rejects him, suggests that Dutt was being fashionably subjective. He loved himself a shade too much; and the terms on which he lived life were dangerous indeed. Thus, while he interpreted relationships with consummate care, he appeared somewhat too sure that he would actually end up a failure. Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool were reflections of an unhappy consciousness. While Sahir in Pyaasa invested Vijay (the protagonist) with scornful rejection of early capitalism, Kaagaz ke Phool made a statement which was incongruous. If the heroine becomes such a big star that she is distanced from her mentor, the irony of the situation could have avoided a highly personalised statement. But Dutt was a complex figure, never able to fully comprehend what seemed to be happening around him.

Some necessary generalisations: As it happens, Dutt was way ahead of existing sensibilities as far as man-woman relationships go. His films were informed by a certain unspoken desire, a yearning which grew with time. If you watch Pyaasa andKaagaz ke Phool closely, this is amply borne out. In Pyaasa, the rebel is also a renegade; he knows the hypocrisy of high society, lambasts it, but in the end, seems reconciled to market forces. Gham is qadar badhe/ke main ghabra ke pee gaya and Yeh mahlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya were Sahir Ludhianvi’s rejection of the same bourgeoisie of which he was a part. Next, Jinhen naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain takes the message further — was it this dawn that the country woke up for? Sahir’s sense of contempt, coupled with Dutt’s iconoclasm, did make a powerful statement.

However, where Pyaasa fails is in answering one basic question — is the riches that go with higher stations naturally concomitant with a touch of pride and honour? Several greats after Sahir and Guru Dutt have tried to answer this in a positive manner. But even progressive artists seem to be patronised by the same classes they otherwise reject, and this is an incomprehensible irony.

The co-option of the middle class radical killed the rebel in Guru Dutt, forcing him to make good but generally middle-of-the-road films that lacked a clear political statement or identification. Dutt was never formally a part of the progressive movement; but he had the understanding to see what was wrong with a civil society grappling ‘big’ issues with small minds. Someone like Nehru evoked mass respect and universal appreciation as a liberal socialist — but the system per se was too seriously wrong for a Guru Dutt not to have critiqued it more than he eventually did.

Like some of his contemporaries, Dutt had refinements that mocked the Establishment. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor; Balraj Sahni and Moti Lal; Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor; all of them had something special about them. But once the powerful studios went into disuse because of the onset of what is called the star system, they needed to project themselves in a relevant context, which, sadly, was one collective investment which the great men and women of Indian cinema failed to make over the last five decades.

Dutt, the man who gave us the unadulterated Johnny Walker and the grand Sahir, himself died young. He took his own life. It is a cliché but must be said: Guru Dutt did not get along with the times he lived in. Maybe, he would not have fit into globalised India, or maybe he would have. Let us then re-invent Guru Dutt once again for the generations to come. They too deserve the romantic outsider. Courtesy Tehelka.com

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About Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar is an accomplished journalist with over 38 years of experience in the profession in various capacities. He was a sub-editor in Patriot and later Chief Sub-editor in The Hindustan Times, New Delhi. He has several published articles and reports in Patriot and HT. Published reports in The Blacktown Sun in Sydney. He had also been a tutor in journalism in the University of Western Sydney. He is currently Editor at The Indian Sub-continent Times, Sydney.

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