Guru Dutt: A dazzling innings

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Mr & Mrs 55 was one of Guru Dutt’s earlier hits as actor-filmmaker. Photo: Peter Martis / Tarun Dutt

Guru Dutt’s 97th birth anniversary falls on July 9. Born Vasanth Kumar to Shivashanker Rao and Vasanthi Padukone in Bangalore —they were Konkani-speaking Chitrapur Saraswats—Guru Dutt’s childhood was mired in financial difficulties for the family.

Guru Dutt was not his screen name, but he was renamed so ‘auspiciously’ after a childhood accident.  He had four younger siblings—filmmaker-brother Atma Ram, Devidas and Vijay and younger sister, Lalitha, mother of filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi.

His mother’s cousin, Balakrishna B. Benegal (whose nephew is filmmaker Shyam Benegal) was a painter of cinema posters. Guru Dutt’s destined connection with cinema began with this slim link – he spent a lot of time with this favorite uncle.

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As Guru’s father became an administrative clerk with the Burmah-Shell Company in Kolkata, Guru Dutt learnt to speak fluent Bengali by the time he passed out of school. This added to the impression that he was a Bengali, because Dutt is a common name there. But there is little doubt that Bengal had a major influence in his life, beyond just wife Geeta, especially in his sober and dark films that were closest to his heart—Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

As a teenager, Guru Dutt would use his fingers to shape shadow images on a wall lit by a lamp in their pooja room. He even performed a snake dance at a gathering of Saraswat Brahmins at Kolkata and won a cash prize of Rs 5. A good student, he never went to college but joined the performing arts troupe of Uday Shankar for three years, next landing a three-year job contract with the Prabhat Film Company in Pune. After it ended, he came to Mumbai and wrote short stories for a magazine.

Guru first acted in a small role as Lord Krishna in Chand (1944). In 1945, he acted as well as assisted director Vishram Bedekar in Lakharani, and in 1946, he worked as an assistant director and choreographed dances for P. L. Santoshi’s Hum Ek Hain, Dev Anand’s debut.

Dutt also assisted Amiya Chakravorty in Girl’s School, and Gyan Mukerji in Sangram. But his life changed when Dev Anand asked him to direct his company Navketan’s second film, Baazi (1951).

As Dev put it, “Guru Dutt and I used the same dhobi in Pune. One day, I found that one of my shirts had been replaced with a different one. To my surprise, I found the choreographer wearing my shirt on the sets that day! I accosted him, and Guru admitted that he was wearing it because he had no spare one and his dhobi had misplaced it. And so we became friends, and one day, we promised each other that whoever made it big first would give the other a break. And so I gave him Baazi, but though he cast me in C.I.D., which is his banner’s biggest hit, he never directed me in his own company’s film, though we did Jaal for another producer.”

Dev once termed Dutt his “only true friend in the film industry”, but his famous remark that Dutt should not have made such “depressing films as a young man” became perceptively prophetic.

Baazi pioneered the use of close-up shots with a 100 mm lens (when mid-shots and long shots were the norm) and he also met his future wife, singer Geeta Roy (whom he married in 1953) during the making of the songs. He was also introduced to his future cinematographer and now Dadasaheb Phalke laureate, the late V.K. Murthy, when shooting a song sequence.

Recalled Murthy, “In those days when an outside filmmaker hired a studio, the technicians’ services were included in the hire. But if the filmmaker had his own team, the technicians would be available to assist them. Guru was shooting a cabaret sequence on a hotel set. I remember I was taking more interest in the proceedings than his cameraman and I conceived a rather difficult shot and boldly suggested it to him. He liked his idea but felt that his cameraman would not be able to execute it. ‘I will take the shot if you he has no objection,’ I told him. The cameraman was happy to let me do it, and that evening, Guru said that we will work together.”

And so began a historic combination that worked magic from Jaal (1952) to Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966) with just one exception – the M. Sadiq-directed Chaudhvin Ka Chand. Mr & Mrs 55, Pyaasa, C.I.D., Kagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam followed and this pair has been declared one of the greatest filmmaker-DOP teams in the world.

Jaal and Baaz, both flops, followed. But Guru cemented bonds with a lot of associates like writer Abrar Alvi, Johnny Walker and O.P. Nayyar. After that, Aar Paar (1954) and Mr & Mrs. 55 (1955) were major hits and he acted in them, just as in Baaz.  Guru then went on to launch two films simultaneously –Pyaasa, a story of a poet in a mercenary world, starring himself, and the frothy crime drama, C.I.D., which he entrusted to his assistant Raj Khosla and was his last professional association with Dev. The latter released first, and became India’s first film to gross one lakh, while the former came a year later and became a major hit too.

It was the semi-autobiographical and India’s first Cinemascope film, Kagaz Ke Phool (1959)’s failure that unsettled the fragile introverted psyche of Guru, and he became a bigger loner than ever. All the critical accolades meant nothingto him and he vowed that he would never direct a film again because he could not connect with his audience!

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam Photot: Peter Martis / Tarun Dutt

He signed “hit-maker” M. Sadiq for Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1961) and Abrar Alvi for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Though many speculated that Guru had ghost-directed the latter, there is sufficient evidence and testimony (notably from Murthy) to show that Guru gave only some creative inputs in the film, besides playing the lead.

But by that time, his troubles with wife Geeta (they had three children—‘80s filmmakers Tarun and Arun and daughter Nina) over his alleged romantic liaison with Waheeda Rehman had brought in fresh turbulence.

In the early ‘60s, Guru began to do well also as hero outside his banner, with hits like Bharosa, Bahurani, Suhagan and Sanjh Aur Savera. He had reportedly even decided to direct again, produce and act in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi. However, it was not destined to happen and the 1966 film was finally completed by director Shahid Lateef with Dharmendra, after many heroes superstitiously turned down the role because Guru died after taking up the film!

At the time of his death, Guru Dutt was signed for Picnic opposite Sadhana and his biggest film as actor—K. Asif’s epic Love And God, which had Sanjeev Kumar come in as his replacement and was released after both Asif’s and Kumar’s deaths in 1986!

While it is generally assumed that Guru, who had increasingly become cynical, morbid and depressed, committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills on October 10, 1964, his son Tarun has stood his ground that it was the lethal effect of alcohol (to which he had taken recourse to battle his sorrows) and the sleeping pills he randomly took to combat insomnia. Tarun pointed out that Guru had scheduled multiple professional commitments the very next day, including a meeting with Raj Kapoor (who had made Sangam) to discuss color films, because Dutt’s oeuvre only had a few sequences in color in Chaudhvin Ka Chand. But India lost one of its finest filmmakers on that day.

Besides V.K. Murthy, Guru was also Columbus for Waheeda Rehman, who made her debut in C.I.D. (as a negative lead), O.P. Nayyar in his breakthrough film Aar Paar and Raj Khosla. Geeta Dutt was known for devotional film songs until S.D. Burman made her sing cabaret in Baazi and reinvented her career. Later, actor-filmmaker Manoj Kumar openly acknowledged Dutt’s influence on his directorial skills.

Guru also had keen interest in kite-flying, fishing, his great love for animals (his household included a chimpanzee and a tiger cub) and taking his family to holidays. His mother Vasanthi was only 16 when Guru was born. Before he was born, an astrologer had predicted a world-famous son to her. Which came true, and how!

 

 

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