Why Guru Dutt's Black and White Existential Poetry is Relevant in the Glossy India of Today

Both as a director and actor, Guru Dutt was at his best in Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool – two films that not only have an element of timelessness but have also given a new meaning to the landscape of Indian cinema.

Filmmaker Guru Dutt.

Filmmaker Guru Dutt. Credit: YouTube

On October 10, 1964, legendary filmmaker Guru Dutt was found dead in his bed. It was possibly due to the over-consumption of alcohol and sleeping pills that the gifted artist left the world at the young age of 39. Even though philosophers and mystics might debate the meaning of death, as an ardent lover of good cinema, I tend to believe that Dutt revealed himself in his death – the trauma of a tormented soul with immense artistic, moral and poetic sensibilities caught in a recklessly materialistic world that knows nothing except what Karl Marx would have regarded as ‘callous cash payment’. His biographers continue to guess whether his life, filled with passionate and curved love relations, merged with his cinematic creations, particularly Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).

Yes, his name was associated with a series of good and successful films like Aar Paar, Mr and Mrs ’55, CID and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. However, like many students of good cinema, I too believe that in Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, he was at his best: both as a director and an actor. Even though I am not a researcher in ‘cinema studies’, I have no hesitation in saying that these two films have an element of timelessness.

With the ‘techniques’ of the art of filmmaking, musical sensibilities, silences and dialogues, light and darkness and the intensity of acting, these two lyrical films take us to a realm of self-reflection. We begin to see ourselves: our collective moral decadence, our gross materialism and our inability to see the ray of truth amidst the glitz of the outer world. In a way, these films touch the threshold of spirituality and make us feel that it is only a poet or a mystic who can see the falsehood in the maya of this temporal world, and society intoxicated with its materialism often crucifies these sensitive souls. Like Satyajit Ray’s classicism, Mrinal Sen’s social realism and the parallel cinema of Benegal and Nihalini, Dutt’s films – even though situated in the ‘popular’ genre – have given a new meaning to the landscape of Indian cinema.

Historicity and transcendent appeal of good art

While I pay homage to Dutt, a question keeps haunting me – Is Dutt relevant today? Do his films make sense in our times? Even though I have already spoken of the timelessness of his artistic creations, I wish to refer to India’s politico-cultural context in the 1950s when these two films were made. Yes, the Nehruvian state was engaged in a massive project of modernising and industrialising a traditional society like ours; and this process of social transformation led to new aspirations, apprehensions and anxieties.

This dialectic of modernisation, I guess, led many sensitive minds to feel a sense of loss: the fear of the onslaught of ‘modern’ values like the assertion of a self-possessive/rational individual guided by the doctrine of unlimited material progress. In the absence of Gandhi – a subtle mediator between ethical/moral wisdom and modern politics – this anxiety was becoming rather acute. In a way, Raj Kapoor’s some remarkable films like Awaara and Shree 420 –  filled with a mix of ‘socialist’ aspirations and Gandhian values – revealed the intensity of this dialectic.

In a more profound and poetic way, as I believe, these two films of Dutt too revealed this anxiety – the loss of ethical/moral principles in a world that is becoming increasingly materialistic. In this sense, there is an element of romanticism and associated pain in these films.

Are things different now? Yes, India in the post-Nehruvian era has passed through a complex process of social upheavals. We can see the manifestations of these transformative processes in our films too. From the powerful imagery of the ‘angry’ young man as symbolised by Amitabh Bachchan in the turbulent 1970s to the anxiety of a nation in the context of terrorist violence as reflected in Mani Ratnam’s films in 1990s, from the glossy films of the Karan Johar variety in tune with the NRI audience and released in multiplexes to the glitz of neo-liberal global capitalism as reflected in the rise of new stardom of Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan – we see the historicity and sociology of our cinema.

A still from Kaagaz ke Phool. Credit: YouTube

A still from Kaagaz Ke Phool. Credit: YouTube

However, despite these changes, one thing remains – the accelerated growth of materialism and consumerism in our society. Today when the market is allowed to invade every sphere of life, the ethics of our world is crumbling fast. Living in a neo-liberal world in which we are all becoming greedy consumers with the instrumental rationality of profit and loss is not a spiritually and aesthetically enriching experience. Under these circumstances, when we choose to rediscover Dutt, we realise the gravity of his insight, the visionary eyes through which he saw the crisis of our civilization.

Is the new audience ready for good art?

However, there is yet another question: Is the new generation ready for these films? Yes, at one level we may end up getting a pessimistic answer. It can be argued that with the onslaught of mass culture industry characterised by soap operas, news-entertainment, media simulation of hyper-reality and ‘Facebook shares’ we find ourselves in the era of instantaneity and depthlessness. In this era of ‘surfing,’ culture loses its ‘aura’; we lose the patience to go deeper, meditate and appreciate a piece of cultural creation that differs from the usual/standardised/commodified stuff that the glossy entertainment industry bombards on us every day. It is like saying that a pornographic material on YouTube might get more viewership than, say, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur or Manthan.

While as a student of social processes I see a danger in this production and reception of ‘popular culture’, I refuse to be a pessimist. Yes, the challenges are enormous. We need to sensitise ourselves all the time; seeing good films or reading great literature is a cleansing process. Even writing this article is part of this cleansing process. I switch off my television, make my mobile silent, refuse to indulge with the toxic social media, resist the temptation of seeing a glossy film in the PVR complex with coffee and popcorn, and instead rediscover Dutt.

With ‘black and white’, I find true light. I realise that I am not just a fun-loving consumer of spectacles, I am also a contemplative being capable of celebrating good art. This hope in our innate possibilities makes me believe that even the new generation – if sensitised through truly life-enriching cultural practices – can celebrate the likes of Bimal Roy and Dutt, Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Vijay and Suresh: The archetypes of collective unconscious

With this hope, I invoke his two films and seek to engage with this new audience. I invite them to his aesthetic canvas. Let me begin with Pyaasa. Here is Vijay (Dutt): a poet with immense sensibilities, but rejected and abandoned by everybody – friends, brothers, publishers and even by his college friend Meena (Mala Sinha) who once felt his charm. Seldom does the world that is recklessly instrumental, pragmatic and calculative understand the inner world of a poet. His poetic revelations are just like ‘waste’ papers.

Guru Dutt in Pyaasa. Credit: YouTube

Guru Dutt in Pyaasa. Credit: YouTube

The film introduces us to Mr Ghosh (Rehman) – a successful publisher, a polar opposite of Suresh, and now Meena’s husband who epitomises the aggression and cunningness of a self-possessive man in a patriarchal society. The encounter of a sensitive poet and a cunning businessman is bound to happen; it is about conspiracy, humiliation, betrayal and instrumental use of a poet.

In fact, at a dinner party at the residence of Mr Ghosh, we see a great piece of cinematic art. When S.D. Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi work together, and the movement of Dutt’s lips and his classic Christ-like posture give yet another dimension to Hemant Kumar’s enchanting voice, one can imagine the effect.

‘Jaane Woh Kaise Log The Jinke Pyar ko Pyar Mila’ – the song becomes the philosophy of the film. It reveals the agony of disenchantment, the pain of a true lover, the anguish of an alienated self. There is every reason for Vijay to wonder what kind of people find their love reciprocated because whenever he asked for flowers he received a garland of thorns.

However, there is Gulab (Waheeda Rehman) – a prostitute whom the ‘respectable’ upper-class society regards as a ‘bad’ woman. But then, as Christ said, the Kingdom of God lies in the mind of the poor and the destitute. Gulab understands the poet, his deep humanism, his sensitivity, the significance of his creations. A sublime relationship between the two makes us see the flame of light in an otherwise dark world.  Although it is because of her Vijay’s poems are published, the film shows us the politics of commerce, the conspiracy launched by Mr Ghosh, the inauthenticity of the so-called admirers of his work. With the depiction of this disillusionment, the film reaches its poetic/artistic height.

As a director, Dutt knew that only profound music could reveal the hypocrisy of this world, its pretence, its falsehood. It is an extraordinary merger of Dutt as Vijay and Mohammad Rafi as a singer. The song ‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai’ vibrates, enters our souls and we feel that a Sufi saint is talking to us. Here is a world of palaces, thrones and crowns. Here is a world of those hungry for material wealth. Here is a world where man is nothing, loyalty is nothing and friendship is nothing. Dutt wants us to ask: What is this world, even if we get it?

Kaagaz Ke Phool begins with a heartbreaking song: a miracle created by S.D. Burman, Kaifi Azmi and Rafi. As a series of symbolically powerful visuals – a visibly tormented man entering the empty Ajanta Pictures Studio and moving slowly, a young energetic man with a cigar taking shots, giving autographs – accompany the song ‘Dekhi Zamane Ki Yaari/Bichhde Sabhi Bari Bari‘, the film – possibly Dutt’s finest creation – prepares the ground.

We get a glimpse of a story of success and failure, peaks and valleys; we feel how all the joys of the world are momentary even though during generous times we tend to feel that there is no need to worry about tomorrow. The fact is that what the world gives in one hand it takes away with one hundred. With the flashback, the story unfolds itself. Here is Suresh (Dutt) – a successful film director, an artist with immense creative energy, a valuable asset for the owners of the Ajanta Pictures. Yet, inner emptiness haunts him. In a way, like Vijay, he too is abandoned – condemned by his rich/culturally impoverished in-laws and his wife who are contemptuous towards cinema and his vocation. In the process of making a film based on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel Devdas, Suresh is searching for a proper actress for the role of Paro. Is it that through a prophetic insight Suresh has already begun to see himself as a potential Devdas? Life takes inexplicable turns, and he finds Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) – a schoolteacher whose simplicity and innocence convince him that she is the best person for playing the role of Paro. Suresh persuades her, and it is through this creative engagement that a deep/noble/sublime relationship – articulated through the rhythmic expression of eyes and the warmth of gifts – between the two evolves.

A still from Kaagaz Ke Phool. Credit: YouTube

Devdas is successful; Shanti becomes famous. However, at this very moment of success comes the thunderstorm of existence. A series of events – a gossip column scandalising the relationship between Suresh and Shanti, Suresh’s angry, yet affectionate daughter asking Shanti to leave from her father’s life and eventually Shanti’s decision to leave this glamorous world, and subsequently the court’s judgment that Suresh has no right to take his daughter with him – indicates the ‘fall’ of the great director. With inner turmoil and life-killing emptiness, Suresh becomes alcoholic, loses zeal and interest in his work. As he loses his ‘use value’ he is reduced to nothingness by the owners of the Ajanta Pictures. He loses everything – his fame, his wealth, his position; while with absolute feminine grace Shanti goes back to her village, and begins to teach children.

As the story takes a turn, we come to know that for legalistic compulsions Shanti is required to join the Ajanta Pictures and act in the films again. As she comes to know about the situation of her mentor, she comes to persuade him to direct a film in which she would act. Suresh refuses. ‘I have only one thing left in me – my pride,’ says Suresh. The success story of Shanti continues. Meanwhile, Pramila – Suresh’s daughter – has grown up. For buying a wedding gift for her daughter, Suresh begs for the role of an ‘extra’ in a film. The emperor becomes the beggar. As the camera gets ready to shoot the film, Suresh sees Shanti as the lead actress. Is it humiliation? Is it the pride of a male ego? Or is it inexplicable existential pain? Suresh leaves the set, and Shanti chases after him into the city streets. People gather and try to get Shanti’s autographs. Shanti continues to run, but she cannot catch up with him. At this moment, we hear a haunting soundtrack ‘Ud Ja  Ud Ja Pyase Bhanwre‘ (Fly, thirsty bee, there is no nectar here where paper flowers blossom, not in this garden where innocence is lost).

The flashback ends. We find ourselves once again in the Ajanta Pictures studio. The song ‘Bichhade Sabhi’ recurs. Suresh –shattered and tormented – moves slowly, sits on that old chair reserved for the director. And then, we see people entering the studio, and with utter surprise, they find Suresh in the director’s chair, and he is dead.

Is this death an act of redemption – freedom from an insane world? Or is it that this death also reveals the merger of real life and cinema? It is in this context that I wish to refer to Geeta – Dutt’s wife, and an extraordinarily gifted singer. Possibly Dutt’s yet another turn in life leading to a close attachment to Rehman was causing a disturbance in the conjugal relationship. Both of them suffered, passed through an existential crisis and wounded themselves. Beyond good or bad, this is life’s inexplicable tragedy. No wonder, when in Kaagaz Ke Phool we hear Geeta’s song ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ and see Suresh and Shanti in the empty studio of Ajanta Pictures characterised by the beam of intense white light that passes through the darkness around (what a brilliant work by the cinematographer V.K.Murthy), something happens to us.

We begin to realise the meaning of love – intense, yet tragic. It is a sweet pleasure of pain. One is no longer oneself. One became lost; the beloved too became lost as they walked a few steps along the same path. They could not see the path ahead.

I know that amidst the glossy ads of commodities and spectacles, and diverse packages of instant happiness, this ‘black and white’ celluloid poetry of pain and redemption will take time to enter people’s hearts. Yet, in this mercantile world, all sensitive souls know that Vijay and Suresh exist in their inner world. The story that unites cinema with life and awakens the archetypes of a collective unconscious, I believe, has to be told repeatedly.

 Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.

Read Comments