Guru Dutt Was Much More Than Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool

The master’s devotees tend to concentrate on his later films, but his earlier work was very significant – and much more entertaining too. Some songs from those films on the occasion of his 90th birth anniversary

guruduttUnlike other film directors, Guru Dutt does not have fans – he has devotees. For them, not only is Guru Dutt the best director of Indian cinema bar none, but he is no less than a poet of the human condition, whose melancholic films speak to them. That a few of those films were flops makes him even more of an artist, and his death at the young age of 39, alllegedly a suicide, has created a tragic persona that has turned him into a sort of cult hero.

Interestingly, most conversations about Guru Dutt focus only on two films he directed and two others that he produced and acted in – Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chand and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Most books on him – and there are several – tend to look at only these films and ignore his earlier work, which is as rich and interesting as anything he made. Even film scholars focus only on the latter films and not his first few outings. The latter are considered entertainers and thus without any higher purpose; the former are seen as serious, and thus masterpieces.

But Dutt’s first few films, as director, producer and actor need to be closely studied too, since he showed a remarkable ability not just to tell a ripping good yarn, but demonstrated that he could handle comedy and crime, two of the most difficult genres in cinema. And of course, he showed early on that he was one of the best directors when it came to shooting songs.

So, on the occasion of his 90th birth anniversary, here are some songs from his early period, when, starting from the very young age of 26, with Baazi, he made a succession of remarkably entertaining films that deserve repeated viewings, if only to understand that there is more to Guru Dutt than Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool.

Baazi (1951) was inspired from Hollywood crime films, mainly Gilda and brought together remarkable talents like Balraj Sahni, SD Burman, Sahir Ludhianvi, Dev Anand, Geeta Bali and a young Johnny Walker. Dev Anand fulfilled his promise of giving his friend Dutt a film to direct and the latter did not disappoint. In this song, superbly sung by Geeta Dutt, Guru Dutt borrows from the Noir tradition, building up the mood of a crime about to take place in a club, while the dancer warns the hero to be alert. Less known is the fact that the dance was directed by Dutt’s old fellow student from Almora, Zohra Saigal.

Jaal (1952) was inspired by the Italian film Bitter Rice, that Guru Dutt and Dev Anand had seen, and the star played an out-and-out crook and cad who uses women in his nefarious smuggling activities.

Possibly one of the best songs ever written, it shows Dev Anand singing on a moonlit night trying to seduce Geeta Bali. She is torn, he is cool, and we can almost sense the end result. Sahir and SD Burman combine again, with Hemant Kumar giving playback for Dev Anand, an experiment that worked brilliantly.

Guru Dutt’s tryst with crime films continued. He decided to make Aar Paar (1954), in which he played a taxi driver, (just as his friend Dev Anand had done in a film by that name). Aar Paar was a pure masala entertainer, but with the small and critical touches that only good directors can impart to a creative work. Abrar Alvi once said that he decided to make each character from a different part of India to show the Bombay melting pot. In a film with so many outstanding songs, it is difficult to choose one, but this is certainly one of the best.

Guru Dutt continued with OP Nayyar in his next, Mr and Mrs 55 (1955), a social satire, with terrific performances by one and all, such as Madhubala, Lalita Pawar and Johnny Walker. Dutt always found a role for Walker and in this film – once again full of memorable songs – he gave him this priceless number, set in an office among the most ordinary of props. Majrooh Sultanpuri, the master of writing songs in every day language, produced a real gem.

With CID (1956), Guru Dutt fulfilled his promise of offering a role to his friend Dev Anand but handed over the direction to his assistant Raj Khosla. Another crime thriller, it is a film that holds up even today, with a strong plot, some crackling scenes and most of all, terrific music. Guru Dutt had shot both Aar Pyar and Mr and Mrs 55 on the streets of Bombay; Khosla continued the tradition and the climax was shot at Churchgate station. A young actress from the south, Waheeda Rehman was introduced in this film. As this song shows, Khosla has learnt his lessons in song-taking well from his guru.Guru