Fifty years after his untimely death, Guru Dutt is still with us. His films are etched in public memory; his creative life is a text book for film makers and students of cinema. But it is his death, or rather the manner of it that has added that certain ingredient of enduring mystery and magnetism that makes us place him on a different level from other great filmmakers of the same time, like Bimal Roy or Raj Kapoor.
The name Guru Dutt stirs in our minds the image of angst, or suppressed passions that were unleashed by proxy on celluloid, of a life buffeted by internal tempests and a creativity wrought out of the consequent turmoil. Building on this fertile background, succeeding generations of movie lovers have not just added to the myths around the man, but have taken on themselves the task of guarding the image that was created by a blend of reality and imagination.
Yet, the truths are just as beguiling. Even divested of his aura of melancholy and damnation, the film maker comes across as brilliantly creative and fascinating as few others of his time, in the complexity of his thought and behaviour.
Let me however place on the table two vital points. One, never having met the director in person, much of what I say about him is based on my long and detailed interviews with one of the people who knew him best, Abrar Alvi. And second, though forgotten by the world at large and by most of the industry of which he had been such an integral part, Alvi himself dwelt mentally at its core, with vivid memories of the ten of his own very creative years spent with Guru Dutt. Memories that he shared in no little detail, and which, despite the stories about Dutt that were common knowledge, I found no reason to doubt.
Now let us return to straightening the mythology that has grown around Guru Dutt – the brooding, melancholy mind was indeed a childlike one, given as much to wonder as to delight in pranks and mischief. This could easily have been proved to doubting Thomases by his co-conspirators in many of the pranks if only someone had cared to ask: Johnny Walker, Abrar Alvi himself and at times Assistants in the production house and Waheeda Rehman. Ganging up against Mehmood to test whether his abhorrence of alcohol did indeed run deep, or fooling Alvi with a ‘visit’ by a ‘fan’ of his writing who wished him to write a role for her were among the incidents Alvi recollected. They help flesh out the true nature of the filmmaker genius as do the films that precede Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool – the two most quoted as proof of his single dimensional anxiety ridden personality.
Look at Aar Paar, and one sees here a Guru Dutt in the mould of a Dev Anand. Debonair, mischief loving, unafraid of the taunts of a haughty lady love who is higher in station than he is, at least for the moment. In fact, Aar Paar is exceptional in the fact that its hero, though very much in love, throws a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum at his girl…something rarely seen even among our modern, six pack flaunting macho screen men. No sign of angst here, or self-denial.
Mr and Mrs 55, much of whose story was based on a play Abrar had written in college, has even frothier elements in its hero’s mental makeup. Preceding the Amitabh trend of hero also providing the comic element, Mr 55 created a character as lovable as he was funny and foolish…the perfect foil to Madhubala’s devastating screen persona.
Going back even further, Guru Dutt’s films before Aar Paar had no scope for tears. If any were permitted, they were shed by the heroine or the vamp, as the hero swash-buckled his way through the thick and thin of adventures galore. Who knows, but for an Alvi goading him to look to more serious themes and showing him he had the talent to grapple with them, we might have a few more sword wielding productions from GD Films before the director discovered his true métier.
A more serious myth surrounds the making of Sahib Biwi aur Gulam. Common belief has it that Guru Dutt turned superstitious after the failure of Kagaaz Ke Phool and hid under a pseudo director’s cloak. Though he was indeed prey to some superstitions, this myth does Dutt the disservice of presuming he was foolish enough to think that he could fool destiny as easily as he could fool the movie-watching public who would read Alvi’s name in the credits and take it at face value. After all, it was destiny that needed to be changed, to change the outcome of the film on hand.
Alvi, on his part was both sad and bitter about the fact that decades of layering over this myth had robbed him of the glory due to him as the director of the only one of GD Films to win a President’s Medal and be the official entry to an international film festival. In truth, of course, the film was the perfect collaboration between two opposite personalities, both creative – one logical and the other romantic; working their different brands of magic to create a film that brought out the best in all aspects…acting, music, song picturisation and storytelling.
Abrar Alvi had Guru Dutt’s own letter to him to prove his directorial role in the film, and admitted readily too, that the songs were directed by his mentor. Adding that all the techniques he used in directing the rest of the film were learnt in his years of assisting the master through his films from Aar Paar to Kaagaz ke Phool. Despite this, Guru Dutt loyalists refuse to grant Alvi his due. In their misplaced loyalty, robbing the director of credit for one more talent: that of being a great and generous teacher.
Perhaps some of this stems from Dutt’s own habit of holding back credit. At least in the early years of their association, Alvi was never given complete credit for screenplay as well as dialogues, despite being responsible for both. Though Dutt never took credit himself for the screenplays of these films, the inference was that the director must have worked on them. It was only after he had tried and tested Alvi and found him worthy, that Dutt not only gave him credit where it was due, but handed an entire film over to him to direct.
The only myth that remains close to reality, is the one about Guru Dutt being a complex personality. Most creative minds are, but with his mood swings, his quixotic taking up of projects and abandoning them midway, his ability to be distracted by the smallest wonders of life, Dutt’s personality was enigmatic and beguiling by turns.
Safe then to say, based on a medical report I stumbled on during my research that said that a combination of alcohol with the sleeping tablet, Sonaril, which Dutt was partial to, could lead to a deepening depression that could turn suicidal; that it was this combination that led to Guru Dutt’s suicide. Not the curse of a negative, angst ridden personality.
Even divested of the myths, Guru Dutt’s work remains a beacon to show filmmakers the way ahead. A man who could outrun the swiftest needs no crutches.
(By Sathya Saran, first published on SILHOUETTE MAGAZINE.)