A Confession of Corrections to Guru Dutt
Can’t complain, it’s your charm
Doesn’t it happen sometimes, that you can sieve through an actor performing on screen? The dialogue delivery, the expression of emotions, stirs your soul as if it would pierce your heart, and you have a gut feeling about the actor behind the character, regardless of the film or era. This is my relation with Guru Dutt, the humanist. I wish to pull out of time’s memoirs and talk endlessly over a breezy evening, wavering our margarita glasses.
With every film succeeding Pyaasa (1957) your heart will shrink tighter, amplified by the deeply harrowing lyrics that will leave you motionless, trampled, while you weep along with him. When he moans about the treacherous opportunistic world in Pyaasa (thirsty), ‘Yahan ik khilona hai insaan ki hasti, Yeh basti hai murda paraston ki basti, Yahan to jeevan sey hai maut sasti, Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai’, the wilderness of each millennial’s network appears false.
Dutt’s personal tragedy, expectations and experiences layered each of his characters, glowing out of his fading grim and transfixed gestures of disdain. To me the tracing of tragedies has never been so accurate in Bombay cinema and with such seamless camera art as achieved in Dutt’s films by the legend, V.K.Murthy. The lighting alone sets up the continuum of emotions among the lovelorn in the song, ‘Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam, Tum rahe na tum, hum rahe na hum’, in Kaaghaz ke Phool (1959). And the song ‘Saqiya aaj mujhe Neend nahi aayegi, Suna hai teri mehfil Mein rata jaga hai’ is still awed for its cinematic marvel of using light to focus on the main dancer while shadowing the allied dancers.
Indeed! He is Guru Dutt and he has this charisma, dank, austere and blossoming with realism to house a personal bias in you. But there are things actually we don’t quite agree upon… Sorry, Dutt, but your representation of a virtuous woman didn’t seem appropriate to me in some of your films. I know a film can demand a character ranging from vulnerable to self-centred regardless of gender. But when certain traits are commonly observed in most your female leads, then maybe we have established the likeable traits of a likeable woman.
In Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955) Anita realises her love and her conviction to settle down with Pritam (Guru Dutt) after she observes his sister in law savouring household chores. This is broadly how the conversation between Anita (played by Madhubala) and Pritam’s sister in law goes:
Anita: Chaar baras mein teen bachhe! …itni jaldi jaldi bachhe hona theek nahi, aurat ki azaadi khatam ho jaati hai.
(Three kids in four years! It’s not good to have children at such a rate, it’s the end of a woman’s freedom.)
Pritam’s Sister-in-law: Ghar ke kaam-kaaz mein hi toh grihasti ka sukh hai. Kaisi azaadi, jo aurat apne bal bachhon ko bojh samjhe, unse azaadi chaahe, woh bhala maa kaise kehla skti hai?
(The real happiness of married life is in doing the household work. What freedom – a woman who considers her children a burden, and wants freedom from them, how can she be called Mother?)
Anita: Kya aapke pati kabhi kabhi peette hain kabhi aapko?
(Does your husband beat you sometimes?)
Pritam’s Sister-in-law: Tan man se pyaar bhi toh wahi karte hain.
(He also loves me wholeheartedly with body and mind.)
Then Anita rushes to the balcony in a swirling upsurge of passion and remorse. This is followed by the song sequence ‘Udhar tum hasin ho Idhar dil jawaan hai’, and the heroine, who has been squabbling all this while, in the turn of this incident falls head over heels for Pritam.
Guru Dutt, the very portrayal of Anita’s aunt who is a headstrong feminist in this film of yours doesn’t align with what feminism sheerly stands for. At least not blacklisting every male and prolonging celibacy for a woman.
The character of Choti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) was a cult of its own kind, for it was uncanny in mainstream Hindi Cinema to project a woman’s craving for sexual desires, so explicitly. The song ‘Na jaao saiyan, Chhuda ke baiyan, Kasam tumhari Main ro padungi’ shows Meena Kumari seductively pressing her husband not to go to a courtesan.
Yes, it was a pleasure to see magnified the emotional deluge of a woman, rather than making her the vamp for drinking alcohol or asking her husband to sate her sexual needs. It must have been completely bizarre for the audience to absorb a male lead who is deeply faithful and devoted to his poised, turned obnoxious mistress, who disregards the role assigned to her class and gender: to busy herself having jewellery made. The journey of an elegant, cultured daughter-in-law to a drunken self-destructive wife, was displayed with utmost empathy. I have to credit you for that.
The personal bias I sometimes regret carrying for you, Guru Dutt… Can’t complain, it’s your charm. The charm, the eloquence with which you enticingly detail the beauty of Jamila (beautiful) in Mohammad Rafi’s masterpiece, ‘Chaudhvin ka chaand ho, yaa aafataab ho, jo bhi ho tum Khuda ki kasam, laajavaab ho’. But when the same Jamila (played by Waheeda Rehman) shields her husband Aslam (Guru Dutt) from her brothers after his pretentious infidelity, she defends him to her mother saying:
‘Ammi aapne mujhe ladkpan se sikhaya ki shauhar ke paaon ke neeche jannat hoti hai – aaj main wahin jannat lena chahti hoon toh tum aare aana chahti ho… Jitni der na aaye, raat bhar na aaye intezaar karungi, wakt aaye Fatima ki tarah khana khilaungi, paon dabakr sulaungi. Jannat bibi ko paon dabakr hi milti hai… main inki biwi nahi kaneez hoon.’
(Mom, you always taught me that heaven is found under the husband’s feet – today I want to take refuge there and you want to come in the way… However late he comes home, even if stays out all night I’ll wait, and when the time comes I’ll serve him food like Fatima, I’ll press his feet till he is asleep. The wife gains heaven only by pressing feet… I am not his wife but his slave.)
Well, Dutt, the passage speaks for itself. Why must Jamila’s bestowed belief and unsurmountable love come at the tantamount cost of pulling her dignity below the equally disgraced attributes of an espoused ideal–faithful wife? Maybe, Dutt, you could have avoided exhibiting the feeling of Aslam’s gullibility without such blatant definition.
Undeniably, your masterwork Pyaasa was a courageous stroke to show the poet as a cultural rebel, and his emotional entanglement with a prostitute woman. The plight of sexworkers cannot be better penned down than in the song ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind, Par wo kahaan hai’. I could not be more blown away by the satirical manner you pointed straight at the entire society that ill treats sex workers.
Indeed that was the golden age of Indian cinema and you were its Orson Welles. 60 years later it's still rare to find films that show a prostitute as equivalent to any other person, who can love selflessly, and whose work is like any other source of livelihood.
Kaaghaz ke Phool has been exploited by Bollywood at length with films like Aashiqui 2 that follow almost the same pattern. A man of power raises his love interest from a not-well-to-do background to the pinnacle of fame, succumbing himself to death after personal and professional misfortune. But, maybe when a man's authority is shown being used as a ladder by a woman to achieve her own height, it leaves a subtle essence of social-economic patriarchal favour and bent responsible for a woman who is luckily the man's eyecandy.
So, look, I traversed you, Dutt, along many gender-sensitive notes and a few completely gender ignorant approaches in your films. All I would say now is that your cinematic finesse is unparallelled and you are a true auteur, a gem that Hindi cinema will regret losing always. All I really hope is that for my every gender inquisitive observation, you would have had bundles of formidable behind-the-camera stories and life-lasting experiences to tell!