Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story Sensitively Portrays Dutt's Legacy

Guru Dutt's biography has been written by Yasser Usman.

5 min read
Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story is written by Yasser Usman.

In 2013, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting decided to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema with a Centenary Film Festival at Siri Fort, Delhi. As Director (Films), it fell upon me to curate the festival along with my colleague director, Directorate of Film Festivals. We had a selection of restored movies from various languages to choose from, and only 3 days to make a schedule. When I suggested Baazi(1951) as the opening film, my colleague argued that we should choose a more popular movie. I dug my heels in. Next came the question of which auditorium to screen it in. I argued we should go with the largest-Audi I, one of Delhi’s biggest, with 1800+ seats. He argued half the seats will go empty. I smiled and said, "Let’s see". After a little misunderstanding and exchange of some frantic mails and texts, I managed to convince Kalpana Lajmi to come to Delhi and introduce the film.

A poster of Guru Dutt's Baazi.
A poster of Guru Dutt's Baazi.

It was a Friday evening and the hall was packed! Kalpana Lajmi got emotional and spoke at length about Guru Dutt "maam" (‘Mama’, or mother’s brother) and how he would be so happy in heaven to see people remembering him on the occasion of the centenary of Indian cinema. And she gushed about Dev "uncle" being the most handsome man she had ever met. There were whistles when the dashing young man first appeared on screen! And three generations of filmgoers told me after the show that the opening was perfect.

That was the magic of Guru Dutt. His debut at the age of 26 with Baazi introduced film noir to Hindi cinema and launched the 28-year-old Dev Anand as a stylish star in the mould of Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck. .

It is perhaps difficult for a viewer of his films today to fathom how Guru Dutt, who was not even formally trained in filmmaking, could, over a short span of 20 active years in the industry, leave behind such a rich legacy that has fascinated audiences worldwide

And that’s where a biographer comes in.

As I read Yasser Usman’s book, Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story, I couldn’t help thinking of how little my generation knows of this force of nature called Guru Dutt. Our parents’ generation had to satisfy themselves with whatever little they knew, as not much information was available in public domain those days. Guru Dutt died in 1964 , aged 39, merely 13 years after directing his first film. There were fewer film magazines around in the 50s and 60s, and readership was limited.

Today, information is so freely available on the internet that everyone has an opinion on everything, especially films. Social media influencers can write random gossip and half-baked truths without any evidence, just to get eyeballs.

I can’t think of a greater contrast than that between the world of Guru Dutt as visualized by Yasser Usman in his book, and the world of Twitter, Instagram & Facebook as we know it today, where badly edited videos and terrible poetry are passed off as a great director’s early work, or a great lyricist’s thoughts about friendship and life.

Yasser’s book is honest, clear and based on solid research, unlike most social media posts which would have left Guru Dutt bewildered.

It needed a sensitive biographer like Yasser to do justice to Guru Dutt. Yasser has written three film biographies earlier - on Rajesh Khanna, Rekha & Sanjay Dutt. In each of these books, he has dwelled deep into the inner world of the artiste and has tried to make sense of his/her personality, which sometimes gets expressed in that artiste’s work. Yasser has always been honest but never disrespectful. He reveals personal details, but these are never in the nature of salacious gossip. He lavishes fulsome praise at times on his subject, but his work can never be accused of being hagiographic. I doubt if a better book can be written about Gurudutt Padukone.

Geeta Dutt sings for Guru Dutt and their son.
Geeta Dutt sings for Guru Dutt and their son.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter/‏@RJSIDDHARTH)

One interesting aspect of the book is that, in Yasser’s own words, he could not have told Guru Dutt’s story without telling Geeta Dutt’s story as well. Two highly talented artistes, tortured souls both, who could neither live together nor apart, deeply in love, yet making each other’s life miserable through their thoughtless words and actions. Yasser tries to put together pieces of this twin jigsaw puzzle called Geeta & Guru Dutt, to admirable success. Ironically, the poignant melody picturized by Guru Dutt himself on Waheeda Rehman for Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam(1962), “Meri baat rahi mere mann main…” depicts the situation of the Dutt marriage perfectly, as the book reveals. “Mere sapne adhoore, huve nahi poore, aag lagi jeevan main…” goes the song (My dreams weren’t fulfilled, my life is in a shambles).

An important take away from the book, perhaps the most significant one, is that the book is an eye-opener, not just for those who work in the creative field, who are often exposed to highs and lows which are difficult to handle, but to all of us. It is a lesson not to take mental health for granted.

To try to recognise a cry for help - from a friend, a child, a family member. To realise that everyone has one's personal demons. And that not everyone is able to fight them; some of us may feel too exhausted to fight beyond a point. The recent demise of the young actor Sushant Singh Rajput was a shock. Many have speculated about circumstances leading to his death. Hopefully some day, someone with Yasser’s sensibilities, will write about Sushant’s bright & short career; it could bring a closure for many of his distraught fans who are yet to come to terms with his sudden death.

My generation mostly watched Guru Dutt’s films on Doordarshan. With luck, OTT platforms will soon have all of his films in their library; I recently revisited Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Mr & Mrs 55 online. It’s important to keep the legacy of this brilliant director alive; one whose film making style was astonishing in its diversity - from the Hollywood inspired film noir of Baazi (1951) and Jaal(1952) to the frothy, blithe Aar Paar(1954) and Mr & Mrs 55(1955), to the dark and brooding Pyaasa(1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool(1959).

A still from Mr and Mrs 55.
A still from Mr and Mrs 55.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

It’s remarkable how Guru Dutt’s cousin Shyam Benegal followed a completely different path, nearly a decade after his death, and how different their approach to filmmaking turned out to be. For Guru Dutt, as Yasser’s book brings out, commercial success was important, unlike Shyam Benegal’s New Age cinema, where, as Naseeruddin Shah once bitterly remarked, actors were never adequately compensated. Guru Dutt’s brilliant picturisation of songs blazed a trail which many directors have walked upon. His collaborators and close friends like cinematographer VK Murthy, put their heart and soul into his films.

The book can be enjoyed by film students as well as those looking for a light, entertaining read about a unique film personality.

Guru Dutt’s story is indeed an unfinished one. He was capable of doing so much more. If only he had lived to finish his story.

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