Guru Dutt: The Tragic Storyteller

On the 95th birth anniversary of the timeless filmmaker, Guru Dutt, here is an ode to embrace his memory and remember why we love him best. 

What began on 9 July 1925, as the tragedy of an artist whose act was to mesmerize generations of cinegoers, lasted a brief but important period for Indian Cinema. Born to the name of Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone, or how may now identify him as Guru Dutt, this heartthrob of 50s’, continues to be one of the most critically acclaimed actor, director and producer the country has witnessed ever. Despite his successful career, Dutt who passed away at an early age of 39, undisputedly gave a   work that was often self-reflectory depicting the peaks and valleys of his own life. 

Dutt didn’t just introduce to his audience a multitude of blockbuster films and remarkable songs, but also a series of talents. His assistant directors, Abrar Alvi and Raj Khosla, became directors when Guru Dutt started a production company, and he even discovered and nurtured talents like Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman. 

Today, even after about 70 years of their release, his films can be studied by students across the world. Let us look into a brief analysis of the same. 

A Trivia of Themes

Among the many themes commonly found in his blockbusters was that of poverty, unemployment and class distinction. It is well portrayed in most of Dutt’s films the stark contrasts in the lives of the rich and poor. For instance, in Mr. & Mrs. 55 Anita and Pritam come from polar walks of life. While Pritam finds himself blessed to even receive three meals in a day (that too borrowing money from his friend, Jimmy), Anita can afford to “buy” a husband just to inherit her father’s money. Set in the backdrop of a newly independent country, Dutt’s work also reflects largely on widespread unemployment among the lower classes.

In his timeless masterpiece, Pyaasa, as well as in movies like Kaagaz ke Phool and Mr. & Mrs. 55, the tragic director depicts his abhorrence towards the gross materialism that was growing in the country with the rise of capitalism and modernisation. A rejected poet, Vijay (Guru Dutt in Pyaasa), was shunned by both family and society slapping his face with the tag of “failure”. Only when he was presumed dead were his poems released for the pure motive of claiming profits. Similarly, Suresh (Guru Dutt in Kaagaz ke Phool), who was once a renowned and successful film director, when faced with desolation both by his family and lover, goes downhill in his career and resorts to alcohol. The absolute rejection shown towards the troubled artist after his downfall reflects largely on the apathy of the society for “failures”. 

Another prominent and, in today’s date, somewhat controversial topic often touched upon by Dutt is that of traditional family values. Although his films often portrayed women as independent and progressive figures, which by the way is still way ahead of his time, his idea of feminism was rather flawed. In Mr. & Mrs. 55, he depicts Anita’s aunt as a stereotypically radical feminist who had nothing but hatred for all men. The other women in her “party” were mocked for their lack of interest. Apart from this, in a conversation with Pritam’s sister-in-law, Anita learns the many perks of a married life for a woman. When Anita asks the sister-in-law if she’s ever been hit by her husband, she argues that her husband’s love compensates for the same. Similar ideas of a woman’s duty as a wife and mother are also reflected in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam, by the character of Choti Bahu in her sheer devotion towards her husband, aka her Swami.

The Technical Talisman

As the nation was ushering towards a new identity after independence, so was it most prized industry, embarking under the guidance of stalwarts like Dutt, in what is called as the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, in a brief career Dutt gave some of the most technically marked films. When Baazi (1951), Dutt’s first manifested his finesse as a tribute to Hollywood’s noir films, in the coming years one didn’t anticipate the intensity if literary marvel, his films like Kaagaz Ke Phool and Pyaasa are registered deeply in the poetic sensibilities dismissing the realist root and open spectacles. Coupled with V.K. Murthy’s technical sophistication, with whom Dutt collaborated exclusively, Murthy and Dutt combined meticulous camerawork, a chiaroscuro, distinct lighting technique to lead a visual style that can still be traced in Indian cinema. Dutt’s persistence to shoot in CinemaScope that was developed in the Fox Studio has complemented his vision perfectly. Dutt’s working at Prabhat Studios gave him an aesthetic conotation in terms of light, set design and camra movements which was very different from his contemporaries. But, despite everything what remains Dutt’s greatest contribution is his extensively well collaborated songs with Sahir, Majrooh Sultanpri and Kaifi Azmi, that were beautifully picturised songs, the fact that no director before used songs to proceed the film further. 

Message of Music 

As said earlier before Dutt, music was primarily used for the purpose of echoing existing emotions, Guru Dutt was one of the first to use songs as a medium to carry the narratives forward. Pyaasa is a depiction of pure musical, presenting a plethora of beguiling songs with lyrics of the finest quality poetry. With the songs mainly sung by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, the lyrics could be credited to Sahir Ludhianvi. ‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai’ (so what even if we conquer the world), resonates in the viewers’ hearts with its strong repulsion towards the gross materialism of society. Here, Pritam questions his audience the worth of a world without loyalty or love. A similar sentiment is expressed in ‘Jaane Woh Kaise Log The Jinke Pyar ko Pyar Mila’ (I wonder who those are whose love is requited), when Pritam cries over the sheer agony of living alienated in a world where in the name of love he received only curses. 

Despite his tragic, tear-jerking lyrics, Guru Dutt also gave screen to some age-old classics that you can still hear many people today humming the tune to. ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’ and ‘Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar’ from Aar Paar, as well as, ‘Jaane Kahan Mera Jigar Gaya Ji’ and ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakaraye’ from Mr. & Mrs. 55 and Pyaasa, respectively are some of the countless examples. 

The Versatile Visionary

Perhaps, not technique or the remarkable classics that have been etched into our memories but Dutt’s exceptional vision which remains uncheckered in this variable myriad of social emotions. Deeply engrossed in the actualities, Dutt’s film that tap the much needed spiritual in this schematic commotion of moral decadence, corruption, social mayhems and instability that can anchor the perplexed.

The Nehruvian era that aspired and equally apprehended the social transformation has an attachment to the changing shifts in our political discourse, the post behavioural approach of normatvity that is loosing the race to empiricism was anticipated by Dutt way before the actual players were born or their materialistic endeavors for that matter. 

The massive obsession to trending formulas and loss of intellectualism and social consciousness would have surely made Dutt upset had he been alive today. The falling generation that continues to ignore the art of empathy and it’s falling morality in this toxic culture that is inherently misogynistic, xenophobic and ignorant needs the spiritual enhancement that Vijay and Suresh promised.

Surely one cannot deny the relevance this classic line from Pyaasa holds even after 70 years, that I reiterate every now and then, 

“Yeh Mehlon yeh takhton ye tajom ki duniya ye insan ke dushman samajon ki duniya,

ye daulat ke bhuke rivajon ki duniya ye duniya agar mil bhi jaae to kya hai”

Feature Image Credits: The Print

Faizan Salik


Aditi Gutgutia



Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history.Freedom to Express.