When Guru Dutt started making films in the early 1950s, he immediately understood the pulse of his audience. He understood what could be sold to the masses and make money, so his initial offerings were crowd pleasers Baazi and Jaal. Audiences were enjoying the films and the producers were making money, but Dutt wanted to do more with his cinema. He polished his craft as an actor and director with films like Mr. & Mrs. 55 and CID respectively, but through it all, his ultimate goal was clear. He knew that the themes he had explored in his films up until then were “informal” in nature and wanted to make cinema that allowed the artist in him to tell stories.
After gaining considerable success, Dutt, in a 1956 interview with Filmfare, hinted that he did not really identify with what was known as “Guru Dutt’s style”. Instead, he wanted to explore “bold themes.” “I no longer want what they call the Guru Dutt style story. I want new themes, bold themes. Until now, I preferred to stick to trivial subjects, to perfect a screen style of my own,” he had said suggesting that his cinema was going to change from now on.
Immediately afterwards they were introduced to the viewers Pyaasa. The film that changed the perception of Hindi cinema and the extent to which both the narrative and the audience could be pushed as it posed the existential question, “What is the meaning of art and life itself?” Pyaasa played him as a poet, an artist, who wants validation for his art, but as he grows older, his idealistic idea of the new India (which had gained independence only a decade ago), is shattered into pieces. Vijay is deeply affected after he gets his heart broken as the woman he loves chooses to be with someone who is financially secure. This pushes him into an endless existential spiral. When he sees how the country is unable to support the utopian idea presented in the struggle for independence, he writes. When she sees how women are not respected in this society, she writes. But who is he writing about? The last straw is when Vijay’s supposed death brings him sudden recognition and limelight. A firm believer in art for art’s sake, he eschewed blatant marketing throughout his life, believing that art should be appreciated for what it is.
Pyaasa gave Guru Dutt the creative outlet he was waiting for. He compared his time in films before Pyaasa to “solitary confinement” and said in a 1957 Filmfare interview, “When I entered films, the wanderer in me was put into solitary confinement and the door to my ‘jail’ opened only afterwards the release. of Piaasa”.
After the success of Pyaasa, he pushed the envelope further with Kaagaz Ke Phool. Here, his Suresh is a director going through a personal crisis. When he falls in love with the heroine of his film, his daughter kicks the woman out so her father and mother can reconcile. But in the end, Suresh is left alone – his daughter and the woman he loves are both taken from him. This sets off an existential spiral and Suresh starts drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Many have called Kaagaz Ke Phool an autobiographical film, but Dutt never explicitly said so.
In later years, the film gained cult classic status and was appreciated for its themes and imagery, but at the time of its release, it was labeled a “flop”. Dutt’s close confidant Abrar Alvi, in a documentary based on the director, had stated that Kaagaz Ke Phool came at a time when the common man was facing problems of unemployment and here, they saw a man who had all the riches in the world but chose to distance himself from everything and this disconnection enraged the audience. Dutt spoke critically of his own film in a 1963 interview with Filmfare where he said, “It was good in patches. It was too slow and went over the heads of the audience.”
The failure of Kaagaz Ke Phool brought Dutt’s existential journey on screen to an abrupt end. he never directed again. He produced and acted in films such as Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam in the later years of both of these, the latter examines themes first introduced in his two cult films.
Guru Dutt’s life ended in 1964. He was only 39. Abrar Alvi spoke about the last time he saw Dutt, the night he died, as the director approved a scene and later locked his room.
In what was probably one of his last interviews in 1963, Dutt had said something that sounds rather wistful in retrospect, “Fame… is something that passes for a while. It will pass, like everything else.”
Dutt wanted more from his films and he knew it from the start. Fame and money were not what drove him, and in an interview in 1956, he accepted the success of his films, but that success somehow disappointed him. “My films have been quite successful. But the feeling of frustration is growing. The consciousness is always there, that what has been done is not enough, that better and better films must be made, that I must expand the scope of the images I make.”
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