Art despite formulae

Guru Dutt
June 28, 1996

While reading this book on the London Underground, my neighbour, of Indian extraction, suddenly began a conversation; something no Tube traveller is supposed to do, unless begging for money or drunk. "You are reading a book about Guru Dutt." We agreed he was a fine director. "Are you Indian?" he asked. No, I replied. He thought this astonishing. Then we arrived at Oxford Circus and parted.

The incident only strengthens the point Nasreen Munni Kabir makes in her opening paragraph. "Curtains billowing in the breeze, papers flying in the air like the last flutter of autumn leaves, a lonely figure moving directly between light and shade - these images continue to stir countless people for whom Guru Dutt's art remains a vital living force more than three decades after his death". Indeed, Dutt's art is more widely appreciated now than at any previous time, and the increasing awareness in the West of his work as director, producer and actor has done much to open up popular Hindi cinema to people who thought Indian films began and ended with Satyajit Ray.

Kabir's words suggest the tone of this invaluable book, the first extended treatment of Dutt in English. She writes with sympathy, a personal touch and without jargon. She offers revealing facts, sane analyses, background details about each production, and extensive quotations from friends and family, originally gathered for her three-part Channel Four documentary In Search of Guru Dutt. Dutt's baby brother, Vijay, remembers visiting a film set for the first time, drinking Coca-Cola, and ruining a take by burping. Satyavati Gopalan, a fellow student with Dutt at Uday Shankar's India Culture Centre in the 1940s, recalls that "he could wear any colour and look nice". Alongside their words, Kabir sets the scene for the interviews, pointing out, for instance, the photograph of Guru in his mother's room, "adorned by a garland, flowers for the dead". (He died, a suicide, in 1964.) Small details, perhaps, but they ensure the book stays untouched by the chill of academia.

Yet how could any good book on Dutt not be stamped with passion? He was a passionate film-maker, addicted to lyrical, sweeping camera movements, and chiaroscuro lighting; and his films fascinate partly through his struggle for self-expression within Hindi cinema's commercial formulae. Kabir reveals that Dutt took the lead roles in his films only after other actors proved inadequate or unavailable, But now it is impossible to separate Dutt's brooding face from the agonies undergone in Pyaasa by Vijay, an unsuccessful poet who finds public acclaim only after his apparent death. Nor can we separate Dutt from the tragic figure of Suresh Sinha, the film director he plays in Kaagaz ke Phool, a half-autobiographical, half-prophetic portrait of an artist who dwindles towards death, worn down by industry pressures, the spectre of failure, drink, and women.

Dutt knew all the ingredients the public expected in Hindi cinema. No matter how tragic the story's drift, there had to be comedy scenes. And there had to be songs, plenty of them, recorded by playback singers, lip-synched by the actors. Dutt led the way in taking advantage of this separation between sight and sound, using songs to express interior feelings, blending music, movement, light and shade to create a potent atmosphere of yearning and despair. In describing these and other sequences, Kabir valiantly conjures up in words what can only be fully appreciated by the eyes.

Kabir's responses to the film are so sensible and sensitive that one wishes greedily that she had more to say. Western readers would particularly benefit from more consideration to the film formulae governing Dutt's work and its surrounding social context. Indian expressions are translated, but explanations of their significance are not always offered. Wider treatment of Dutt's visual style, and possible influences from Europe and America, would also be helpful. Kabir pays proper tribute to Dutt's creative team, especially the cameraman V. K. Murthy, a master magician with light and shade, though she does not follow the fashion for expressionist lighting to its source in the work of director Franz Osten and his German technicians for Bombay Talkies in the 1930s.

As for Hollywood, Kabir offers tantalising titbits. Indian popular cinema is magpie cinema; Raj Kapoor's films of the 1950s would be unthinkable without Chaplin's tramp, or the comedies of Frank Capra. Dutt also knows his Hollywood. He pilfers a plot twist from a Cary Grant film for his social comedy Mr and Mrs 55. He asks his composer to model a number for Aar Paar on a Bing Crosby song. When the film is released, a reviewer notes an accidental plot resemblance to a Columbia thriller, Drive a Crooked Road, and remarks that "Guru Dutt is too busy to see foreign pictures when they are released in Bombay". One would like to see the point explored, along with Dutt's knowledge of Orson Welles, or the Carol Reed of The Third Man. Certainly his foreign travel was limited: one trip to London in 1960 and two trips to film festivals in Moscow and Berlin.

Maybe a full account of Dutt's art and life is now beyond recall. In life, as in his films, Dutt kept a mystery about him, and through her personal contact with surviving friends and family, Kabir gets as close to the man and his inner impulses as may be possible.

Geoff Brown is film critic, The Times.

Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema

Author - Nasreen Munni Kabir
ISBN - 0 19 563849 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £11.99
Pages - 143

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